It may have taken slightly longer than she had hoped, but I’d Do Anything’s Jessie Buckley has just made her West End debut. Matthew Amer found out exactly how excited she was.
When Jessie Buckley was thrust into the public eye, it was as an 18-year-old with no professional theatre work to her name, no post-school training and seemingly no fear. Week after week the young Irish performer auditioned for an audience including Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Barrowman and Denise van Outen, not to mention millions of television viewers, in the BBC’s search for a Nancy, I’d Do Anything.
Though her bubbly charm did not win enough of the voting public’s hearts, as she finished runner up to Jodie Prenger, it was not long before she made her professional debut in A Little Night Music, which recently transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End’s Garrick theatre.
She plays young wife Anne in Sondheim’s charming, witty musical about confused love affairs and midsummer madness, which received much acclaim during its winter run at the Menier.
That she came to fame in a show entitled I’d Do Anything seems strangely appropriate, as Buckley has determination coursing through her. Not in a ‘trample all those who stand in my way’ fashion but in a way that sees her give everything of herself to chase a goal if she wants it enough.
She also has enthusiasm in bucket-loads. In fact, you would probably need larger receptacles entirely to hold Buckley’s enthusiasm – swimming pools maybe, or Loch Ness.
When we meet, she has just returned to the Menier Chocolate Factory after two weeks off, but there is not the merest hint of back-to-work blues about her. As we sit and chat about her experiences of the last 18 months, I get the feeling that if she didn’t speak, the excitement might just build up inside her until she exploded.
“I can’t imagine being any luckier than this being my first job,” she begins. “I don’t have training and I know I have things to learn and I’m excited about learning those things and I’m willing to go and make mistakes and learn. Literally, I’ve stood in the wings and I’ve watched [the rest of the cast]. They’re inspirational to me. I really look up to them with the highest respect because they’re so professional yet they’re so willing to help you.”
As first jobs go, she really couldn’t have done much better. The cast around her includes West End regulars Hannah Waddingham, Alexander Hanson and Kelly Price, and theatrical royalty in the shape of Maureen Lipman. The director hasn’t got a bad pedigree either, as Buckley points out: “I really wanted to learn and I wanted to learn from the best, and who better to learn from than Sir Trevor Nunn?” Who indeed?
“It’s very different from stepping on the stage in front of 7, 8 million viewers,” Buckley says of performing in the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory, which holds only 150 audience members. For a young actress in her first job, there really was no place to hide, the miniature nature of the venue allowing every eye to scrutinise her. The Garrick is a touch larger, holding nearly 800. It might give her more breathing space, but being her West End debut, the transfer has set her nerves a-jangling. “I won’t lie,” she smiles, “I’m absolutely terrified. I’m just going to try and relax and enjoy it and do my best. Sometimes I’m going to hit home runs and sometimes I’m not, but I’m going to strive to get those home runs every night. We’re doing it for a paying public and they deserve to see your best performance every night.”
“I wanted to learn from the best, and who better to learn from than Sir Trevor Nunn?”
It is hard not to enjoy Buckley’s company. She has the same warming effect as a log fire in the depth of winter; the world outside could be grinding to a frozen halt but her happiness would still be comfortingly infectious. There is a touch of the young puppy about her; boundless energy and a willingness, eagerness even, to be moulded and shaped to fulfil her potential.
But behind the more obvious attributes lies a confidence in herself and her ability, and a conviction to stick to her beliefs. After finishing second to Prenger in I’d Do Anything, she was actually offered a position in Oliver!, understudying her victor. It was a solid job offer and would have seen her make her professional debut in a safe ensemble position. She said no. “I think there comes a point,” she explains, “when you have to say ‘You know what, I didn’t win this, I didn’t win this for a reason and I need to go and do my own thing. I just want to go out and get a job because I’ve auditioned for it and I’m right for the part.’
“That’s what’s so good about doing something like Night Music,” she continues. “There was no connection with Cameron [Mackintosh] or Andrew [Lloyd Webber] or anybody on the panel. I went to this audition on my own terms and they could have equally said ‘No, you’re just not good enough for this.’ But I went through the rounds and I got it.”
