Former Nancy hopeful Niamh Perry tells Caroline Bishop about the 18-month learning curve that has turned her from schoolgirl into West End star.
If Niamh Perry’s original plans for 2009 had come to fruition I would not be climbing the many stairs to her dressing room at the top of the Prince of Wales theatre. Her West End debut in long-runner Mamma Mia! comes after a certain new production she was hoping to be a part of was rescheduled for next year.
“So I found out that the job was postponed and started to panic, because that was kind of my plan for the next year,” she tells me when we meet in the sweltering cubby hole she has occupied for the past few weeks. Given that she has been involved in workshops for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s eagerly awaited sequel to The Phantom Of The Opera which had been rumoured to occupy the Adelphi theatre from October before it was postponed, even my limited powers of deduction infer that Love Never Dies could have been the production in question. “Yes it was,” she confirms with a hesitant smile.
In a stroke of luck that Perry acknowledges is unusual in the industry, less than a week after having that panic, her agent secured her an audition for the role of Sophie, and so she finds herself in work after all, in one of the West End’s most successful and popular musicals no less.
This Northern Irish 19-year-old is used to her plans changing. The past year has altered her life beyond recognition. If she hadn’t applied for BBC show I’d Do Anything, which aired last year, she could, at this point in her life, have been an unknown school leaver attempting to get into drama school. As it is, she has an agent, is making her West End debut and has Lloyd Webber for a mentor. “I’m kind of waiting for it to hit me because it hasn’t really, I think I’ve just accepted it and got on with it,” she says.
She may be barely 19 – and she looks it, with her glowing complexion, petite frame and big eyes framed with heavy kohl – but today Perry projects a self-assurance that belies the lack of confidence she admits she suffered from at the beginning of I’d Do Anything. As one of the youngest competitors – she was just 17 at the time – Perry was pegged by the judges as ‘fragile’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘sensitive’; 18 months later she seems composed, mature and perhaps a little tougher.
Perry’s journey to confident young musical theatre star began with that application to I’d Do Anything, which was a brave step in itself for this classically trained singer with little musical theatre experience and the usual self-esteem hang-ups that come with being a teenager. “I think I was just low on confidence about image and about coming across the wrong way, when you put yourself in front of that many people,” she says. But that she did, subjecting herself to singing in front of millions every Saturday night whilst living in a house with 11 other potential Nancys, including those she now calls lifelong friends; Jessie Buckley, who has since landed a role in A Little Night Music at the Garrick theatre, Samantha Barks, playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret on tour and Rachel Tucker, currently in We Will Rock You at the Dominion theatre. “I think it was living with such brilliant and influential people that it kind of rubbed off on me. And getting praise from someone like Andrew Lloyd Webber on TV, it does build your confidence,” she says.
“The audition and rehearsal process for this job was like an acting lesson”
By the time she was voted off the competition, in fifth place, she had developed enough self-confidence to decide she would rather learn on the job than go to drama school as she had previously planned. “It would have been, in my opinion, a bad move to not capitalise [on] your image and the fact that people kind of know who you are and then it can sometimes be to your benefit for jobs,” she says. “The last thing I wanted to do after being over here for four months and having my own freedom was to go back to school.”
She did, however, return briefly to her grammar school in Belfast to sit her A Level exams, on the advice of her parents – both headteachers – and Lloyd Webber, who was “adamant” that she should return after missing four months of school due to her participation in I’d Do Anything. “But I went back to do my A Levels for myself as well as them because it’s something to fall back on and I think it’s always good to have a second option. If something stopped me from doing musical theatre I would go back and study again, I don’t rule it out completely.”
She got a respectable – and appropriate – BBC in her trio of A Levels, though her reaction to the results shows just how much her priorities had changed from those of your average 18-year-old. “My mum rang me when I was in Edinburgh doing Only The Brave and was screaming down the phone ‘Oh well done, you got really good A Level results’ and I was like, ‘Oh, I completely forgot about that’. It just went right over my head.”
