THE STRALLEN FILE
The daughter of dancers Cherida Langford and Sandy Strallen, niece of Bonnie Langford and sister of Mary Poppins star Scarlett Strallen, 23-year-old Summer Strallen has been performing professionally since she joined the company of Cats at 16. She’s a two-time Olivier and Whatsonstage.com Award nominee, for The Boy Friend and The Drowsy Chaperone, and has also appeared in the West End in Guys and Dolls, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Scrooge.
Last summer, Strallen was chosen to succeed How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? winner Connie Fisher in The Sound of Music, but the news was kept secret while she was planted in Hollyoaks as a wannabe who stalks Andrew Lloyd Webber to fulfil her own West End dream … of nabbing the role of Maria.
How did this all come about?
Back in July while I was still doing The Drowsy Chaperone, I went to an audition for what I thought was the alternate in The Sound of Music. It was odd that Andrew Lloyd Webber was actually there, but I didn’t think much of it. Later my agent phoned and invited me for a drink at the Ivy. He told me, they want you to go to Liverpool to do a role in Hollyoaks and then somehow end up playing Maria – I don’t think even he knew how it was going to work out. And then he said, oh yes and you’ll be taking over from Connie Fisher. I was like, uhhh, right, a little too much information. I went up to Liverpool and started filming Hollyoaks on 4 September and then was on screen on 1 October.
Your Hollyoaks character is an aspiring West End actress named Summer Shaw. Did you ever get confused who the real Summer was?
The character is named after me, which was definitely a marketing thing to get people familiar with me and who I am. But it didn’t cause an identity crisis personally because Summer Shaw in Hollyoaks is crazy! No self-respecting actor would go and stalk Andrew Lloyd Webber. I mean, good on the people who maybe do do that, they have a lot of gall, but I never would. Andrew has probably let himself in for some real stalking. People will think, well Summer Shaw did it, I bet I can too.
What was the most difficult part of the Hollyoaks ruse?
I couldn’t tell anybody. The only people who knew were my partner and my best friend. In Hollyoaks, no one really knew that I was already a West End performer – they’re up in Liverpool doing that on a crazy schedule and they can’t get to the theatre. Having to fib to people, especially my mum and my sisters and everything, that was hard.
And the most surreal moment?
When we were filming the scene at the Really Useful Group offices in Tower Street, we were in the famous conservatory where people do auditions. There’s a grand piano in there and, as we were all getting ready with hair and make-up, Andrew started playing. Obviously that’s what he loves to do and he had a spare moment so he thought, I’ll have a little tinkle. And I thought, oh my god, Andrew Lloyd Webber is playing the piano! It wasn’t a tune I recognised, he said it was something he was writing. Maybe for the Phantom sequel? It was an honour to be sat there for that.
How would you rate Lloyd Webber’s acting debut?
Well, he wasn’t really acting! He wanted to improvise. He felt that, as he was playing himself, he should just say what he would say in that situation. That was a challenge for me and Darren Jon-Jeffries, who plays OB, my boyfriend on Hollyoaks. We’d been sticking to the script and had already done all the reverse shots. When Andrew actually arrived, all of that went out the window because he didn’t say one bit of the script. We covered what had to happen story-wise, but the dialogue was completely different from what we had read. I thought he did great, though.
Would you ever take part in a TV casting competition like your Maria predecessor, Connie Fisher?
No, I couldn’t put myself through it, I haven’t got a strong enough backbone. I commend those who do for being able to take criticism like that in front of millions of people. Do I think it’s right to cast lead roles in the West End like that? Maybe not. But in the cases of Connie Fisher and Lee Mead, I think the public chose the right people – they both trained and they’ve done great jobs. But it’s a big risk.
Before this, what was your professional highlight?
Definitely Guys and Dolls was a big one, working with Ewan McGregor, Jane Krakowski, Douglas Hodge and Jenna Russell. All four of them were such inspirations. Jane had that American, Broadway wonderfulness that emanates off a person, and Ewan just shone when he walked into a room. Working with him in the Havana dance section was wonderful. We had such a good time creating that.
Why did you want to play Maria in the first place?
It’s just a job that came up. I was doing Drowsy and we got our notices, and that’s what you do in musical theatre - when you don’t have a job, you go for another one. As far as my family is concerned, doing plays, film, television, it’s all a job. Yes, it’s wonderful and we enjoy it, but it’s still a job and, in order to stay alive, you need a job. Obviously, Maria is a fantastic role and it’s a joy to play. She’s completely selfless, the script is beautifully written and the songs are amazing.
Performing seems to be in your family genes. Was your choice of career inevitable?
I think my parents saw a talent in us and they nurtured it. I was a bit rebellious when I was a kid, I wanted to be a vet and then an athlete. My parents said, why don’t you just have a go at performing and see if you like it. Scarlett’s a few years older than me and was already doing it and having a great time. So I had a go and ended up being quite good. At 16, I got my first role in Cats. I enjoy making people happy. That’s the main thing really about doing musical theatre – the audience are clapping because they’re happy. It’s also the least selfish way of looking at it. Obviously you get a great buzz from people thinking what you’ve done is good, but the main thing is they’re enjoying themselves – and you’ve helped them escape from reality for two-and-a-half hours.
Summer Strallen opens as Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music at the London Palladium on 3 March 2008 (previews from 26 February). A version of this interview appears in the March issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!