Currently singing Marina And The Diamonds at the National Theatre in Mike Bartlett’s new play Earthquakes In London, Lucy May Barker has come a long way from playing Annie and sexually repressed teens, as she explains with regular giggling fits to Charlotte Marshall.
CV in brief
2001-2003 Touring in Annie
January 2009 Spring Awakening at the Lyric Hammersmith and Novello theatre
February 2010 Really Old, Like Forty Five at the National Theatre
June 2010 The Crucible at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
August 2010 Earthquakes In London at the National Theatre
What got you interested in acting?
When I was about six or seven, my mum saw [performing arts school] Stagecoach advertised. It said something in the ad like ‘Do you have a child that’s a bit hyperactive, a bit expressive’ and my mum was like ‘that’s Lucy, she’s over the top’! So I went to Stagecoach for a little while and when I grew out of Stagecoach I went to another local drama school.
Before I got to secondary school I did open auditions for Annie – I must have been nine or 10 – which was on for three weeks at the local theatre. I got one of the orphan parts and that kind of led on and they asked me back – it’s really funny, I wish it was like this when you grow up – I remember them saying to me on the phone [adopts slightly patronising tone] ‘Lucy I just wanted to say a very well done for all of your lines in Annie and you did your song really well for the whole three weeks and we’d love, if you’d like to, for you to come and do it on tour.’ So I went on tour with it for three months on, then I had a few weeks off, then three months on again until I was 11.
My mum and dad used to say ‘what do you want for Christmas?’ and I’d say ‘to be in a show’ and they’d say ‘well we can’t do that’ but we’d have a long weekend in London, go on a Friday afternoon, watch a Friday night show, stay over in the cheapest possible Travelodge we could find and then watch a Saturday matinee and a Saturday evening show and get the train home that night. It was brilliant. It was the highlight of my year. We went to see Wicked one year. I said to my dad “ooo Dad, I think I could play that part you know”, talking about Glinda, convinced at 14 I could play it. My dad said ‘well why don’t you ask for an audition or something’. So I wrote to Pippa Ailion and said [adopts childish voice] ‘Dear Pippa, please may I have an audition for Wicked’ in the most awful font you use as a child – comic sans, all in fuchsia – and I got my dad to film me singing Popular in the front room. She said, ‘you know, you’re not quite right for Glinda just yet, you’re still 12 [sic].’ A year after that, Pippa’s office rang and said they were doing a new musical called Spring Awakening and they were looking for young people who were interested in theatre and singing and dancing and would I like to come and audition, and that’s how it kicked off. A year later I was cast in Spring Awakening.
What was the experience of being in Spring Awakening like?
Just amazing. Usually the normal journey is you train for three years, or you do a course for a year somewhere, then you get auditioning and after a year you’ll get your first little job or something, but for a good 60 or 70% of us Springers we were taken from our homes, with our mum and dad, to living on our own into the big West End and it was amazing to see how each one of us individually dealt with it and took the experience.
It really was the most amazing experience; it taught me 90% of what I know. Just the people you get to work with, like Sian [Thomas] and Richard [Cordery] who play the two adults, watching them work in rehearsals and backstage it teaches you exactly how to behave and how to get the best out of your performance. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work with some really incredible actors and actresses. Especially Earthquakes In London that I’m doing now, to work with the younger actors who I absolutely adore, who I’ve watched in stuff in the past year that I’ve been in London. You take away little bits of each person, so you’ll see how someone does something and think ‘I really like that, I’ll take that’ or ‘look how she marks her script, I’m going to do that’, really small things. I guess that’s how every actress or actor is made, little bits from everybody you’ve worked with.
Did you move to London for Spring Awakening?
Yes I did. I was 16 when I started Spring Awakening and I lived with my mum in Hammersmith for two or three months. When the show moved to the West End, I’d been quite sensible with money and my mum and dad had saved up my Annie money for me. They told me when I was doing Annie ‘you’re getting paid £20 a week to do this and we’re going to let you spend all your wages for it.’ So I thought I was absolutely loaded! But at about 13, 14 it suddenly occurred to me, no way was I getting paid £20 a week to do a show like that! So I sat my parents down and said ‘Mum, Dad I need to talk to you. I think you’ve done to me what the parents of that Home Alone kid did, I think you’ve stolen all my money’. [Laughs]. They’d been saving it incase I wanted to go train or go to university, because at 10 you don’t need any money. So thanks to them I bought my flat down here [London] and I’ve been living in my cosy little flat in Wood Green since then. It’s still like living the dream, it’s just amazing to think about all those weekends down to London with my mum and dad and now I can just pop on the tube and be in Convent Garden in 20 minutes.
Did performing in Spring Awakening force you to grow up quite quickly then?
