West End Rent's Joanne: Francesca Jackson

When William Baker and Steve Anderson's new production of Jonathon Larson's Pulitzer Prize winning musical Rent begins previews on October 2 (opening October 15), attractive young actress/singer Francesca Jackson, will make a welcome return to the West End stage, having made her professional debut at the age of 13 as Bet in the Sam Mendes production of Oliver! at the Palladium in 1997. Francesca hails from the village of Ystradgynlais in South Wales and her life has revolved around performing on stage since the age of five. As a member of the National Youth Musical Theatre company, she appeared in Whistle Down The Wind and Bugsy Malone and went on to train at the Mountview Academy, where her on-stage credits included roles in Elegies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, A…My Name Is Alice and Nine. In 2006 she was in the touring ensemble of Rod Stewart's Tonight's The Night, covering the lead roles of Dee Dee and Mary. Now she is set to wow London audiences with her richly toned and powerful vocal talent as New York lawyer, Joanne Jefferson - lesbian lover to Denise Van Outen's Maureen Johnson.

Interrupting her busy rehearsal schedule, Francesca paused to carry out an exclusive Broadwayworld.com interview with columnist, Robert Gould:

R.G: You began singing/performing at an early age (I can remember hearing you sing "Part Of Your World" when you were around 10! And I remember it was pretty fantastic.) At what age precisely did you begin? And what began your interest in musical theatre?

FRANCESCA: My parents say it all began with my role of Percy the Polar Bear back in nursery school! I began dance classes at the age of five (you would never guess though) and then I went on to join my local theatre group, Glantawe Players, at the age of eight and then Swansea Amateur Dramatics Society. I then joined the National Youth Music Theatre, so I really can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in Musical Theatre!

R.G.: You also made your West End debut at quite a young age - as Bet in Oliver!. What do you remember about that experience?

FRANCESCA: It was just amazing!!! I can't tell you how uncontrollably excited I was when my Mum got the phone call saying I'd got it! I don't think I've seen my Dad happier as we all jumped around the room! It literally was a dream come true and I still to this day can't believe I got my dream so early on in my career! I learned such a great deal in Oliver!, working so closely with people like Robert Lyndsay (Fagin) and Sonia Swaby (Nancy). I really believe I gained a lot from those people! 

R.G.: I gather that while you studied at Mountview, you shared an apartment with Connie Fisher? What can you tell the readers about Connie?

FRANCESCA: Yeah, Connie and I lived together for five years throughout Mountview and beyond. There was never any doubt she would do well and the Maria programme was a great vehicle for her to jump-start her career. It was fun living together and I must mention our other housemate Spencer Cartwright, who is also currently making his West End debut in Billy Elliot – it must have been a lucky charm of an apartment!! We are all so incredibly lucky to be in work, and in the West End together!

R.G.: A year or so ago you were in the UK touring cast of Tonight's The Night. What role(s) did you play and what was that experience like?

FRANCESCA: I was in the ensemble and also covered the parts of Dee Dee and Mary!! I had a fantastic time doing this show especially when we performed in places like Cardiff and Glasgow where the audiences were just so enthusiastic, joining in with all the songs and up on their feet dancing at the end!! To perform at the Cardiff Millennium Centre was amazing in itself - the theatre is an incredible venue and it was great to be performing so close to home. For me the best experience was in Glasgow, where I got to play Dee Dee for two weeks! The audience sang along to every song with such enthusiasm you actually couldn't hear yourself singing! That was incredible!

R.G.: And now you're about to play Joanne in the eagerly anticipated new production of Rent at the Duke of York's. How did you get the part?

FRANCESCA: Well, I actually auditioned last October and was offered the role almost straight away. It was quite a quick audition process, I only had two recalls. I have to say they were the loveliest auditions I've ever been too, the panel were so complimentary and the casting director (Neil Rutherford) made sure I always felt at ease and confident.

R.G.: How did you approach preparing for the role of Joanne? And what is it like working with Denise Van Outen?

FRANCESCA: Well since I have had the role since last October, it's given me plenty of time to prepare. Joanne is a well established lawyer in New York so I have spent a lot of time leading up to rehearsals researching the profession and life in NYC. Also, it's a big sing - so I've increased my regular vocal training to build up stamina and strength in my voice. I just cant wait to get up on that stage!!!

As for Denise, it's so exciting to be working with someone with her profile! I still find it strange calling her Den when to me she is THE Denise Van Outen. But she is lovely and so much fun, she constantly has us all in hysterics. We're lucky that we've been able to forge a great relationship in such a short amount of time - especially seeing as she is my on stage lover and we have to be intimate throughout the show!!

R.G.: It has been well advertised that this production of Rent will be quite different from the Broadway production and previous UK stagings. In what ways is it different?

FRANCESCA: To clear up any confusion straight away – we are still set in New York! The main changes are to the music – it's been updated to target today's younger generations. All of the melodies are still the same but there are newer, fuller and beautiful orchestrations.

R.G.: I'm sure you're quite excited about this part and this show. But is there any other particular role and/or show that you would dearly love to be in on the West End one day?

FRANCESCA: Blood Brothers! I've always wanted to play Linda and when I'm old enough, Mrs. Johnston. I would love it if Cameron Mackintosh brought back Oliver! as I would love to get the chance play Nancy as well. It's also been an ambition of mine to create a role in an original cast - and in the long term I would love a career in television! So much to do... so little time!!

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