With her first musical role as Young Eponine in Les Misérables in the West End, Asha Banks has since appeared in many theatre productions including the role of Duffy in the UK tour of Annie. Asha, more recently, had her first West End main cast debut as Violet Beauregarde in Theatre Royal, Drury Lane’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and played Pandora in the Original London Cast of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole the Musical. We spoke to Asha about her West End debut, playing the role of Pandora in Adrian Mole and her upcoming concert at Southwark Playhouse.
Is musical theatre something you’ve always wanted to be involved in and how long have you been training?
I do love musical theatre but most of my training when I was younger was on-the-job training in shows because I was first cast in the West End when I was only seven years old! In the past few years I have been training at MXMasterclass, run by the West End and Broadway star, Michael Xavier, on Sundays in the West End and that has been amazing. The singing teacher, Ross Sharkey, is a Certified Estill Master Trainer, and the Estill method of teaching really is the best way to train. One of the Musical Directors is Alex Parker, who was my MD when I played Pandora in the Adrian Mole musical and he is the most brilliant MD – it’s a small world. They also teach dance and acting too, and the thing about MXM is that West End stars come in and teach us, so I feel like I have been learning from the best since I’ve been there. Also, Michael is a like a mentor as well as a teacher – he’s incredibly supportive of my career and is always there with very good advice, based on real experience.
Was Young Eponine in Les Misérables your first musical role and how did you find your time in the production?
Yes, it was my first musical role, if you don’t count me being The Little Fir Tree in my primary school nativity play – in which I did sing my first solo! I absolutely loved my time in Les Mis. Spending so much time in the Queen’s Theatre was so fantastic, especially as I was only seven and turning eight at the time so racing around backstage was exciting and fun, and I made some wonderful friends in the other children who were doing it at the same time as me. The adult cast were also incredible when I was in it: I was lucky enough to be in the show when Ramin Karimloo was Jean Valjean and he is definitely one of the best singers I have ever heard on a stage. I also had the wonderful Caroline Sheen as Fantine, who recently was so amazing in 9 to 5. I have such happy and magical memories of my grandpa picking me up from that show and me skipping down Shaftesbury Avenue to the tube at night-time – I think I knew from then that I just had to be a performer.
How long were you in the cast of 1984 and what was the play like to appear in?
I was in 1984 when it was at the Almeida Theatre and then, after a few months, it moved to the Playhouse at the embankment in the West End and I moved with it, so I was very privileged to be able to play the role in two beautiful theatres in London. I really enjoyed acting in a straight play, and it was a Sonia Friedman production, so it was always going to be a fantastic telling of that story, and it was so good that it was nominated for an Olivier Award in that year’s Oliviers, in 2014. It was also really good fun playing a terrifying, almost robotic child, who actually gets her father killed! I got some nice reviews and learnt a lot about acting from that experience.
What did you enjoy most about portraying Duffy in the UK tour of Annie?
The other girls I met doing the show! I met some of my best friends in that show, and we toured the UK so we were all staying in hotels together and we had a lot of fun. We all bonded during rehearsals in Hampstead and then, when the tour started, I just remember laughing all the time and we were all like a family. I also loved the choreography – the group orphan dances were great fun to do, although it played havoc on everyone’s voices to have to belt out those songs at the same time as doing a really energetic dance!
You played Violet in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, can you tell us about your experience being in the cast?
Playing Violet Beauregarde was definitely a highlight! I could have a lot of fun with her personality and really channel my inner diva! It was a principal role in a West End show, and I was the first person to sing her new song, Queen of Pop, on stage anywhere in the world so I was very, very excited when I got this part. Again, there were a bunch of really lovely people in the child cast and we all got on so well.
What did you enjoy most about your time as Violet and were there any funny/special moments whilst performing?
I think debuting Queen of Pop on a stage was the most mind-blowing thing. It was incredible. Also, just being a part of a musical about such an iconic book was very special. That was my favourite book at school, I read it twice in a row because I loved it so much, so to be bringing one of the characters to life on a stage was a pinch me moment. Also, watching Jonathan Slinger every night as Willy Wonka from close quarters. He is known for being one of the best Shakespearean actors there is, and when you see a truly great actor like that take a character and create something extraordinarily real and authentic, it is overwhelmingly inspiring.
