BWW Interview: Actress Claire Machin Talks THE GIRLS Ahead of West End Opening

Claire Machin in The Girls

Actress Claire Machin's numerous West End credits include Memphis, The Pajama Game, Betty Blue Eyes and Les Miserables. She's currently starring in Gary Barlow and Tim Firth's new musical The Girls, based on the real life story of a group of WI members creating a memorable charity calendar. The show, which debuted in Leeds last year, begins its West End run at the Phoenix Theatre later this month.

What was the first musical you saw?

I've always been a big fan of the classic MGM musicals - we'd watch those on the telly on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Did you perform a lot as a child?

I actually won a Butlins talent competition when I was eight. I did (probably really bad) impressions of Shirley Bassey, Frank Spencer, The Muppets - I used to do them with teddies in my bedroom - and I performed those. I actually won the family a free holiday for the following year, and then again for a couple of years on the trot.

When did you realise acting might be a career?

I honestly don't remember a time when it wasn't. I grew up on a miners estate in Stoke-on-Trent, so it was worlds away - no one round there said "I want to be an actor". But we were a really working-class family and everyone had jobs you got by on. There wasn't any sense of job security, with the steel mines going and everything, so in a way there wasn't that pressure of "You should do something more secure."

Where did you train?

I went to Sylvia Young in the late Eighties, when I was 16 - she used to do adult drama courses. I felt really at home for the first time that I can remember. It's the same on stage - that's where I feel the most relaxed and comfortable.

What was your first paid acting job?

I got a Noel Coward play at the King's Head Theatre straightaway, so I thought "This is OK", and then I didn't work for about 12 months! But I kept at it.

Do you particularly enjoy doing new work?

I love working with writers on new pieces. I got involved with Mary Poppins really early on, at the workshop stage, when it was all of us sat round a table and I was reading in all sorts of parts. We really need to encourage new work, especially new British work - we have such a wealth of talent in this country.

The Girls is a British team and it's a very British subject, but it's also universal, which is glorious. It isn't about six women taking their clothes off - that's one tiny scene towards the end. Really you live through this whole journey of these women being tremendous friends, and out of the devastating loss of one of them losing their husband to cancer, her friends rally to help in her grief, get her out and about again, and wind up making an enormous difference. Over the years they've raised millions of pounds.

The Girls in rehearsal

It's a very moving subject

The Queen said at Princess Diana's funeral "Grief is the price we pay for love". I lost my mum very unexpectedly four years ago, so this pieces touches a raw nerve. It's beautifully done - something we all understand. We didn't know what audience reaction we'd get and it's been phenomenal. There's nothing voyeuristic about it - it's just so honest and beautiful. You hear this laughter and then sobs, and then laughter again.

How does it differ from Calendar Girls?

It centres more on the family - the husbands, the children, how a loss like this affects the whole of a small community, and how they come together. These ordinary people do something quite extraordinary.

Did you meet the woman your character, Cora, is based on?

Chris and Annie are based on Angela and Trish, and the other four characters are more of an amalgamation of the other women. Cora is probably the most mashed up of them all - there's elements of all six in her, plus wonderful things out of Tim's brain. So I get to tell their story, but characterise it myself too.

What's it like being part of such a female-driven piece?

People seem so convinced no one wants to see women on stage, let alone middle-aged women, but this has had such a fantastic response. And they say the average person buying a theatre ticket is 45 and female, so it makes sense - you want to see your experience up on stage. It's a lovely company to be part of: because we're all of a certain age, there's very little ego. We just get on with it!

How would you describe Gary Barlow's score?

I was really surprised at how beautiful the narrative is - I knew he was a wonderful songwriter, but the lyrics say so much in one sentence. And the music is so fitting. It's a real Yorkshire sound, a British sound, but also contemporary. It feels very now and real; there's no pastiche. Our musical director, Richard Beadle, has put such beautiful clothes on those tunes - there's a lot of wit and style and flavour in his setting.

Years ago, if you did telly you couldn't do theatre, and if you did musicals you couldn't do anything else. But with people like Gary, it goes to show that we're all doing the same job, which is trying to make people feel something - whether it's to get up and dance, or cry your eyes out.

The Girls

Were you a Take That fan?

Well, my claim to fame is Robbie Williams was from Stoke and we did The King and I together - and my cousin Laura used to iron his shirts!

What was it like opening the show in Leeds?

That was very special. And nerve-wracking, because it's Yorkshire, they're honest - if they don't like it, they'll let you know...

Have you changed much for the West End opening?

I think about 26% is new since then. It gets to the heart of the matter quicker, and there are some set adjustments, but nothing too major. We were really fortunate to have that out of town tryout and get to play around with things without all the prying eyes. It's so exposing opening right in the West End.

Speaking of which, did the stripping off element give you pause at all?

I honestly forgot that bit when I said yes! I really wanted to do the show, and then it kind of dawned on me when we were rehearsing at the Jerwood Space, "Oh God - I do actually have to get all my clothes off." I never thought I'd have to do that in my career, and it still does fill me with absolute fear, but it's incredibly liberating.

The audience's reaction is so genuine - they really celebrate us, and it feels like we've all gone through it together. It's the scene that feels the most intimate - we really take care of each other. It's an emotional moment more than anything, showing these women's friendship, their love, bravery, loss and support, coming together. It's just a little calendar, but it means the world. Often it's the simplest things we can do that make a difference.

Do you have any dream shows or collaborators in future?

I'd love to work with Richard Eyre again. Maybe play Mama Rose one day. Just keep doing good stuff, interesting stuff. Just keep working! Sylvia Young told me I'd have to wait till I was 40 for my career to get going, which you don't want to hear at 17, but she was pretty much right - the last few years have been fantastic.

Finally, any advice for budding performers?

Know your castability - not the roles you'd like to play, but what you're likely to be cast as - and choose your audition material to suit it. Try to pick something obscure, especially if you're at four in the afternoon. Just make them sit up and not crave a cup of tea and you're one step ahead. And keep going - it's great fun.

The Girls at Phoenix Theatre from 28 January

Photo credit: John Swannell, Matt Crockett

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