She is a former radio DJ, calypso singer and celebrity in Trinidad, she has played the oldest woman in the world, her husband’s aunt and a Boney M-singing mother who once dated Daddy Cool – Melanie La Barrie has had an eclectic career to date. Now playing Madame Thérnardier in epic long-runner Les Misérables, La Barrie tells Caroline Bishop why this is one of her best experiences yet…
Melanie La Barrie has two main challenges in her new role as Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables: working with props – “I hate props, I HATE PROPS!” – and walking off the revolving stage without falling over. Both, it seems, are considerable hurdles for the gregarious La Barrie to overcome. “Five weeks now we’ve been walking on and off this revolving stage and I still cannot do it!” she tells me when we meet in her dressing room at the Queen’s theatre. “I tend to fall down on the street anyway, and that doesn’t move,” she laughs. Her solution at the Queen’s has been to arrange it so she always has someone holding her hand when she steps off the revolve. “Often times I almost take them down with me!”
Still, these appear to be the only banes in La Barrie’s new life at the Queen’s. Her vehement hatred of props is balanced by her absolute delight in being part of the world’s longest-running musical, the French-set revolutionary tale Les Misérables. “It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful. This is such a perfectly written musical that every note is exactly where it is meant to be,” she says. “I’ve worked with so many people who have done it and always say to me that it is the best experience that they’ve had and now I understand why.”
I get the feeling that every emotion is felt with passion by La Barrie – nothing is done by halves. She is a warm and exuberant person who, from the moment we meet, doesn’t stop talking and, judging from the twinkle in the eye of the company manager who comes to extract me after half an hour, this is something of a running joke in the company. La Barrie talks easily and animatedly in her Trinidadian accent, and the conversation is liberally sprinkled with laughter. It is easy to see how she would be welcomed into a company of actors.
However, La Barrie wasn’t the only new member of the company in the recent cast change. In all, 21 new actors joined the show in June, with only a few remaining – among them leads Hans Peter Janssens and John Owen-Jones, as Javert and Jean Valjean respectively, Joanna Ampil as Fantine and Chris Vincent, who plays opposite La Barrie as M. Thénardier. “I absolutely love him, love him, love him!” she cries with typical gusto.
"This is such a perfectly written musical that every note is exactly where it is meant to be"
You might imagine it is daunting or difficult to come into such an established and long-running musical, but La Barrie has found the opposite. “I thought that would be a problem, coming in, I thought it would be very much hey you go there, you do that. [But] oh, the amount of freedom and the wonderful air of creativity, of really creating it!” she says. “There is no way that I could play it like the person who played it before – we are two completely different people. I come from a different place in this world and that brings a different energy with it. I was able to really create a Madame Thénardier that came from within me, and they never once imposed anything on me. [It was] really quite an extraordinary experience to come into a 21-year-old musical and still be free to do things. We’re still making stuff up!”
La Barrie also attributes her happy rehearsal experience to the quartet of existing cast members who lent their days to the new cast, while still performing each evening. “These people who were left came in on the Friday morning and they gave us the benefit of a full-on sing. I remember I sat in that and I cried. I was moved by the giving nature of what they were doing, knowing that they had just done five shows and had three more to do and they were doing an extra show in the meantime for us. That, I feel, is what makes us one of the best musicals and one of the best experiences, because there are people who do that.”
That is not to say it was all as easy as pie. Props and revolving stage notwithstanding, La Barrie had a mild panic in the penultimate week of rehearsals when, despite the fact she is an experienced comedy actress, she thought she wouldn’t be funny enough in the comic role of Mme Thénardier. “Oh my God I’m just not funny! It’s not funny, nobody’s laughing,” she mocks herself. Once her panic was over – “I always do it, I have my major week of panic and then it’s all done” – La Barrie’s confidence was back on track and she says, happily contradicting herself: “I’m never nervous about whether the audience will laugh or not because essentially I know that I’m funny!”
It is not a boast, it’s true, she is. I’m laughing anyway – at her amusing anecdotes about grappling with props, at her flamboyant descriptions of herself – “I’m like all hurricane season on the inside and on my outside I’m really kind of like mañana” – and at her recounting of the chicken incident.
Those who saw last summer’s most outlandish musical, Daddy Cool, at the Shaftesbury, may be familiar with the chicken (perhaps it was meant to be a parrot but it looked distinctly poultry-like to me), a giant colourful creation suspended from the ceiling of the theatre which descended into the auditorium during the finale of this Boney M-meets-Romeo And Juliet musical. La Barrie, who played Pearl in the show, is still at a bit of a loss regarding the feathered creation: “The giant chicken? I really don’t understand that! And then it broke the ceiling of the Shaftesbury and it never came down again, so it was just a giant chicken, just up there!”
