Over the last year or so Sally Ann Triplett has established her self as one of the West End’s leading leading ladies, earning universal acclaim for her rendering of Reno Sweeny in Trevor Nunn’s Anything Goes. While she is to return to this role at Drury Lane later this year, she is now starring in a rather different project, the gritty boxing thriller Golden Boy which is at the Greenwich Theatre.
The first thing that strikes one about Sally Ann Triplett is that after two decades of success on the West End stage, she remains, remarkably down to earth: “I’m just cutting my little girl’s toenails” is her unconventional greeting. While she certainly doesn’t look it, she is actually one of the most battle-hardened actresses on the London stage, having made her West End debut in 1981 when she played the role of Swing in The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. (Before then she had already appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest, of which much more later…) Sally Ann speaks with a Nancy Syksian accent (a glance at her CV confirms that she played the role at Leicester’s Haymarket) and unless she is an even better actress than she is known to be, she chats with unaffected frankness throughout – the conversation only punctuated by the occasional ping of a toenail.
So how does Golden Boy compare to the myriad of musicals she's appeared in before? “It’s much more gritty. More serious than anything I’ve done before. I did Rags a couple of years ago, which was a very emotional rollercoaster of a role, but this is just hrrhhrrhrrrr [or however one denotes a shudder], it’s dark, it’s nasty. It is trying to be realistic and after Anything Goes it’s just bizarre.” Is she finding it refreshing to have a break from the chirpy frothiness of Anything Goes? “It is – I’m always up for something new, and it’s nice to be able to do something between the two jobs, it keeps your brain going, especially when this show is so different to what I’ve done before."
"Golden Boy is much more gritty, Its just hrhrhrhrrr, it's dark, it's nasty"
For anyone who didn’t see the UK’s only other production in 1968, Golden Boy tells the tale of Joe Wellington, a disadvantaged youngster from Harlem who finds that he is handy with his fists and sees boxing as his chance at the big time. However, while he learns to avoid the punches in the ring, he discovers that life has an annoying habit of kicking one in the stomach. Sally Ann Triplett plays Lorna Moon, the feisty-yet-put-upon mistress of Wellington’s manager Eddie Satin. When she meets her neglectful-lover’s latest protégé, the last thing she expects is to fall in love with him…
While aspects of this plot sound like classic musical fare, Triplett stresses Lorna Moon is quite unlike any role she has played before. “Lorna is a strange character: in some ways she is strong – she basically keeps Eddie’s business going, she has a good eye for a boxer and good business sense – but she’s also a bit lost, she’s been chasing around after a married man for ten years. When she meets Joe and they fall in love, it turns her world upside down – he loves her for herself, but she finds herself caught between Eddie and what she knows best and something different and a bit frightening.” Love affairs in musicals almost always follow the boy-meets-girl-disaster-strikes-but-they-all-live-happily-ever-after pattern, but Golden Boy’s more complex relationships – where love isn’t clear cut and people get very confused, seems to be one area (along with violent onstage boxing-related deaths) which separates it out from the norm.
As well as the differences in the style and tone of her role, the mechanics of the part of Lorna are also different: “it's just so different from the part I play in Anything Goes – for a start I’m watching everyone else dance when usually I’m the one in the middle sweating! I’ve also only got a couple of songs – it’s almost as if I’m doing a play.” There is, however, one area where Triplett’s character doesn’t depart from the norm, “I always seem to be cast as these strong, slightly tortured women – I suppose it’s a compliment in a way – at least the strong part is! From Anything Goes to Jolson I’ve played these women who seem to be strong and together on the outside but on the inside are all rotten and messed up”.
"I've got this belty-strong voice singing-wise"
So do these outwardly strident but inwardly crumbling characters resemble her own personality? “Well no, not really. They’re all just parts. If I had to chose one, I guess Reno Sweeny is most like me because she’s just such a lot of fun – and that’s what I want at the end of the day – I just like to have a laugh. But to be honest I think I get these parts because I’ve got this belty-strong voice singing-wise, so if I go for Grease and sing Worse Things I Could Do, that suits me far more than one of Sandy’s ballads. I also suppose that as the years have passed I’ve built-up more life experience to draw on, so those roles have become more attractive. They’re not necessarily me, I just find them more interesting – in Anything Goes, Mary Stockley used to say that her part (Hope Harcourt) was so difficult to play, and I agree – she was just so nice, she had no edge.”
