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BWW Interview: Lauren Samuels On Sisterhood, Sexual Liberation and VANITIES

Lizzy Connolly, Ashleigh Gray and
Lauren Samuels in rehearsal for Vanities

Lauren Samuels became a household name thanks to BBC reality show Over the Rainbow, and has since had starring roles in Bend It Like Beckham, Grease and We Will Rock You in the West End and The Last Five Years at Tabard Theatre. Now, she's joining Ashleigh Gray and Lizzy Connolly in the European debut of American show Vanities: The Musical at Trafalgar Studios. It follows the travails of three friends as they go from from cheerleading and sororities to jobs, families and hard-won wisdom.

What was your earliest theatre experience?

The first show my mum took me to see was Phantom of the Opera in the West End. I absolutely loved it, and immediately said "I want to sing, I want to act", so she put me into lessons.

I wound up doing lots of LAMDA examinations and a musical theatre diploma. My family was always hugely supportive, though it wasn't easy paying for private lessons and everything. I owe them big time!

Are you always on the lookout for new work like Vanities?

New pieces do grab my attention - I've done a few in a row, and it's nice to create something no one's done before, rather than having the weight of trying to be as good as someone else.

What's it like being part of an all-female cast?

Vanities is really tight-knit - just the three of us girls - and it's so empowering to work so closely together. In musicals there's usually a male lead and a love story, so feels really great to just be following three women and their lives. There's a real sense of sisterhood.

Lauren Samuels in rehearsal for Vanities

Tell us about your character

Mary is the most kind of out there - right from the Sixties she's really uninhibited and she shocks the other two characters all the time. The story goes up to the Nineties, when she owns an erotic gallery, so she's always pushing the boundaries of what's considered appropriate, especially for women.

Do some of the themes resonate with you?

Although it's period, everything about it speaks to women's lives now. You all start in high school with three best friends thinking you're going to do one thing, then you grow apart as marriage, having kids, different career paths affect your lives. Someone might just want to be a housewife, some might not want to have children. Women are still really questioned if they choose not to have kids, but this piece shows the key thing is respecting individual choice.

These women start the show thinking there's nothing more important than being pretty and popular, but they come to realise there's so much more than that in life. They don't have to define or limit themselves by whether someone finds them attractive or approves of them.

That must be really refreshing to play

Definitely, I get to explore so much in this piece that's unusual for female roles. My character tries being with men, with women. She goes down all these different avenues - she's sexual liberation incarnate.

Though actually it reminds me a bit of my Bend It Like Beckham character, in that they're both powerful and pursue what they're passionate about, plus those strong female friendships that matter more than anything.

How are you getting on with the accent?

It's a challenge doing the Texan - getting that Southern drawl! I've got an accent app, so you can record yourself saying lines and they repeat it back to you in the accent. I've been listening to that everywhere I go.

Lauren Samuels in rehearsal for Vanities

And how about the cheerleading?

God yes, we have to do a cheerleading routine in the first scene - and we have to look really good doing it! So that's another new challenge, as I've never done any before. We got someone coming in to teach us specially.

What's it like performing in a smaller venue?

I love the West End, but in smaller venues you have such an intimate connection with the audience. Some pieces work so well you feel you're stepping into someone's life. It's more nerve-wracking actually, because you're on the same level, acting right into people's faces!

I'd always wanted to work at Trafalgar - it's such a wonderful venue. This piece definitely lends itself to a small theatre, as you get that through the keyhole glimpse into the women's world. A lot of story is made up of private conversations they wouldn't want anyone to hear, so you feel like a fly on the wall.

What is David Kirshenbaum's score like?

It's very contemporary musical theatre - new, fresh and kind of poppy. But what's really great is the three of us sing together in close harmony throughout - that's so rare. It's also really clever narratively. It starts out more twangy and girly, then as they grow up you see the music change in style and grow up with them.

Had you worked with the other two actresses before?

No, I haven't. I'd met Ashley before, and seen Lizzy in Mrs Henderson Presents - so I saw a lot of Lizzy...! We all got on really well right from day dot, and it helps that the characters we're playing are quite similar to who we really are.

What's tough is there's only three of us and no one leaves the stage for longer than 30 seconds for a quick costume change. It's a full-length musical with numbers right the way through. Normally that would be a cast of 30 and you'd get 15-minute breaks, so it'll be a big stamina test.

Would you like to do more new work in future?

For me, creatively, it feels great to step in and throw ideas around the rehearsal room with the writer, director, other actors. It's fantastic doing musicals that have stood the test of time as well, but you don't get the same opportunity to contribute.

Lauren Samuels and cast
in Bend it Like Beckham

It hasn't been the easiest time for new musicals, with some early closures

Yes, it's hard to get new musicals off the ground. But even though we were disappointed about Bend It finishing, a year in the West End is still a successful run. I was surprised to see Mrs Henderson and Show Boat closing too, such fantastic shows, but you never know what the public will like. You just have to take the gamble and hope people come along with you.

Whose careers do you hope to emulate?

I really admire actors who do all manner of things. I've done majority musicals, but I'd love to branch out into straight plays, TV, everything, even Shakespeare.

Is it hard to get seen for things when you're defined as 'musical theatre'?

I do struggle to get in the room for straight plays, but I hope things are changing. The bias against musical theatre is less apparent than maybe it was in the past.

Any dream projects?

I want to work in every venue in London. I'd love to go over to Broadway, of course. You're always advancing your dreams - once you've got West End under your belt, you think "What's next?". I've love to do another piece by Howard Goodall - I adore his music.

Finally, any advice for budding actresses?

Training. I trained in musical theatre at Guildford School of Acting, and that's a major part of getting me where I am. I loved doing it, and it's proved absolutely invaluable.

Vanities: The Musical is at Trafalgar Studios 1 September-1 October

Picture credit: Harry Elletson, Ellie Kurttz

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