She has a degree in Law, she used to work in sales and marketing, and until embarking on a one-year postgraduate course at the Central School of Speech and Drama, she had never had a singing lesson in her life. Yet Kim Medcalf now finds herself on the West End stage playing the lead in Cabaret at the Lyric. It has been quite a journey for the 32-year-old, as she tells Caroline Bishop…
“It’s a big journey. I think essentially she’s a showgirl and she’s compelled to get up there on stage every night, and her driving force is that she wants to be this star. But actually when you look at her life, in reality, it’s not really going to happen.” Kim Medcalf is talking about Sally Bowles, her role in Rufus Norris’s production of Cabaret. “It’s quite a tragic character I think, but hopefully quite loveable as well. Someone said that she’s adorable but repellent at the same time.”
The erratic, melodramatic, selfish and needy character of Bowles, as Medcalf portrays her on stage, couldn’t be further from the calm, friendly and level-headed actress herself, as she comes across this afternoon, sitting in a Soho café. Also unlike the path trodden by her character, Medcalf’s journey has turned out well; she has achieved her long-held aim of being an actress and her working life couldn’t be better at the moment. “It’s the first time that I’ve really done anything as big as this… so it’s been quite a challenge, but I’m really loving it,” she says.
Two months ago Medcalf took over the part of Bowles from Anna Maxwell Martin, who opened in the show last October. Being her first West End musical – and only her second role on a West End stage – Medcalf freely admits that director Norris and the team were “taking a bit of a risk with me because I’m not a fully fledged musical theatre star”. However, with the help of the “fantastic” Norris, Medcalf has learnt on the job. “What I love about Rufus is that… I’ve always worried that it’s all about the singing and getting the notes perfect. He was like ‘well forget that, I mean yeah obviously the notes have got to be there, but I’m not worried about that, I’m worried about what you’re doing when you’re singing’. It sounds obvious, but you have to really tell the story when you’re singing. So in the audition at the end of it I was actually shouting and the notes have gone out of synch, and he was physically pushing me around the room to show me. It was almost liberating,” she says.
"She’s adorable but repellent at the same time"
Given this inexperience, it seems surprising that Norris would even consider her for the role of Sally. Until starting a one-year postgraduate degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama when she was 25, she says she “hadn’t ever really sung; I mean I had at school and stuff but for me it was literally like walking in cold. So much of that for me was just basic technique, using my voice in any sort of way, but I didn’t ever really get beyond that.”
After leaving Central, Medcalf had a few small musical roles, then a four-year stint in the distinctly non-musical TV soap EastEnders, followed by one high-profile, but non-musical West End role in Hay Fever last year. Her singing talents have been displayed on various occasions – an EastEnders Christmas Party, the 2005 series of Comic Relief Does Fame Academy (she came second) – but the difference between her precise, slightly inhibited performances on Fame Academy and her ballsy, dramatic interpretation of the title song in Cabaret is evidence of Norris’s expert tuition. “I’ve been really lucky to go into this and have a director who is just really amazing,” Medcalf acknowledges. “I have so much respect for him, he has brought that out of me and I’ve managed to take that on stage and it seems to be ok, but you know, it was a bit risky.”
People seem willing to take risks on Medcalf. Her first television job out of drama school was playing Sam Mitchell in EastEnders, which, over the four years she occupied the role, gave her some pretty juicy storylines. She is honest – as seems typical of her – about the fact that it took her a while to perfect her craft: “I would be the first to say it took me time to get used to telly, not being too big. At the beginning I was quite over the top and I had to really learn the hard way, with 12 million people watching me!”
She feels joining the soap was a good baptism into the world of television. “If you want to learn about television then go on that. In a way you’re self directing because there’s so much material to get through. You don’t have rehearsal time, it’s very rare to sit down and say ‘what’s my motivation in this scene?’, you haven’t got the time. So it’s in the deep end really, but I think that’s the best way to learn.”
