It was with slight trepidation that I arrived at the Novello theatre to interview six of Mamma Mia’s newest cast members: partly because grouping so many theatrical performers in one room has the potential to be a riot but not necessarily the makings of an insightful article; and partly because, with an average age of 21, their post-graduation career trajectory puts mine to shame.
Zoe Humphryes (21, bottom right), Leah St Luce (21, bottom left), Luke Hall (24, bottom middle), Beth Relf (20, top middle), James Willoughby Moore (19, top left) and Chloe-Jo Byrnes (21, top right) have been performing onstage at the Novello now for just over a month, following several weeks of rehearsals. “I never thought I’d be in this show”, says Luke, “I had this preconceived idea that everyone had to be a certain way, everyone had to be like beautiful, beautiful bodies, perfect people.” Luke, the oldest of the group, comes across as the most self-assured with his particularly intent eye contact and composed manner, so it’s heartening to hear his insecurities. That said, looking around the group it is hard to substantiate their mutual assurance that the cast is a bastion of diversity with “real world” bodies, given that all six of the people before me are decidedly good-looking and clearly at the height of physically fitness.
Nonetheless, they could not be a more humble group. Zoe explains how she initially thought she had been unsuccessful in the final auditions, after a mutual friend divulged that Leah had already heard back. “I was like ‘nevermind!’ So I went for a Nando’s with my friend”, she recounts cheerfully, in her incredibly affable manner. Leah, meanwhile, notes how difficult it can be in a college environment, where it is so easy to compare oneself to others and their progress with auditions and recalls. “Everyone’s journey is different”, she asserts, “keep focused, keep your head down, keep believing in yourself, and you will eventually get there.” Of the six, Leah is the only one playing a named part, Lisa, although several of the others are also covers (understudies). In spite of this, Leah seems the most reserved, sometimes finding it hard to get a word in within the highly animated group. It is noticeable that multiple people at various points in the interview refer to luck when discussing their success. “I think when you’re graduating there’s this massive pressure on you that you have to get an agent and you have to get a job”, Beth muses before going on to debunk that mindset: “it doesn’t work like that – someone might wait six months, some get it straight away, like we’re lucky enough to.”
Certainly their position is unusual; all six were cast before they had officially graduated, which is virtually unheard of in such a big show. Chloe-Jo, Beth and James had graduated together just a week before our interview, after leaving college two months early to start rehearsals. “It was a bit bizarre” Chloe-Jo admits, “’cause we went to watch our college show […] and it was just weird sitting there thinking ‘that’s my year, but we’re not there anymore.’” It transpires that the group, along with the rest of the Mamma Mia cast, were invited to a private screening of the new film, but they had to turn down their invites to attend their own graduations: not a double-booking that most students have to worry about! Of course, they do still intend to see the sequel: as Luke puts it “I feel like we have to; it’s our religion.” James is keen to assert, though, that “the show is more in depth, I think, actually than the film […] We’ve got more songs, I think it’s a bit more exciting… it’s live, and… it’s better”, he slowly trails off into laughter. James is the youngest, at only 19, and prefaces everything he says with ‘I think’, a little nervous tick that perhaps belies his age and resultant lack of self-assurance.
That said, when he recounts covering the role of Pepper a few weeks ago, James sounds remarkably casual about waking up to ‘that text’ from the company director. Luke jumps in to highlight that Zoe and Chloe-Jo are swings which means that they are constantly covering for various ensemble roles, learning 8 tracks each: a track being one cast member’s part from the beginning to end of the show. It sounds like no mean feat but Zoe loves it: “it keeps you on your toes, and it keeps you busy […] because it might be the first time that we’ve done a track, there’s still that buzz […] it’s still like the excitement that you would have on opening night.” I get a sense that Luke, as the oldest, is protective and proud of his co-stars in equal measure, later on telling me how excited he was recently when Zoe got to cover for a more dance-based “front-track” and when seeing James as Pepper. They are obviously a tight-knit group, and Leah’s description that they are “like a family basically” rings true when seeing them interact with one another.
There doesn’t appear to be any ‘sibling rivalry’ between them but instead a genuine lack of competition. Beth was unsuccessful in the first set of auditions and joined the cast after re-auditioning a second time around. A lot of performers might feel uncomfortable talking about rejection especially in the company of others who were successful initially, but Beth speaks very calmly and reflectively about the experience; “I don’t whether I got a bit lost in the crowd the first time or, I’m not really sure, but then they must have had something in mind because they kept me [for the next set of auditions].” They are all full of advice for other young performers. Zoe emphasises the importance of focusing on oneself during auditions: “you can’t be there in the audition and be second-guessing everything they [the casting director] are thinking; because if you’re there and that’s what you’re thinking about, then you’re not in the zone, you’re not doing it right.” Everyone was keen to stress the importance of taking on feedback and not responding negatively to corrections in an audition situation, as often that suggests that the director is interested in casting a performer. At worst, they joke, you are getting a free acting/dance lesson. Chloe-Jo (who, although sat the furthest away from me, manages to convey her energy all the way across the room) advises that “You’ve got to take your mindset off being a graduate”, which is honestly good advice in any profession. And, of course, it is always worth remembering Luke’s most vital recommendation: “oh my God, get your holiday [booked] in ASAP!”
As much as this group might attribute their impressive achievements to chance, it is clear from talking to them that they are not naïve and that their attitude to work is professional as well as enthusiastic. They all agreed that performing in the show has quickly become “second nature” and that stage fright is not really an issue. James ventured that “sometimes before ‘Money Money’, before we come through the door, I get a little mmm – but then after that, no.” James and Leah were both on the West End as children, and James described the difference in perspective as an adult performer; “when you’re a kid everything’s an experience rather than a job […] Now this is my job…” Another member of cast is quick to cut in “- you’ve gone too far to quit!” There is a pragmatism to these young performers, who recognise that whilst being cast in a show like this is a dream come true, it is still, ultimately, a job.
When asked about their dream roles to play, there is a complete mix: Chloe cites Elphaba in ‘Wicked’; Beth chooses Nancy in ‘Oliver!’ “’cause she’s gutsy and I like a big belt”; Leah takes me off-guard with Ti Moune from ‘Once in This Island’ (a musical that I had to look up after the interview); Zoe is split between Rumpleteazer in ‘Cats’ and Olive in Bullets Over Broadway; Luke’s aiming for the title role in ‘Phantom of the Opera’; and James, in typical understated form, says he likes playing sidekicks, and thus picks Elder Cunningham from ‘Book of Mormon’. Quite the playbill, and they are even more varied when asked about potential futures away from the West End: commercial dance, TV soaps, backing singing, and regional theatre are all thrown into the equation. It is Zoe that ends the interview with the surprising amount of self-awareness and practicality that these six performers have displayed throughout our conversation: “It’s a bit dull but you’ve got to remember that it is a job and you sort of take what you get […] And then if we’re lucky, we’re lucky.” No matter what they insist upon, chatting to this talented and motivated bunch for only half an hour was enough to know that there is a bit more than luck at play in their success.
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