Big Interview: Blackpool’s Singing and Dancing Queen

Niamh Parry backstage at Blackpool's Opera House where she is playing the part of Sophie in the summer smash Mamma Mia!
Niamh Parry backstage at Blackpool's Opera House where she is playing the part of Sophie in the summer smash Mamma Mia!
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So you’re 17, you’ve spent three months on a prime time TV show watched by millions and the man who IS musical theatre in this country is a fan... time to go a little crazy – well, you’ve made it haven’t you?

This was the reality for Niamh Perry... well apart from the bit about going crazy and thinking she’d made it.

Ents feature interviewing the stars of Blackpool's smash summer hit Mamma Mia!, showing at the Opera House.'Niamh Parry, who plays Sophie, photographed in her dressing room.  PIC BY ROB LOCK'20-8-2014

Ents feature interviewing the stars of Blackpool's smash summer hit Mamma Mia!, showing at the Opera House.'Niamh Parry, who plays Sophie, photographed in her dressing room. PIC BY ROB LOCK'20-8-2014

It appears nothing could be further from the truth.

The story of I’d Do Anything – West End impresario Cameron Mackintosh’s slick Saturday night search for an undiscovered Nancy to star in his big budget reworking of Oliver! – is well known in these parts.

After all, in Jodi Prenger – the ‘People’s Nancy’ – Blackpool only went and bagged the winner.

Kevin Spacey – artistic director of London’s Old Vic – was famously not a fan of the show. The Oscar winner felt such a high profile search for a star was detracting from the need to attract real theatre goers. “We’ll lose them all to TV,” he moaned.

Mamma Mia

Mamma Mia

In her 2008 victory march to West End stardom, Jodi left 11 other hopefuls in her wake, and whatever became of them?

Young pretenders grasping at the short straws of celebrity, packaged off to the Big Brother house hot-tub in the search of fame and a deal with OK magazine?

Not a bit of it.

Many are now leading ladies in their own right. And in Niamh Perry you have living, breathing proof that TV talent shows can produce bona fide stage talent.

Programme Name: I'D DO ANYTHING 'Caption: STRICTLY EMBARGO'D UNTIL 0700AM 22ND MARCH 2008 PICTURE SHOWS: Niamh TX BBC ONE 15TH MARCH 2008 � BBC WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' BBC Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be published in print for editorial use during the publicity period (the weeks immediately leading up to and including the transmission week of the relevant programme or event and three review weeks following) for the purpose of publicising the programme, person or service pictured and provided the BBC and the copyright holder in the caption are credited. Any use of this image on the internet and other online communication services will require a separate prior agreement with BBC  'Channel / Network: BBC ONE 'Transmission Week: 12 'Transmission Date: 15/03/2008 'Picture Shows: PICTURE SHOWS: Niamh

Programme Name: I'D DO ANYTHING 'Caption: STRICTLY EMBARGO'D UNTIL 0700AM 22ND MARCH 2008 PICTURE SHOWS: Niamh TX BBC ONE 15TH MARCH 2008 � BBC WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' BBC Digital Picture Service. In particular, this image may only be published in print for editorial use during the publicity period (the weeks immediately leading up to and including the transmission week of the relevant programme or event and three review weeks following) for the purpose of publicising the programme, person or service pictured and provided the BBC and the copyright holder in the caption are credited. Any use of this image on the internet and other online communication services will require a separate prior agreement with BBC 'Channel / Network: BBC ONE 'Transmission Week: 12 'Transmission Date: 15/03/2008 'Picture Shows: PICTURE SHOWS: Niamh

The youngest of the would -be Nancys (she was an A-Level student back home in Belfast when winning her place on the show), she fell in the eighth week.

A crushing blow for young teenage hopes, you would have thought, but she bounced back and in some style to win a coveted role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies (or Phantom of the Opera 2 to those who did not catch it in its all-too-brief West End run).

In the years since I’d Do Anything, Niamh has built a reputation as the ‘go to girl’ in a number of critically acclaimed shows – and not just in London.

Five years on from first belting out the tunes of Abba on the West End stage she is back reprising her role as Sophie Sheridan in the international touring production of Mamma Mia! which has got all of Blackpool talking (and dancing) during its 12-week stint at the Opera House.

And Niamh’s loving every minute. “It’s been brilliant to be here,” she said, “the Blackpool audiences have been amazing – they get up and dance every night without fail.”

She has returned to the role of Sophie, because “it’s the show I’ve loved forever. It’s so very close to my heart and I’ve never really let go of it. When I had the chance to come back I jumped at it.

“Sophie is a really amazing part to play for a young actress and to be involved in a show that is this successful and so fun you cannot help but be in a good mood when you finish work every day.”

There is no denying the feelgood factor.

But while Mamma Mia! is the ultimate ‘jukebox musical’ – a Greek island romp set to the best spandex-era pop and break-up ballads to ever emanate from the Anderson-Ulvaeus groovebox – Niamh talks passionately about how the show – and its leading character Donna (played by Sara Poyzer) – resonates in many ways.

“I’m quite a strong person and the show is one about strong women,” she explains.

“Take Winner Takes It All. It is a wonderful part of the show, delivered incredibly by Sara, where Donna takes control of the situation and finally gets the chance to say what she has to say.”

