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BWW Interview: Anna-Jane Casey Talks ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

Anna-Jane Casey in rehearsal

Anna-Jane Casey made her West End debut in Cats, and has since starred in Chicago, West Side Story, Sunday in the Park with George and Billy Elliot, among others. She's currently in rehearsals for Sheffield Crucible's Christmas show, Annie Get Your Gun, in which she plays gun-totin' Annie Oakley. Previews begin on 9 December.

What was your first theatre experience?

I saw loads of show as a kid - I'm a Manchester girl by birth, so we were always at the Palace and the Opera House. Then I saw a call in the Manchester Evening News for Annie, and along with hundreds of other Northern girls who'd done any singing or dancing, I powered along to that. I got an agent and did children's TV shows, and then I saw an advert in The Stage for Cats auditions. I got cast in that aged 16, came to London and never looked back.

Did it always seem a natural career path?

Well, I was going to go to college for A-levels, but then I got Cats instead. It was quite a terrifying show to go into, and I could never do that dancing now, but at 16 I was very bendy and very eager! So there wasn't a plan - I'm still making it up as I go along really.

Do you find it easy to handle singing, acting and dancing?

There are lots of Sheffield youngsters in Annie Get Your Gun, and we were just talking last week about how there's a real tradition in the North with dance festivals - from the age of about nine to 14 you do these performances with ballet, modern and tap, so that's all the skills required dance wise. And you do a lot of singing and dancing together as well. So moving into London, it just felt like that on a bigger scale. Practice makes perfect - the more you do it, the more you can apply those skills.

My first few shows were more dancing and singing, and then Anita in West Side Story was when I was really required to be an actress. My sister's a big TV actress, and she didn't train as such either, which often surprises people. But we've both been learning as we go, and you should never stop learning. It also gives you a natural way into things - you go on feel. Someone says "I love you", how would you react? You find that human response.

So it helps you connect with the people?

Yes, like Annie Oakley, she was a real person. You just have to read about her life and then when you look at the lines on the page, you know how this woman would react. She's fantastic to play. One of my favourite quotes from her is when she was asked "How do you do those great tricks?", and she said "When a man hits a target they call him a marksman. When I hit a target, they call it a trick."

Especially right now, with the American election and looking at how women are perceived in society, we're really stepping out of those traditional homemaker roles and that's scaring some people. Annie was alive in the late 1800s, and she fought it even then - she was really the first feminist. She stepped into a man's world and took it over, and she was celebrated for it. I wish we could say the same happened with Hillary Clinton. We still put women in those boxes.

Anna-Jane Casey and cast in rehearsal

It's our perception of men as well

I'm completely obsessed with I'm A Celebrity..., and you've got Wayne Bridge, this big burly footballer, crying because he misses his children - because that's his main role now. We should celebrate that men are fantastic parents as much as that women are fantastic leaders.

It's interesting, Frank Butler, who was Annie's husband in real life for over 50 years, in the show we're looking at how they first get together and he finds it difficult to give her the higher status. At the time, women had babies and made the tea, but this is a woman how stands up and says "That's not right", and he has to figure out how to deal with that. The great thing is that the show says strong women should be honoured and not thought of as gobby or bossy.

Is that satisfying for you, as an actress, to play?

I've got a 10-year-old and a four-year-old, and I'm building feminists, so I can't wait for them to come and see this. They'll get to watch a woman go from nothing to great heights, but keeping both her femininity and her strength. The same with Frank too - he changes, but he doesn't give up who he is.

Are you having fun with all the sharpshooting?

I'm a complete pacifist and against weaponry, and the same with Ben Lewis, who plays Frank. But the minute they put those rifles in our hands, we were going "OK, yes, I feel that power!" We're actually going on a clay pigeon shoot together.

I hope you keep score

Believe me, if I win, he'll never hear the end of it!

What's it like performing these iconic Irving Berlin standards within the context of the story?

I do a lot of concerts and "Anything You Can Do" is always in there because it's such a great, funny song, but in the show it's this fight - two people who are going to kill each other, this real one-upmanship. The same with "I Got the Sun in the Morning", which you might have heard with a big choir, and it's really about this girl who doesn't want all the trappings of success. Annie just happens to have this skill that makes her lots of money, but she doesn't mind if she has nothing.

Is it good to be back in Sheffield?

I would come here and sweep the stage. It's my favourite city in England - the people here are just so warm. It has this big student community and these good old Northerners. You'll sit next to a granny on a bus, and it's "Hello, love", and you chat about her varicose veins. That comes into the theatre. The audiences love coming here, they really get into it, and musicals are such a great tradition in Sheffield - they know they're getting a good show. I'm so chuffed we're bringing this material, the great cast, our wonderful director.

Anna-Jane Casey and Ben Lewis in rehearsal

Are you enjoying being reunited with Paul Foster?

Me and Paul and the wonderful Alistair David first worked together on Bells Are Ringing, it must have been six, seven years ago, and being in a room with those two guys is just heavenly. We have such a laugh, and it's a nice, warm rehearsal room to come into - no one's thinking "Oh god, what's the director going to say now?" And Paul is so bright and well-read, so he's got all these references that each person will understand. Like we've got some Americans in the cast, so he'll drop in an Americanism when he talks to them.

Have you updated the show much?

It is an old classic musical, some lines are a bit racially incorrect, so we've thought about that, but there was racism at the time - that's a part of this story. Tommy Keeler is part-Native American, part-Irish, and there's some horrible talk about him being "half-breed", which is really uncomfortable to say nowadays, but you have to address what it was like then and deliver a truthful story.

Annie sometimes kowtows to Frank, which I would never do to my husband - I'm a right gobby woman - but that was the time. So we've changed some things that might make the audience too uncomfortable and pull them out of the show, but stayed true to the time.

What's your favourite number to perform?

"Doin' What Comes Natur'lly", which I sing with my siblings in the show. The kids are just gorgeous - they're not stage school kids, they're all local kids from Sheffield who've done a bit of drama, and they're phenomenal, so cheeky. There's no filter. One of the lads was in Oliver! a couple of years ago, so he's an old hand - he keeps talking about where we're going, explaining the geography of the stage.

This is a great family show, a lovely one for kids, but there's also love duets, great numbers with gutsy cowboys looking very handsome, gorgeous dresses for the girls, and this great story. It's not just sappy romance - it's really feisty and layered and interesting to watch. Annie's got a heart, but she's a tough cookie. She once said "I ain't afraid to love a man. I ain't afraid to shoot him either."

What's next for you? Any more solo shows?

Yes, I love doing my solo show, and actually our musical director on Annie, Paul Herbert, is also the MD for my shows too, so we're planning to do one here in Sheffield during the last week of the run. It's called A Life in the Day, and it's the story of my life - going from being the child of market traders in Lancashire to doing musicals and singing at the Albert Hall. I talk about my children too, the whole birth process - I don't mind telling everybody all the things I've done. I think my life's quite hilarious.

Any advice for budding performers?

Just enjoy it. There's times when it's gruelling, like with this one, the kids can only rehearse after school, so we've got long days, 15, 16 hours. But you have to remember that musicals, shows, singing, dancing, acting, this is joyous, whether it's your local am-dram or the West End. Getting up at five in the morning to set up your stall as a market trader, that's hard. Our job is fantastic.

Annie Get Your Gun at Sheffield Crucible 9 December-21 January, 2017

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From This Author Marianka Swain