Scarlett Strallen: 'A Chorus Line almost wrecked my body'

Ahead of opening in ”She Loves Me” at the Menier Chocolate Factory, we catch up with the actress to find out what she’s been up to for the last few years

As part of one of the most successful musical theatre dynasties in recent times, Scarlett Strallen is a name you've likely heard a few times. She's the eldest of four sisters, who also include actors Summer, Zizi and Sasi. Her credits range from the big budget West End productions of Mary Poppins and A Chorus Line, to the smaller scale yet critically acclaimed Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory, with two Olivier Award nominations along the way – for HMS Pinafore and Singin' in the Rain.

After a spell in New York, she now returns to the Menier to star in the revival of Masteroff, Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me. Based on the play by Miklos Laszlo, the musical premiered on Broadway in 1963, and formed the basis of the films The Shop around the Corner and You've Got Mail. It features songs such as "Ice Cream" and "A Trip to the Library".

It's been a while since we last saw you onstage in the UK, where have you been?
I've not been back here for three years, and it feels like yesterday, it's so strange. I'm based in New York now. I went over to do Macbeth in 2014 and while I was there I saw A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder which was an absolutely brilliant show, so I auditioned and took over from my old friend Lisa O'Hare [who replaced Strallen in Mary Poppins] and I was on that show for a year. From there I've stayed and done a few things in New York and Boston, I've just done Pirates there this summer.

What was it about She Loves Me that convinced you to come back?
The call for She Loves Me came through at the end of the summer and I absolutely couldn't resist. It was all about timing, I was actually due to do a different job over Christmas and when the Chocolate Factory called, I had to excuse myself from it because I couldn't not do this, I knew that it had just happened in America and if it was happening here then it wouldn't happen again.

I've always loved this show. I saw the recent production in New York with my very good friend Gavin [Book of Mormon star Creel], it's so intimate and can be quite dark at times. The characters are very lonely to begin with and then they find this love all around Christmas, it's so romantic and so heartwarming.

How have rehearsals been?
The two runs that we've done, people have been very moved, which is always a good sign. The score is such a joy to sing, it's incredibly hard but I love a challenge – it's very like Candide for that.

Of course Candide was also at the Menier, what is it about the venue that keeps actors coming back?
I love the Menier, as an actor there, especially in musicals, you don't have anywhere to hide, it's so intimate – even more so than the Donmar. Everyone's so in your face that you have no choice but to be incredibly authentic and really feel the material – thankfully they always pick great shows, so you know you're going to have a challenge. You also know that they're going to cast shows so brilliantly, I've worked with Katherine [Kingsley] and she's married to Dom [Tighe], I know Mark [Umbers], so it's a real family feel – and the restaurant's incredible!

Are you at that stage in your career where you can just pick what you want to do?
Oh my goodness, I wish, I'm just like the next actor, I have no clue what the future holds. But with that comes incredible excitement, if you can hold your nerve.

What is it that you look for in a role then?
I really love a challenge, I started primarily as a dancer and then went to drama school, so I discovered my voice quite late. So, luckily, I have so many different passions that I don't like to put any limit on myself. Having said that, I think A Chorus Line almost wrecked my body! So I'm very happy to be doing book work, lovely scenes and incredibly hard singing.

Scarlett Strallen and Katherine Kingsley
Scarlett Strallen and Katherine Kingsley in rehearsals for She Loves Me
© Alastair Muir

Your parents were both performers, did you ever feel pressured to follow in their footsteps?
No, not in the slightest. I'd go with my dad to the theatre, wherever he was, whenever he was in a show, I'd go most weekends and some evenings – I loved being there. The first thing that happened was Aspects of Love [at the Prince of Wales in 1992] and there was a young girl part in it, so I asked my dad if I could audition. I was very ill at the time, so I clearly had a determination even way back when. I grew up seeing how hard the industry is with my parents, it wasn't all completely rosy, I saw them very tired and stressed a lot of the time, but I just wanted to be a part of that magical world.

Do you think your sisters felt a pressure to follow in your footsteps?
I don't know, I hope not. We're very supportive of each other and we're also very different, if you've met us all, we're such different characters, so I think it's easy for the different passions to come out. Sasi, the youngest, she went to RADA and she's now at the Globe, she's really pursuing the straight acting career – which of course we all want to do – but she's really doing that. Zi's in Mary Poppins but she's also an incredible comedic writer and she's going to LA to pursue that.

How did you feel handing over the role of Mary Poppins to Zizi?
Who better to pass the baton on to? I'd played the part in so many places for such a long time, there was very little else I felt I could have achieved with it. Going to see it [with Zizi in the role] was one of the most moving experiences I've had because I felt like I did the whole show with her. It's been five years since I did it but I remembered every step.

Did you give her any tips?
I didn't give her any tips because with any part you have to discover it for yourself. Even with the part I'm playing now, I love Barbara Cook, she's a complete idol of mine, but I had to do away with the recordings that I've listened to so often and just try and find it for myself, otherwise you hear someone else's voice.

Would you let your future children go into the profession?
It would be incredibly hypocritical of me to say 'no you mustn't' because I begged my dad when I was eight years old. So if my children are desperate to do it, I don't think I could possibly be the one to say no. I would definitely encourage them to have a very good education though, like I did. I think you can have it all.

With your sisters, your auntie Bonnie Langford and your godfather Christopher Biggins, Christmas must be a fabulous time at the Strallen's…?
People always ask me what a Strallen Christmas is like, but usually we're working and we're all absolutely exhausted and we can't even speak, we're just dribbling over our food to be honest.

You mentioned Zizi has her comic writing, are there any strings to your bow we don't know about?
I have lots of passions, I'm certainly a huge traveller, and having lived in New York I'm now deciding where else in the world I can live, what other city I can go and explore, and just try and be a citizen of the world. Also, I actually fantasised about going back to university to study English, I'm really feeling that with this part because she's so obsessed with literature. I'd like to do this for as long as possible though – until the business gets tired of me.

Why should people come and see She Loves Me?
I think it's the most delicious Christmas present you could experience. It's so romantic and it's got gorgeous characters. It's a comedy as well as being deeply moving, it will just take you away from the world and all it's troubles for a couple of hours and make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, hopefully.

What's next for you after She Loves Me?
I'm going to go back to New York to do a very short production of Cole Porter's called The New Yorkers, it's semi-staged with a script in hand, beyond that I've not a clue.

She Loves Me will open at the Menier Chocolate Factory on 7 December, with previews beginning on 25 November.