When Spring Awakening closed that’s when I really grew up, because suddenly I was faced with a mortgage to pay, bills to pay and thinking ‘I’ve not got a job acting and I’ve got no money coming in’ so you just have to do anything. I did flyering in Central London which is absolutely horrific, I did cosmetic selling and hair straightners in Bond Street, and luckily after three months of doing that I got the first play I did at the National which was Really Old, Like Forty Five.
You don’t know what it is to be an actress until you’ve been out of work. You think ‘I’m never going to work again, that was my last time on stage, I’m going to be flyering for the rest of my life.’ You have to have that time, doing the ‘normal’ jobs. At the end of the day as an actor you play people and actors aren’t people [laughs], they pretend to be people, so being in that environment when you’re just with normal people is training in itself, you’re with people you’re probably going to end up playing.
What can the audience expect from your current play Earthquakes In London?
How do you explain a play like Earthquakes In London? It’s absolutely mental! The story is about three daughters of a scientist and it basically follows their lives and how their lives intertwine with everyone else. Obviously the use of space and the set design is just stunning and you have no idea what’s going to happen next, you have no idea what you’re going to see, I just think it’s so exciting.
Something like Earthquakes In London has a little bit of something for everyone as well. You’ve got your cheesy song moments, you’ve got your moments when you’d be absolutely in tears – there was a lady sat on the bar stools last night and she was sobbing her heart out and literally the bloke sitting next to her was beaming with joy. You can take away bits of whatever you want from it. Words can’t describe it.
The Cottesloe has been transformed for the play. Have there been any accidents?
Somebody fell down a trap door on the stage! One of the girls fell down a hole last night which is a bit random. But, touch wood, no one has been hurt yet, but it is risky. In the rehearsal room we had the whole set built up and thank God we did because I don’t know how we would have managed to get used to that space, we had three or four days in that space before our first preview.
What has it been like working with Rupert Goold?
Brilliant. A Rupert Goold rehearsal room is my idea of heaven because you have so much freedom and everyone’s totally on your side.
Everyone is so supportive. Of course with Earthquakes I was only cast about four weeks ago [before press night] because Rupert just decided that they actually needed one more person, mainly to sing I Am Not A Robot, and for the extra little bits. I came in four or five weeks after the cast had bonded. I think it is really hard to join a company because they’re already a family, but everyone was so welcoming and so lovely and within two days I was totally part of the group.
You get to wear some amazing costumes in the production. How do you get into the nurse’s suit every night?
Babe, you don’t want to know! At my costume fitting, bearing in mind I’d only been at the National for three days and still didn’t know anyone at the company, I got into my costume fitting and the designer shouted to one of the dressers ‘Lucy’s in here, bring in the talc and the lube’ [laughs], I didn’t know what was going to happen to me! It was the most bizarre moment of my life; I’ll never forget hearing those words. It takes about 10 minutes to get into.
I hope the rubber suit doesn’t detract from the incredible performance! I’ve spent the last two years playing sexually repressed teenagers from olden times so to go to a rubber nurse suit; I’ve definitely gone full circle.
What is the best thing about being on stage?
Knowing how theatre can affect people and being a part of that is something that really drives me every night. It is all too easy to get complacent and think ‘oh my God, I’ve got to do this every night for six months’, but if you think to yourself before every show, ‘I could change someone’s life tonight’; that sounds like a massive thing to say, but there is that chance that you might.
And the worst?
The worst thing and the best thing is when you forget your line and for the last ten minutes you’ve been standing trying to think what your next line is, and then somewhere, out of the pure depths of whatever, it suddenly comes out. Corpsing is terrible. We’ve not got to that stage yet with Earthquakes and I’m hoping it never comes, because I’m dreadful [laughs].
Do you want to go back to musical theatre?
I think it’s difficult to say, especially when you’re young you have to take what you’re given and I wouldn’t like to think I’d be picky enough to say ‘I don’t want to do that’. It’s funny, moving to London and being at the heart of theatre totally opens your eyes. If anyone told me two years ago that I’d have done The Crucible and two plays at the National I would have laughed at them. But nothing fulfils me more intellectually than going to see a play, it really gets me thinking. But then you can’t beat a good musical where you walk away smiling and singing the songs, so I really don’t know where I’ll end up but in either I’d be happy.
If you weren’t an actor you would be….
As much as you think that might be impossible to answer, about a week before I got Spring Awakening I’d just started my A-Levels – which I quit obviously – but I’d completely got it in my head, ‘I’m not an actress, I’m going to go to Spain, and go and be a drama teacher in Spain so my Mum and Dad can have a holiday home in Spain.’ So a Spanish drama teacher, how weird is that? Hilarious.