She nearly didn’t. When she met Nunn, she “gave one of my worst auditions because I was just shaking from head to toe”. Tenacious and determined, she asked for a second chance and was lucky enough to get one. Maybe the TV exposure helped, maybe Nunn had seen her potential, maybe she was just brave enough to take the bull by the horns.
“I’m always looking for a challenge,” she explains. “I don’t like the easy option. I want to be able to take risks in my career and I want to make good choices and equally bad choices, because you don’t learn if everything is easy. I wanted to do something that I knew at the end of it I would have really grown as a performer and as a person, and this was the perfect opportunity.”
This was not the first time she has so philosophically approached the theatre industry. Her appearance on I’d Do Anything arose through twisted misfortune. Originally in England to audition for drama school, she heard she had failed to secure a place but still wanted to get more audition experience. The I’d Do Anything auditions turned up at exactly the right time and led to her becoming a Saturday night TV regular. “I was living my dream,” she beams with delight. “I was getting to sing in front of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. To be honest, I didn’t even dream I would ever meet people like that.”
“I think there comes a point when you have to say ‘You know what, I didn’t win this for a reason and I need to go and do my own thing.'”
Meet them she did, and, some might argue, won their hearts more than the show’s eventual winner. Yet there is not a hint of bitterness about her loss. She talks of Prenger with genuine affection; why would she begrudge her anything when she too is now on a West End stage?
Buckley is also very down to earth about reservations put forward regarding reality TV casting and the effect that it has on performers who have trained and worked hard but never got their big break. “I understand why people might feel stand-offish about it,” she says, “because people have worked for ages and toured and never got their chance to be in the West End, but either way, this business is all about being in the right place at the right time and I was accidentally there at the right place and the right time, not expecting anything from it, but, you know, I was just really lucky and I worked hard during it.”
Luck may have played its part in thrusting Buckley into the limelight, but there was undoubtedly a great deal of quiet hard work put in behind the scenes. She is not the type of person to sit around when some effort could be expended. At school she played the piano, clarinet and harp to Grade 8 level and was also a talented swimmer, rising at 06:00 to train before school. Music may run in her family and she may have a natural talent, but if ever there was anyone who was going to put the work in to maximise her potential, it is Buckley. “I’m not a person who just likes sitting around,” she says, mastering understatement. “I need to be doing things and I need to be learning. I need to be growing as a person all the time and I’m not happy unless I do.”
This is why it will be so exciting to see her career progress. She has already proven that she doesn’t take the easy choices and isn’t afraid to take a chance. She has also had her eyes opened to the many different opportunities which lie ahead through a summer course at RADA, where she “just fell in love with Shakespeare and I fell in love with scripts and I love reading scripts and going to plays. It really just opened my eyes and I want to do everything. I want to do Chekhov and I want to do musicals and period dramas and films.” It could sound precocious or pushy or greedy, but in actual fact it is just the voice of an emerging talent who has an insatiable thirst for performance. She goes on to say of her next job: “I want to be choosy and I want another challenge, I want something that will be tough. I want to work with another great director and great cast. I want a long career and I don’t want a flimsy thing. I want to do this for the rest of my life and I’m going to work hard at it.”
It has already been a long journey for the girl whose description of a family playing harps, singing round the piano and living at the bottom of a mountain could only be more stereotypically Irish if she added that they were wearing green and had cousins who were leprechauns. She puts her success down to parents who gave her every opportunity they could. Undoubtedly this helped, but without her tenacity and self-belief she would not be making her West End debut in yet another musical to successfully transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory. With the producing theatre’s history, no-one would blame any of the company for keeping one eye firmly on the 2009/10 theatre awards season.
That, I imagine, is far from Buckley’s mind. It would be one hell of a story to come from nowhere to starring in a Laurence Olivier Award-winning production in just two years. For now she is merely focusing on getting to grips with life as a professional actress. “Now I’m worrying about taxes,” she smiles, “whereas before I was worrying about who would change my sister’s nappy. It’s been scary at times, but I think, in a way, being thrown in at the deep end has been the best thing in the world for me, because you just swim, don’t you, you don’t let yourself drown.” If Buckley’s thirst, drive, enthusiasm and commitment has anything to do with it, before long she won’t simply be swimming, she will be breaking records.