She was understandably distracted by making her professional debut in new musical Only The Brave, a job she secured shortly after leaving the programme. Since then, Perry’s learning curve has continued with a pantomime, various concert performances and those Phantom Two workshops – including the recording of the concept album – all of which geared her up nicely to make her West End debut in Mamma Mia! “I’ve done lots of different jobs and I’ve luckily been busy since [I’d Do Anything] but this is the first big job and I felt so ready for it. I think I was getting frustrated with constantly just flying here, there and everywhere doing little bits and pieces rather than just having the security of coming to work every day like everyone else does.”
Her work over the past year has justified her decision not to go to drama school and Perry has lapped up the advice and on-the-job training she has received. “The audition and rehearsal process for this job was like an acting lesson and I found that as well when I did the Phantom Two workshops. The director, Jack O’Brien, is unbelievable. He can talk to you for about five minutes and what he would say to you will stay with you forever. I have friends who did the workshop with me who went through three years of drama school and it wasn’t until they worked with someone like Jack O’Brien that it all made sense. So for some people going to drama school isn’t necessarily the answer.”
Though her experience of musical theatre was limited to amateur dramatics with Northern Ireland’s Music Theatre for Youth (of which she is now a patron), Perry feels the TV show gave her ample preparation for going professional. “When your mentor is Andrew Lloyd Webber and you want to go into a career in musical theatre you can’t really get much better than that,” she says, citing the generosity of the composer to his protégés.
Perry judiciously treads the fine line between confidence and arrogance on this subject. She knows she is a novice when it comes to the business – “I’m fully aware that I don’t know everything, I don’t know nearly anything, so I need people like that and mentors, especially at my age, just to kind of guide me in the right direction” – and yet she defends the hard graft she put in during the BBC show as justifying the rewards that have come since. “What people don’t realise – the cynical people who have been in the business for a long time – is that they will never go through an audition process like we had to, which was gruelling up until the point of the live shows and then it got to kind of ridiculous, you know, an audition in front of eight million people every Saturday night.”
“getting praise from someone like Andrew Lloyd Webber on TV, it does build your confidence”
She says she has encountered prejudice from individuals within the industry who accuse Perry and her fellow contestants of being handed jobs on a plate, “but that’s not the case at all,” she argues. “I got this job, thankfully, because I was right for the job and I prepared myself for the audition. I mean that in the least arrogant way possible, but I worked hard for this job and I would hate to ever let anyone get me to think that I didn’t deserve to be here. I can’t stress, it isn’t until you put yourself in the position of going through something like I’d Do Anything that you realise how difficult it is. It has prepared me for any audition. No audition will ever be as bad as that one.”
Perry knows she has to prove herself to the detractors of reality casting, but such is her tenacity that she is channelling that negativity to push herself to work harder. She will get the ultimate platform to prove her critics wrong if she does win a role in the Lord’s new musical. She says she has been told not to talk about Love Never Dies and qualifies her earlier statement by saying that nothing has been signed and sealed regarding her participation in the production, but she does go so far as to say: “It’s a masterpiece, it really is. I think it’s Andrew’s strongest piece so far and that’s a huge thing to say because everything else has been so successful. And it’s been so lovely to watch it grow as well because I’ve done all the workshops and the concept album, so to watch it evolve has been amazing.”
That she is in a position to comment on Lloyd Webber’s unseen new musical shows just how far Perry has come since her schooldays in Belfast only 18 months ago. As she lists the roles she would love to play in the future – among them Eponine in Les Misérables, Christine in the original Phantom Of The Opera – those aims now seem achievable. Of course, creating a role in a brand new musical is on that wish-list too. “I think that’s a great thing to make your mark and be the first person to play [a role]. Fingers crossed,” she giggles. It sounds like she won’t need to keep them crossed for long.