Having performed in 25 musicals in 22 years, Triplett has played a number of the great roles in musical theatre, but is there any one role out there which she is desperate to play? “Yes. There is one and I’ve been thinking about it for about 15 years and it’s to star in the stage version of A Star Is Born. I think Andrew Lloyd Webber has got the rights, and if the gods were with me the part would crop up next year after Anything Goes closes – so I’d be in quite a good position to try out for it – perhaps I should start writing Lloyd Webber anonymous letters telling him to put it on!” After this brief dalliance with the heavens, Sally Ann’s feet return quickly to the ground when I ask her if she has any desire to make the leap into straight stage acting: “Well maybe, but I know what I’m good at and I’m certainly not one of those people who says ‘darling, I’ve got to forget musical theatre and become a serious actor.’"
"It was my first telly and I was playing Ricky's fiancé!"
Thus far all of Sally Ann’s straight acting roles have come on television – most notably when she played Ricky’s fiancé in the Eastender’s spin-off about Ricky and Bianca – the Posh and Becks of Albert Square. “It was a really good part – it was my first telly and I was playing Ricky’s fiancé! And it was nice to get away from the singing and the dancing, and to strip away all the layers of musical theatre, all the costumes and the make-up and just be you.” What would she do if someone were to call tomorrow and offer her a long-term part in the show? “Part of me would hate to do it, but another part of me would think that my mate Tamsin didn’t do too badly out of it.” She is talking about Tamsin Outhewaite, with whom she starred in Grease. “You can’t deny that TV opens doors. Tamsin’s agent rang her up about the audition and she got the part and wham – her world changes. I wouldn’t particularly want that fame – I’d rather be someone people recognise but don’t know why. I like to be a bit mysterious. But you can’t deny that, in this crazy world we live in, TV opens doors.”
Triplett is clearly torn on the TV issue – she doesn’t want to be part of the fame game, but is only too well aware of the advantages of being a household name: "I had these huge palaver with Chicago. I was supposed to be in it, taking over from Ruthie Henshall, but I realise now that the reason why I didn’t get it was because they were looking for someone who had won an award or been on telly or something.” Briefly, her frustration at the cult of celebrity rears its head: “I’ve done this business for 23 years and it never gets any easier, and then you do telly and suddenly it does become easier. I mean why should ____ get a part just because she’s been in a soap opera when there are so many more people who have the tools, and the experience in musical theatre that she just doesn’t have? I mean it’s fair enough if they can do it, but some of them haven’t got the stamina for doing eight shows a week. I mean eight shows a week is in my blood. It’s what I do. When you agree to take on a part, you have to take a deep breath, because you know it’s going to be really tiring, but you have to do it.”
"I mean eight shows a week is in my blood. It's what I do."
Triplett feels that the influx of celebrities into the West End is indicative of the shifting values of British theatre-going: “it’s not like this in New York, where people go to watch the show, here people are starting to go because a show’s got a big set or that bloke from The Bill in it. And that’s sad.” Triplett’s theme of television opening doors is apparently confirmed by the fact that Tamsin Outhewaite has come a full circle, leaving Walford, Red Caps and Dolphins behind and returning to her roots to star in Flesh Wound at the Royal Court: “well that’s just brilliant, TV does make things happen, and the role I played was the sort of part they could bring back at any point. So I don’t know what I’d do if they asked me, I might join because Shane [Ritchie – another Grease co-star] is in it and it would be a bit like coming home.” Would she be interested in Eastenders the musical? “Yes!”
When Triplett referred to “somebody who had won an award or been on TV” she may or may not have been referring to the fact that despite earning glowing reviews in West End shows for nearly a quarter of a century, she has never won any of London's main prizes. While she is obviously aware of the fact, she professes that it doesn’t worry her: “do you know what? So many people say that to me, but it doesn’t touch me really. I just think ‘oh whatever' – it’s what other people think. I know what all my mates, all my family and all my fans (and the fans of the show) think – that’s what matters – how you feel about it yourself that counts.