About a week after finishing work on the soap, someone else took a risk on her. Her agent – who, she says, was “just not accepting that I should be pigeonholed” – got her an audition for Sir Peter Hall, who was casting Noel Coward’s Hay Fever for the West End, starring the theatrical royalty that is Dame Judi Dench. Despite Medcalf's limited professional stage experience, Hall cast her as Sorel Bliss, the daughter of Dench’s Judith. “I don’t think Peter had ever watched EastEnders, he didn’t care, he just saw me as someone who was an actress, maybe a bit raw as far as professional theatre goes, but he was willing to take a risk and I was really, really grateful for that.”
It was a huge production for her West End debut. Having spent the last four years in television, finding herself being directed by Hall in the West End with Dench playing her mother was, she says, “wonderful, but terrifying”. Not least due to the presence of Dench, the four-month run sold out and Medcalf’s lack of previous experience in these matters led to co-star Peter Bowles saying to her when the curtain rose on a packed house night after night “This is special, this is not normal, you’ll learn.”
The fact people have taken risks on her is sweet recompense for the considerable gamble Medcalf took on herself by leaving a well-paid, secure job at the age of 25 to go back and retrain as an actor.
As a child, she had always loved performing and had overdosed on amateur dramatics at school, to the point that when she reached the age of 18, she wanted “to be a bit normal again.” Consequently, she decided to go to Bristol University to study Law. “I thought the whole time I was there, look I really want to do [acting], I think that’s what I’m going to end up doing, but I want to have this time to do something completely different and go to normal university.” After finishing her degree she fell into a job at a blue chip company doing sales and marketing. She knew it wasn’t the right job for her, but it took her friends to point out that she kept harping on about wanting to act for her to actually make the decision to do something about it. She finally did, and “blagged my way in” to the Central School.
"He was willing to take a risk and I was really grateful for that"
“I was going to be losing a lot,” Medcalf says of what was certainly a brave decision. “I had a big car and a well paid salary and all that, but I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t fulfilled at all. It doesn’t matter what you earn, if you’re not happy you always resent it, so I’d just spend my money on going out all the time and had nothing to show for working at this place for three years. So I thought, I’m not going to lose anything really, if it doesn’t work I’ll go back to doing sales and marketing again.”
Taking a business-like attitude to it, Medcalf finished the course and put a date in her diary, some eight months ahead, which would be her “D-Day”, the date by which, if she hadn’t got any significant acting work, she would return to her “former life”, as she jokingly refers to it. “I was quite hard on myself and I only gave myself that time. And when I got to D-day I think I was in EastEnders.”
Her delayed route into the profession has left her with a mature, sensible attitude and a sense of normality that those who started in the industry younger than her must find harder to attain. “I love the fact that I have very normal friends who are not in the industry,” she says. “I have a very strong group of friends from university. I feel very proud that I come from a very down-to-earth family and sometimes when things get a bit out of control, especially with the press, or mad hours, having that and being a little bit older just made me sit back and be a bit sensible about it.”
This was particularly valuable in keeping her grounded during her time on EastEnders. “You can feel like that defines you, you are just that girl on the telly. What’s so nice is when you have those friends… They’re interested in you as a person, and that kept me going. Sometimes it was a bit too much you know.”
It certainly became a bit much when, in her first year in the soap, Medcalf was badly injured in a car accident in France. The press interest “made me realise what a weird job it was. I was in France and there was a group of journalists that had flown over, they were outside the hospital. Having been older and having had a really separate life before, having suddenly now this interest on that level was strange.” She adds: “But it did make me realise that I was just very lucky to be doing it. I love my job.”
That she can now say she loves her job is proof that Medcalf has won her gamble. Unlike her on stage alter-ego Sally, who cuts a sad figure at the end of the show, left alone, with no support and no career prospects, Medcalf has fashioned a successful and varied performing career which is as much a reflection of her willingness to take a risk on herself as it is about other people’s faith in her. But if D-Day had arrived and she hadn’t got an acting job, would she really have given up her dream? Medcalf pauses. “If I was getting nothing I think I would have…” she trails off, “I don’t know…” Thankfully, she didn’t have to make the decision.
Cabaret is booking until 1 March 2008. em>CB