Claire More

Claire More

by Phil Willmott

I spoke to the new Mary Poppins, Scarlett Stallen, the morning after her official first night in the role.

Q: Well done for last night's show. Was that your press night?

A: I'm not sure how many critics were in, it's what they call a media night. People from TV and radio, feature writers.

Q: Did you have a few extra nerves?

A: Yes, but do you know I really like pressure, I'm a bit perverse like that, I love anything that gives me that extra little bit of focus. And everyone around me was doing their absolute best too. It was very exciting.

Q: Do the performances vary very much for you?

A: Well we get different audiences at different points in the week, For instance on Sunday (Chitty) we seem to get a lot of tourists so things will start slowly, we won't get many laughs, and then suddenly they'll go crazy over a magic trick or something.

Q: It's a family show, lots of kids out front, does that make for a noisy audience?

A: I haven't noticed that. They seem to be mesmerised somehow. When I fly off at the end of the show I look down and see all these gawping faces. The magic of the piece really seems to hold people.

Q: I think that's true. Certainly the audience who were sat around me last night were very still and it was a wide range of ages. Can you take us through the process of auditioning? When did you know you were in with a chance?

A: I was appearing at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park last summer and the "Mary Poppins" Casting Director, Trevor Jackson, came to see me. I was very pleased, and I hoped he thought I'd come on a lot since I first worked for Cameron Macintosh in "Witches of Eastwick". I also hoped he'd want to see me for Mary but you can never tell. I've learnt not to ever get my hopes up. Anyway I was asked to come in and audition.

Q: What form did that take?

A: Well, they send you some songs to learn and then you go in and perform them. It's not too pressurised at that stage. It's just in front of the resident team - the Resident Director, Musical Director and the Casting Director.

Q: These are people employed to keep the show running as the original directors intended, now that they've moved on to other projects.

A: That's right, so first of all you meet them which isn't too bad but my final audition was very different - on the stage in front of about 40-50 people including the original directors, choreographers, Cameron Macintosh and the writers. I got there early to get used to singing on the stage and at this point you get to meet who you're up against. There were two other Mary hopefuls, three Mrs. Banks', three Cooks and three Robertson Ays. Then we were all taken off to wait in various rooms. It was a three hour wait in this tiny air conditioned room. But that was enough to get rid of all my nerves. By the time they were ready to see me I was really ready for the challenge. But singing on a bare stage to just a few dozen men is still scary.

Q: What is it about audition panels - they're almost always entirely men. I suppose there must have been more women involved in the process when you auditioned for "Mamma Mia".

A: There were but that show's director, Phylidia Lloyd , can look just as stern.

Q: So, you've played two leading ladies in shows with Sherman brother's songs - Truly Scruptious in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and now Mary Poppins. Are there any similarities?

A: I think audiences arrive with preconceptions from performances they've seen in the films but I've tried to make then both stronger women. That's particularly true of Mary; I've enjoyed bringing out her no-nonsense side.

Q: Do you think in some way they're both 2 dimensional male ideals of women. They're neither of them real women are they? I mean you can't imagine Truly Scrumptious going round Tescos.

A: I hadn't thought of that. But I'm interested in the fact that they're both catalysts for change. They both come into a household in crisis and bring the family together.

Q: It's amazing how many musicals successfully use that plot - The Sound of Music, The King and I, My Fair Lady, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers etc. How much of your own interpretation were you allowed to bring to playing Mary Poppins?

A: Oh, I was allowed to completely make it my own.

Q: You were very lucky. They could have wanted you to be exactly like your predecessor.

A: I was really worried about that. I needed to find the character for myself during the five weeks rehearsal. It sounds a long time but it's not as long as the first Mary got who also had the opportunity to try things out during long previews in Bristol and London. They definitely respected my need to find the character for myself. The original director Richard Eyre came in to talk to me too, which was great.

Q: What did he say?

A: I was so pleased that he liked that I'd brought out Mary's stern side and her humour. He's a great romantic so we have a lovely chat about Mary's relationship with Bert too, what he calls their "Brief Encounter" moments. They both adore each other but they can't be together because he's a mortal and she's not. Only last night, when we were sat together on the chimney pots, I was wondering if she was once Bert's nanny.

Q: Everyone loved the way you walk upstairs. Was that your own?

A: Yes, I thought I'd try making it as snooty as possible one night, it really hurt my back but it got a huge laugh so I've kept it.

Q: It's a lovely gag and was funny every time you did it. You came to play Truly Scrumptious in "Chitty" through rather an unusual route.

A: Yes, I was in the show right from the beginning with no lines and only understudying a tiny part. Then in the second year they asked me to understudy "Truly" and although I never normally stay with a show for more then a year I didn't think I could turn down that experience. And then in my third year they asked me to play the part completely.

Q: "Chitty's" just flopped on Broadway. Any theories as to why?

A: Oh no, is it closing? I didn't know. That's really sad.

Q: I'm afraid so. Maybe Americans don't have the same affection for the film as we do. In between playing these musical comedy leading ladies I read you got a chance to do some Shakespeare at Regent's Park in the summer.

A: Yes, it was wonderful. I've always studied and enjoyed Shakespeare and I leapt at the chance to understudy the lead roles of Olivia in "Twelfth Night" and Cymbeline in "Cymbeline" whilst I was also playing a lead in "HMS Pinaforte". I got to work with the Shakespeare directors and study these great plays. It was like doing a drama degree in a summer.

Q: I gather your whole family's in the theatre. Having parents in the business didn't put you off?

A: No, not at all, of course I was aware of the tough times my mum and dad sometimes had financially but it didn't put any of us off. My eldest sister's currently dancing with Ewan McGregor in "Guys and Dolls" and my two youngest sisters are in Scrooge.

Q: Which was scarier, the first time you flew in the Chitty Car or the first time you had to fly in "Mary Poppins"?

A: Definitely the car. By the third year it was pretty juddery when it took off. Flying off above the audience at the end of Mary Poppins is a joy, I love it.

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