It seems that Sally Ann has always been slightly unlucky with awards: she twice missed out on winning the Eurovision Song Contest – surely the ultimate accolade for any singer. Her first effort came in 1980 as part of the band Prima Donna who finished third in the competition with the stylish Love Enough For Two, while in 1982 she was back as “the pretty half of Bardo” with One Step Further, a song that came a mediocre seventh in the competition but went on to reach No.2 in the UK charts. With such a sparkling Eurovision pedigree, she seems to be as good a person as any to ask about the now notorious null points that Liverpudlian duo Jemini secured at this year’s event. Before I even get a chance to air my theory that it was because of the fact that they spelt Gemini wrong, she has launched into a veritable thesis on the subject: “What went wrong? Just about everything.
Our song wasn’t great for a start and I think it was just about the worst Eurovision I have ever seen – [I sense that she’s seen a few] – it was just so political! I sat there with horror as I realised ‘oh my God, the rest of Europe just hates us.’ I actually felt quite sorry for them [Jemini], they were so out of tune but they clearly couldn’t hear themselves, and as a singer, there’s nothing you can do when that happens and it isn’t really your fault.” Sally Ann has a number of ideas of how to return the UK to the top of the Eurovision tree: “We could do something crazy like enter a real band! I saw Radiohead on Jonathan Ross and they said, in all seriousness they’d be prepared to do it! How brilliant would that be? And my husband came up with a good idea – how interesting would it be if we didn’t know when we saw them which country was singing the song – if we voted for the song rather than the country it would be so much fairer.” It is clear that Eurovision is a regular subject around the Triplett family dinner table, and that Sally Ann is the obvious candidate to become the UK's first Eurovision Tsar. Sadly, one route to redemption is explicitly unavailable to us: Sally Ann has ruled out a glorious return to Eurovision in an effort to show the young’uns how it’s done. “Me? No I’m too old for all of that!.”
With Sally Ann’s Daughter starting to sound restless in the background I reluctantly move on from Eurovision and talk some more about Golden Boy. It strikes me as slightly ironic that, as somebody who is opposed to big names being used to lure in audiences, Sally Ann Triplett’s fame and face have been key elements of the marketing for Golden Boy. Her commitment to the show and to less mainstream venues is however, total: “Oh, I’ll consider anything if I think it’s going to be good. I’m not snobbish. I really like the atmosphere of smaller venues (although Greenwich isn’t tiny) I did a show at the King’s Head and it was fantastic, just brilliant to be right on top of people. But I’ve got to say that of all the theatre’s I’ve worked in, I love the National the most. It’s just amazing. Amazing. The best stage EVER. And it’s not just because it’s the National – I don’t say stuff like that – but wherever you are on the stage you can be seen – you don’t have to work as hard."
It is typical of Triplett’s enthusiasm that within minutes of asserting that National is the best stage EVER, she is telling me that Drury Lane is the best theatre. It obviously means a great deal to her to be returning to the theatre where her career began in 1981: “I’m so excited to be back at the ‘Lane – it is sort of fulfilling a prophecy because on the very last night in 1981, the crew threw a party for us and we took part in this ritual where you have to get ready to leave and then walk in a certain pattern on the stage and then walk out, and if you do that it means you’ll be back. Now, at last, I am going back! It’s the best theatre – it just has something a bit different about it that makes it stand out.” Drury Lane is renowned for being the most haunted theatre in the world, but although she finds it “very creepy to be in there alone” Triplett is yet to meet either the Grey Man or the notorious simian of fortune: “they say that if, during previews for a show, you see a monkey sitting in the stalls, the show is going to be a hit. Somebody saw it during Miss Saigon – and it seemed to work for them.”
"If you see a monkey during previews – the show will be a hit"
Can we expect the Drury Lane version to differ much from the incarnation seen at the Olivier? “obviously the stage is different so that will have to be reworked, but most of the lead characters will be the same. Basically Trevor [Nunn] can do what he wants really.He can just turn up and say 'I don’t think this worked last time and just change a whole bit of it', just like that. It’s exciting.” Does she have any concerns about coping with a long West End run? “Not really, it’s such a fun show to do, and it’s always evolving, and you can always improve on what you are trying to do and also, you end up looking like a skeleton – which is always a bonus!” With that typically chirpy remark I leave Sally to start hovering up the clippings, practise her upper-cut and brush-up on her ape identification skills.