If it is daunting for a performer to play a character from the realms of reality on stage, imagine how much more daunting it must be when, through time, imagination and media manipulation that person has also become somewhat of a myth. This is the situation in which Charlotte Spencer finds herself as she prepares to take her first leading role in the West End.
Spencer will play Christine Keeler, the showgirl whose relationship with Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, sparked the biggest scandal in British 20th century politics. Keeler gained immediate celebrity, posing for the iconic image sitting astride an imitation Arne Jacobsen chair, inspiring books, films and songs. Not much for an actress to live up to then…
But Spencer has been in the business long enough to take such pressure in her stride. The graduate of the Sylvia Young Theatre School trod the West End’s famous boards as a child, when she was directed by Stephen Ward director Richard Eyre in Mary Poppins.
As we found out, that early experience instilled her with a work ethic that has come into its own in recent years, especially when voicing an animated mouse…
CV in brief:
2004: Plays Jane Banks in Mary Poppins at Prince Edward theatre 2009: Plays Bet in Oliver! at Theatre Royal Drury Lane2011: Appears in Dexter Fletcher’s film directorial debut Wild Bill
2011: Appear in Les Misérables’ big screen adaptation
2013: Takes her first leading role in the West End, playing Christine Keeler in Stephen Ward
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Harlow in Essex.
How did you get involved in performing?
I wanted to do it from a young age. I went to ballet and a little dance school when I was three. I got to about 10 or 11 and I tried out for Sylvia Young Theatre School and got in. I left Sylvia’s, went into Oliver! and it went on from there.
My parents aren’t in the industry. My Dad’s a builder, my Mum’s a teaching assistant. My brother and sister aren’t anything to do with it, but I just knew what I wanted to do.
When you love something I think you just forget everything else. There’s certain things I do that makes my Mum say “Lucky you can sing and dance, Charlotte!”
How excited are you about playing a leading role in a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical?
Words can’t describe it. When they offered me the job I think I asked Andrew if he was joking. I couldn’t believe it actually. I still can’t.
What was the audition process like?
I only had a few auditions. They were interesting. For the second one I’d lost my voice. I was filming something and in the film I had to give birth. I was on gas and air, and the gas and air was actually on. It dries your throat. Luckily they’d had me sing in the audition before. I couldn’t believe it was happening.
Tell us about the character of Christine Keeler from your point of view…
I think she’s a great character to play because she’s so complex. Even to this day people don’t really understand her, people don’t really know what happened. I think she’s quite fragile. Her relationship with Stephen was a strange one; they lived together, they loved each other, but it was never physical. Her dad left her when she was young. I think she was always looking for a father figure and I think he was it.
People who know all about it will have their opinions of her before they set foot into the theatre. Hopefully I live up to what they expect, but also I hope that they see different sides of her.
How is it working with Richard Eyre again?
I thought it might have been difficult, because some people, if you’ve been a child actress, still see you as a child and can’t handle the fact you’ve grown up. He did. He handles certain scenes brilliantly. I trust him completely.
He hadn’t seen me for quite a while, so he was shocked when he saw me again at the audition. “Hi, I’m an adult now, hello.”
How was it being a child performer on Poppins?
I do the voice of Angelina Ballerina and I used to record that in the day when I was in Oliver!. People would ask me: “How do you work all through the day?” But it was so much harder as a child because you had to do school. When older actors had the day off and would perform at night, you had to go to school. It really helped and set me up with a good work ethic. As a kid you have so much energy. I loved it. There was nothing else I wanted to do. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
What’s your favourite thing about performing?
It’s that buzz that you get when you’re on stage. It’s so nerve-wracking and at the end the adrenalin that goes through your body… I can’t describe it, it’s amazing.
What’s the best advice anyone’s ever given you?
Believe in what you’re doing. Don’t let the doubt creep into your mind. If you don’t believe in the character you’re playing it will not come across.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
I think I would teach. I help out at my Mum’s primary school when I’m out of work and I really love it.