In a business which is so famously ruthless, to say the least, strength of character is something most performers need.

And considering she is a young actress, particularly one whose stage beginnings were so public, finding someone so clearly grounded as Niamh is heartening.

Yes, she has lit up the West End, but over the last few years she has left the comfort of her adopted home in London many times to head out into regional theatres, winning rave reviews for much grittier, edgier roles in Sweeney Todd and The Beautiful Game.

It is this dogged determination to push herself as an artiste – expand her skills as a performer – which flies in the face of the hackneyed view that TV-discovered stars can be pigeon-holed as one-trick ponies 
who want fame without putting in the hard yards.

Spending just a short time in her company it is easy to see this 24-year-old is not only driven by her craft, but steadfast enough to know that when it comes to chasing your dreams, they’re frighteningly hard work to make a reality.

After I’d Do Anything, Lloyd Webber – although clearly a fan – did not have Niamh on speed dial. Like every other actress, her roles were won through tough auditions and a burgeoning reputation.

It’s not been easy to shake off the tag of the Nancy programme, not that Niamh has actually tried to do that.

Asked now if she “could still be Nancy”, as she was every weekend for eight nerve-shredding weeks as the public vote was revealed, she laughs loudly before adding: “You know what, I wouldn’t change how things have worked out for the world.

“That show was a great stepping stone and great exposure for a young person.

“I’m a very different person now than I was before. I know nothing will be scarier than that (singing in front of millions on live TV as a teenager).

“I look back and think the way things work out in life is for the best. If I had won that show, which I was never expecting to do, I would never have got to play Sophie in Mamma Mia! the first time in 2009.”

I’d Do Anything has meant she has perhaps had to try harder than most to win some people over, and not by relying on a TV showreel but with her talent to “earn her place”.

She wouldn’t be the first performer to come up against a degree of drama school snobbery having gone from A-Levels to TV back to A-Levels and then straight to the stage?

“It’s starting to happen less and less because I feel I have proved myself,” she says.

“There is a stigma attached to getting into the industry in an alternative way, but it’s how you deal with it. I choose not to get involved with such unnecessary chaos!

“I try and push myself in different directions and the further I get away from the TV show it is mentioned less. It still pops up and, when it does, that’s lovely.

“It is nice to be remembered by that (show), but I think I’m known in the industry as a young person trying to do what everyone else is doing rather than someone who did a TV show,

“Maybe I’ve earned my place a bit more.”

Keeping it real while in Blackpool, Niamh is staying in a town centre B&B where she has “become part of the family”, performing eight shows a week and is basically loving every minute on the Mamma Mia! tour.

She admits to loving life here, chilling out with fellow cast members – who include fellow I’d Do Anything veteran Ashley Russell and Blackpool’s own Ashley Luke-Lloyd – and says locals “treat us like royalty when they find out we’re in Mamma Mia!”

But there are no delusions of grandeur. While now based in London, Niamh is clearly proud of her heritage. She talks passionately about how the city of Belfast has played a major part of who she is and in her outlook on life – both on and off stage.

Her love of her hometown –“my favourite place in the world” – is obvious. Her father grew up on the Falls Road in the centre of the Troubles in the late 60s and 70s.

Her role in Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game – set in the city and precisely at that time, playing a wife and mother – fills her with pride. “It is one of the most rewarding parts I will ever play,” 
she enthused.

Niamh now feels it may be the right time to try the show on a Belfast audience.

And it’s not only Belfast or London where she would like to hit the stage. It would seem anything is in scope, as long as it fits in with her desire to challenge herself as an actress.

“I would absolutely come back to Blackpool if the right role came about,” she added.

“The West End is prolific and a brilliant place to work, but it is a very small part of theatre in the UK.

“I wouldn’t think twice about doing something else. In fact, these scenarios are where you meet new people and have new experiences in life and that’s what is exciting – especially for someone of my age.”

She still holds the dream of one day playing Christine in Phantom “a huge goal of mine”, but also wants to work with new musicals and new writers.

On the writing front her musical alter ego Neeve Perry (she what she did there?) is a burning passion away from the stage.

Writing her own songs and performing with her own band (find her songs at www.soundcloud.com/neevemusic) is more than a useful distraction which keeps her busy. There is talk of an album.

Wherever her career takes her next, one thing is for sure – her theatrical life may have started in front of 10 million people on a Saturday night, but whether it’s the West End, Leeds, Manchester or Blackpool, Niamh is developing a career built on solid foundations.

So solid you could see Mr Spacey getting on the phone sometime soon.

After six years hard slog in the business, and to borrow a line from a certain street urchin-based stage show she once hoped to star in, she can now consider herself to be “one of the family”.

Ask around, people seem to think she’s earned her place.

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In Wednesday’s Gazette – we we meet the husband and wife team at the centre of the Mamma Mia! drama

The International Tour of Mamma Mia! is playing at the Winter Gardens Opera House until September 14

That means from today there are just 24 shows left – eight shows per week

Tickets are priced from £20 and are available from Blackpool Opera House and VisitBlackpool Tourist Information Centre or by calling Ticketmaster on 0844 847 2517 or VisitBlackpool on (01253) 478222