Brief Encounter With ... Melanie La Barrie
Date: 5 June 2009
Back in 1994, Birmingham Repertory Theatre staged the European premiere of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, bagging the Olivier for Best New Musical in the process. Fifteen years later, the REP is reviving this jubilant Caribbean musical, with original cast member and Holby City actress Sharon D. Clarke reprising her role as Asaka, Mother Earth. She is joined by Melanie La Barrie, the doyenne of British musical theatre following her showstopping appearances as Mrs. Corry in Mary Poppins, Pearl in Daddy Cool and, more recently, as Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables.
How would you describe Mama Euralie, the character you’re playing in Once On This Island?
Mama is the quintessential mother. She is the epitome of everything motherhood stands for – gentle yet firm, caring and a little bit strict. She reminds me of every mother I’ve met in Trinidad, which is quite a matriarchal society. She runs the household, but her love of her family is boundless.
Is it true that the show is loosely based on The Little Mermaid? And is there a bit of Romeo and Juliet in there as well?
I suppose it is fair to say that the themes found in all of the stories are similar. Two people from two different sides of the island, never meant to meet or interact in any meaningful way – Romeo and Juliet. The efforts of Ti Moune as she crosses the island to be with her love draw elements from The Little Mermaid story. The musical is based on the novel ‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy, a Trinidadian writer raised in the US. To me it is a timeless and universal story of the power of love conquering all else.
The show draws upon elements of Caribbean folk culture and religious cultures which will probably be unfamiliar to most audience members, and which were possibly unfamiliar to most of the company. Have you had to do research into those aspects of the show, and if so, what have you found most useful to draw upon for your performance?
Growing up on Trinidad I was exposed to all of these elements, lived with them, involved myself in them - it is the Caribbean way. In the same way these factors weren’t unfamiliar to most of the cast either. We had a wealth of information and experience, both from our own knowledge and as provided by our amazing director, Susie McKenna and our wonderful choreographer, Deidre Lovell, to draw upon. I rely heavily on my own Caribbean-ness to fuel my performance. And the beautiful thing about theatre is that we can introduce the unfamiliar to a wider audience. And though aspects of culture and religion may be removed from the audiences’ experience, the characters themselves would be people to recognise.
The last time Once On This Island appeared at the REP, it transferred down to London and won the Olivier for Best New Musical. Does the success the show enjoyed first time round create any kind of pressure for the company performing it now?
I haven’t really thought about it. This is our project, our show, which we will infuse with our own enthusiasm and energy. The heart and focus that each of the performers puts into the show is phenomenal. And we enjoy the unique privilege of having two original cast members in the show Sharon D. Clarke – who is my hero – and Lorna Brown. They bring such insight to our process, while embracing this new incarnation with a wholeness and openness that is extraordinary.
You’ve already appeared in Ragtime, another of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musicals. Their work isn’t particularly well known in this country, compared to other writing partnerships: how would you describe their style to anyone who’s not familiar with them?
Precise. Every note is where it should be, every rhythm written with a specific intent in mind. And it should be learnt and performed as such. And it isn’t that their musical is a straitjacket, it is just that their music serves emotionally so well, that you’ve no choice as a singer and an actor but to honour what is written on the page. As writers, they write big themselves, large ideas condensed to their purest most human forms. You feel lifted as you perform and listen to their work. It is a most moving experience.
Over the last few years, you’ve done some quite long stints in the West End, with Mary Poppins, Daddy Cool and Les Miserables. Is it good to be touring again?
I would follow this project wherever it went. I love performing outside London; our regional theatres are wonderfully inspiring places to work. And I’ve never had a chance to perform at The REP, The Nottingham Playhouse or even The Hackney Empire, so that’s all terribly exciting. As an actor, you go wherever the fantastic work takes you, and I’m thrilled it’s taken me to these superb theatres.
Once On This Island runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre to Jun 20 (previews from Jun 5; press night Jun 9), then tours to Nottingham Playhouse (Jun 24 to Jul 11) and Hackney Empire (Jul 24 to Aug 16).
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