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Brief Encounter With ... Valda Aviks

Valda Aviks was born in a camp for displaced persons in Germany and emigrated with her Latvian parents to the USA, where she grew up and began her theatre career. She moved back to the UK, where she has become a veteran of the West End stage, having appeared in many major roles including Carlotta in Phantom of the Opera, Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast and the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins. She created the roles of Zandra and the Virgin Mary in Jerry Springer the Opera. This summer she appeared in the Grandmother in the Open Air Theatre’s production of Into the Hoods.

Here, Valda Aviks speaks to Eleanor McGrath about her forthcoming appearance in On the Twentieth Century which opens at the Union Theatre on 16 December (previews from 14 December) and plays until 15 January 2011.

Can you tell me a bit about the show?

On the Twentieth Century is a musical written by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Comden and Green. It was first on Broadway in the 1970’s and it is very very funny. It’s a tale of producer Oscar Jaffee’s escape from his debtors and search for his new Broadway hit. He has just 16 hours on the 20th Century Limited train to New York to convince Hollywood star Lily Garland to appear in his next show. It’s almost a cross between an operetta and a farce. It’s got larger than life characters and it is just fun, really fun.

Who are you playing and can you tell us a bit about your character?

I play Letitia Peabody Primrose who appears to be a very wealthy, upstanding, religious lady. But as the plot thickens, she is exposed as being rather more than that! I don’t know, should I give it away? OK, she’s a nut, a real madwoman! And on her money rides a lot of the future fortunes of producer Oscar Jaffee and his star Lily Garland, and all the people who work with them – but I am afraid they are heading for a huge disappointment with Letitia! She is not all that she seems, I’m afraid, but she is a very funny character to play; she really is very good-natured, just a little mad!

You’ve got an incredible list of credits behind you, what are some of highlights of your career?

People always ask me this! I’ve enjoyed lots of shows I have done for different reasons. I don’t know if there is a show I haven’t liked doing. It’s always the one I am doing at the time that’s my favourite. I loved doing Jerry Springer the Opera because that was a wonderful sing, a big laugh and also made people think. It caused a lot of ruction in the country but I think that is something that theatre should do. I also loved playing the Bird Woman in Mary Poppins, it was a very sweet part, although I wasn’t so keen on doing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"! Now that I am getting on a bit, I am really looking for the odd cameo, where you just get up, sing a song and spend the rest of the show doing needle point in the dressing room! But with On the Twentieth Century, there is never a moment where we don’t do something because the whole cast is running around doing everything!

You said this is one of your dream roles, why is that and what is it about that appeals to you?

A lot of the time, when you do a character part, you find yourself being just background and if you have to sing it tends to be as parts of an ensemble; but Letitia has a song of her own, "Repent", which is a wonderfully funny song. I have actually been doing this for years as an audition piece. It’s also chance to play with people too. This show gives me more scope for acting and for interacting with the rest of the company – it is just a hoot, to use the technical term!

What is special about the rehearsal process here and how is it different from other projects you have worked on?

The cast is a great deal smaller than the original cast would have been – they would have had their principal characters plus they would have had a large ensemble, plus dancers and singers doing choral numbers. Well, there are only 11 of us in the cast for this production, and that means that we are all involved in doing ensemble work! We create trains and make noises and become heavenly voices off stage, so the rehearsal process is also involving us in creating these moments, visually. It gives us a lot more input into not only the characterisation but also the numbers themselves through Drew McOnie’s choreography. We have workshopped movement sequences using suitcases to make various things, like the train and its compartments.

What are you most looking forward to about the production starting?

Just seeing the audience’s reaction. One thing I am looking forward to is by the time the show opens I should know what I am doing! If I don’t know what I am doing by the time we open... I’m in trouble!

How do you feel about the current state of musical theatre?

It’s difficult. I have been doing some teaching at Thames Valley University, in association with the London College of Music, where they have a musical theatre performance programme. This is something we have talked about and something that I think about a lot. For many of the young people I teach, musicals only started about the time of Rent - they don’t know anything before that. A lot of the newer musicals are rock-based, a lot of them are with very young people and a lot of them are concerts rather than shows – and as you get older, as I am an older lady, there are fewer and fewer parts for us.

I love doing the work but it seems to be harder and harder to get the work. Sometimes I think, if I am really depressed, that musicals are dying and there aren’t going to be any more because all the people want is either rock concerts or people off the soaps. But then there are new things happening all the time, and there are some new shows coming up in 2011, like Rebecca, that could be really exciting.

Why do you think audiences should come and see the show?

It’s a lot of fun, it’s beautifully directed and there are some amazing and very funny performances in it. As a piece of musical theatre, it’s got great music, funny lyrics and beautiful voices and is a real piece of ensemble theatre - what’s not to like?

On the Twentieth Century opens at the Union Theatre on 16 December (previews from 14 December) where it runs until 15 January 2011.


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