The idea for the oversized bird, La Barrie then explains, came from the show’s producer’s desire to recreate something he had seen in Brazil for the final scene, set during the Trinidad Carnival. “I come from Trinidad and Trinidad Carnival don’t have any chickens in it,” says La Barrie, who tells me she would avert her eyes when the chicken descended. “It was just one of those bizarre things that the producer saw, quite liked, and wanted to put in his show, and there you have this big, giant, urban musical with rapping and beat boxing and it’s all quite young and quite exciting, and then there’s this chicken.” They even tried to get La Barrie in a chicken costume – she was having none of it.
Feathered friends aside, Daddy Cool was a good show for La Barrie, as it gave her some great numbers to sing – Sunny, I Can’t Stand The Rain – and put her on the industry radar, leading producer Cameron Mackintosh to consider her for Madame Thénardier. Problems prior to opening, says La Barrie, meant Daddy Cool “didn’t get a fair chance to become the product that it could have been. It had all the elements of something that could have been good, but it wasn’t given a fair shot. I commend those young people for going out night after night and trying their darndest to make that work.”
"It broke the ceiling of the Shaftesbury and it never came down again, so it was just a giant chicken, just up there"
That’s not to mention the paparazzi furore over the alleged romance between cast members Harvey (who was married at the time) and Javine, of which La Barrie says: “I find it unfortunate that these two young people were put through the wringer in such a terrible way. Whatever people say about them, I have a lot of time for them, I know them to be lovely, respectful people. So I felt very sad for them. People see the sensational story and they never stop to think about how it affects the individual. They didn’t see how hurt these kids were, and how they had to run away, because there were paparazzi at the stage door.”
She sounds like their mother, referring to them as kids, and yet La Barrie is only 33 herself. The position of mother-hen of the company is one the actress finds herself in frequently. “In every company I join I’m always the mummy. I don’t know why that is!” she says. Equally, the roles she is offered are usually older than her real age – Mme Thénardier, Pearl in Daddy Cool and “the oldest woman in the world”, Mrs Corry, in the original cast of Mary Poppins. “I have something about me apparently that is really quite old,” La Barrie says brightly, seeming quite unperturbed by this. “I don’t know if it’s the way that I look, I don’t know if it’s the way that I sound, but there is something about me that is aged. And so that is all I’ve always played. Always, since I was in my early 20s.”
Her first major play, back in her native Trinidad, was Christopher Rodriguez’s Clear Water. “I was 24 years old, and I played a 40-something woman called Mother,” she laughs. It was working on this play where she met her husband, Nicholai La Barrie. “I played his aunt!”
Performing in plays was just one string to La Barrie’s bow in Trinidad. She has been in the limelight since the age of eight, when she began singing calypso on stage. “For a long time I knew I wanted to be an actor but I didn’t know what you did to become an actor,” she says. Radio and television presenting followed and La Barrie became something of a celebrity in Trinidad, which eventually led her to be offered a small role in a play. “It was a comic role. That’s when I knew that I could do comedy. For a long time I wanted to be a serious actor, but I do comedy better. It’s more fun!” she laughs. After another few years, during which time the multi-talented La Barrie toured in a band, supporting artists like MC Hammer and TLC, she landed the role of Mother in Clear Water, which attracted the attention of the then artistic director of Oval House theatre in London, Paul Everitt.
“That play was in 1998 and he said I want to bring this play to England, to London, with half Trinidadian-half English cast, and he started working on that. We all auditioned for our roles again, and my husband and I were asked to be a part of that. We came here originally in 2000 for three months. We didn’t intend that seven years later we were still going to be here.”
Inevitably, one job led to another – La Barrie’s husband is now Head of Youth Arts at Oval House – and now, with newly-minted British citizenship (the couple were going for their swearing-in ceremony the day after we speak), the actress can’t see them ever going back to Trinidad permanently, not least because “I think London is my spiritual home.”
“I absolutely love it,” La Barrie says with characteristic enthusiasm. “I remember when I landed, I thought it’s just the most extraordinary place. When you come from a third world country, a small island, you never think that at some point you’re going to be standing in front of a Renoir or listening to Vivaldi in a church. You never think that you could save your pennies together and go and see Judi Dench in a play.”
One thing she does miss, however, is Trinidad Carnival. Her face is animated as she tells me in great detail about the annual festival and its preamble, one long party from October to February with parties, costume launches, concerts and competitions, and the J’ouvert parade on carnival Monday – a slightly kinky-sounding party in the small hours in which the revellers cover themselves in mud, paint and oil. “It’s just fantastic. That’s what I miss, I miss carnival,” she says wistfully. Can’t she go back to visit during the carnival itself? “You have to do the whole six month season,” she says, “and I have to be here on the barricades!” The long laugh that follows this statement tells me that she doesn’t really mind this sacrifice too much at all.