BWW Interview: Carley Stenson On Playing Fantine In LES MISERABLES
Carley Stenson's work includes Hollyoaks, Shrek: The Musical, Legally Blonde, Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She's currently starring as Fantine in Les Miserables at the Queen's Theatre in the West End.
What was the first musical you saw?
When did you realise you wanted to perform?
I went to ballet from age three, then modern, tap, gymnastics - I was one of those quite irritating kids, constantly dancing around in front of people saying "Watch me, watch me!". I was always going to be doing this professionally - there was nothing else I ever wanted to do.
I got into Mountview, but then I got Hollyoaks and thought I'd go back to studying when that runs out - ten years later...!
Was that a welcoming first experience?
The cast was like a second family. I felt very comfortable and definitely learned so much. I kept up the music side as well - I had a girl group, Diamond, so I always had that outlet - but started to wonder if I was getting too old to play the musical roles I'd always wanted to play.
Was it an easy transition from TV soap to stage?
I'd like to say everyone was welcoming, but definitely one or two made some comments. You have to rise to those challenges, do the best you can and not care about the chat. You get pigeon-holed, but we've all come into this industry because we've got a passion for all the arts.
My heart was always in musical theatre - Hollyoaks was more of a detour! No one knows everyone's history. But as long as I'm happy in my creative team and my family's happy, and I'm giving it 110% every single night, I'm fine. You're never going to please everybody.
I've had to fight for those roles, really show people my best side at every opportunity, and practise and practise. I've been very lucky to get all these parts, the brilliant comedy and now getting my teeth into Les Mis, but it's hard work as well as luck.
When did you first encounter Les Mis?
I know I watched it when I was younger, and I'm always listening to the music. I saw it again on tour when it came to Manchester a few years ago, and of course the film as well. It's a classic. It's the big one!
Fantine is a challenging, condensed role. How do you handle that?
Yes, it's about half an hour of really intense scenes, this incredible fighter and everything that's thrown at her. I did a lot of preparation, like writing a letter from Fantine to Cosette, and my fiancé [Danny Mac] got me a photo of Fantine holding her as if the dream came true. I listen to the song before I go on - I'm the only one in my dressing room then, so I have that moment.
I read the book as well, plus I watched other films from that genre and documentaries about the era. My Netflix is really weird now! But I didn't want to be a carbon copy of someone else's Fantine - I wanted to completely find my own version of her, organically, through the text and the score and my interpretation.
How do you relate to her struggle?
I do have nieces and nephews, so I understand that love for her daughter - I really imagine them. Everyone has times when you want more support or you're facing those hurdles in life. I exaggerate mine to get into her world.
You have to focus on those dark characters who've crossed your path, or I think about being let down by society - with everything going on in the world right now, that's still very apparent sadly.
How do you pace yourself through a long run?
I've definitely got to stay on top of my game vocally and keep healthy and fit. It's starting to get into my muscle memory now, so it's a bit easier, and hopefully it'll keep getting better and better.
How daunting is it performing "I Dreamed A Dream"?
Everyone's got an idea of the song, and it's so iconic, so there's pressure. But actually because it's so beloved, all the feedback has been incredibly supportive. Les Mis fans are the best - they just love and appreciate the show, whoever's on there, and they're so passionate. It makes you want to give it all you've got, every single time.
What's it like joining a long-running show?
There's so many of us who are new, about 20-odd, which is lovely as it feels like a whole new production. There's so much freedom from our director, Sam Hiller. We really feel trusted and supported to do anything we want, within reason - like there's no marks on the floor we have to stick to.
I hadn't worked with Killian before, but I'd heard lots about him! He's just ridiculously talented, and wonderful to be around.
What's the scariest part?
The revolve is a bit scary - but we literally got thrown onto it. It's been going for over 30 years and no one's ever fallen off! And there's so many other things to get on with.
And the best part?
Every show, I have a moment in it where it's hard to believe this is actually happening.
How long do you think you'll stay?
I'm contracted for a year.
Any future dream roles?
I'd love to do another play or TV. I might need a comedy after this!
How about following Danny onto Strictly?
One day maybe - for the dresses...
What advice would you give to budding performers?
Always sing something you love in an audition. Take constructive criticism well, keep learning, and the main thing is enjoy it.
Finally, why do you think audiences still love Les Mis?
It's powerful, it's overwhelming, the music just grabs you, you see people go through these challenges and never give up. The story has all these twists and turns, depth of characters - it's immense, and the show wouldn't be the same without Victor Hugo's work. It's awe-inspiring.
Photo credit: Johan Persson