The funniest moments were when we used to see this man in the front row who used to come and see the show so many times dressed from top to toe in the Willy Wonka costume. He loved Willy Wonka!! It was quite off-putting at times to see two Wonkas, one on stage and one in the audience. But it shows you how much passion people had for this show and the story behind it.
What was it like having this show as your West End main cast debut and how did it feel leaving the role?
It was amazing having it as my main cast debut – I was also singing a pop song, which was a change and really enjoyable as I love chart music and could have fun with my voice doing riffs rather than singing a MT song straight. It was also such a popular show with kids and because it was in the West End, in Drury Lane, loads of my friends could come and see it which was so brilliant as most of them had never seen me perform.
How did the run at the Menier Chocolate Factory go in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole as Pandora?
It was a wonderful roller coaster for me. I think I experienced every emotion under the sun with that role. I truly never thought I would get it in the first place, because every thirteen and fourteen-year-old in London was going for it, as there really aren’t that many roles for that age group on the stage, and I am tall compared to many child performers. So, when I got it, it really was a dream come true. Rehearsals were amazing because we realised what a gem of a musical the writers, Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, had written: how hysterically funny it was, and how perfect the music was.
Then when I did press night and the reviews came in and they were all incredible, and we were in all the papers, and myself and Ben Lewis, who played Adrian Mole, were picked out in the reviews, it really was the most fantastic feeling because we felt we had done the show justice, which was really important to us. It is quite a responsibility to be a lead part in a show, and to perform on press night, and we just wanted to be good for the director Luke Sheppard, and for Jake and Pippa.
The child cast were awesome, and we all got on so well – we still go to see shows together. I became really good friends with the other Pandoras, Lara Wollington and Georgia Pemberton. Again, I worked with some amazing adult actors too, like the lovely Lara Denning, who had been in Charlie with me, playing Charlie’s mum, and Dean Chisnall, who is now Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.
Were you involved in the upcoming release of the London Cast Recording and if so, what was it like to be part of?
Yes, we were all involved with the recording. It was fantastic to be a part of that, and I am so happy for the show that it is now going to have a life in the West End, in the Ambassadors Theatre. Everyone should go and see it – trust me, you will laugh from start to finish!
What was it like workshopping The Boy in the Dress?
I loved this experience as I had never done a workshop before, and I was so honoured to be asked to workshop this new musical, based on the famous David Walliams book. Then when I realised I would be working with Guy Chambers on the songs, I was blown away. I played Lisa James, and in some ways, she is like a trendy, London version of Pandora!
I was very lucky to also spend two days in Guy Chambers’ own recording studio with the man himself recording a bunch of the songs for this, and I learned so much about the music industry and the recording process in that time. Guy is so talented – he is a genius really – and he was such a lovely person to work with. It was a dream come true.
Do you have a favourite theatre to perform in and why?
I think that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where Charlie was showing, was my favourite – it was in the heart of Covent Garden and is just such an iconic theatre and so huge. The kids always seem to have their dressing rooms at the top of these old theatres with hundreds of steps, so you have to be fit!
Can you tell us about any concerts or events you have had chance to perform at?
Yes, I have performed at Kids of the West End at Christmas 2017, which was really good fun, and I worked with the director Mark Hedges, who is so funny and all the kids loved working with. I sang the great song Neverland, from the musical Finding Neverland, in this.
I’ve also been lucky enough to perform at The Other Palace, The Palladium and The Royal Albert Hall with MX Masterclass – all very different but iconic venues. Last October, I was asked by Bob Golding to perform at my home theatre, the Alban Arena, in a special concert to mark its 50th birthday. I performed on a bill with the comedian Adam Hills and Rita Simons from EastEnders and I sang Don’t Rain on my Parade with a big band and it was a great feeling as so many friends and family were in the audience.
I was really honoured to be cast to perform at the National Theatre as part of a principal child cast of just five, in the Up Next Gala in 2017, alongside some of the country’s best Shakespearean actors, like Tamsin Greig, Rory Kinnear, Anne-Marie Duff and Adrian Lester. We acted from Shakespeare and also sang some Shakespearean prose from Hamlet, which had been put to music! The audience was filled with celebrities who were fundraising – it was a bit surreal.
Coming up soon, I am really excited about a concert I am singing at on 12th May at the Southwark Playhouse organised by Katie Shalka in aid of the Good Grief Trust, a charity run for the bereaved by the bereaved. I am the youngest performer there, and am going to be singing alongside current West End stars such as Trevor Dion Nicholas – the Genie in the West End show Aladdin. Other performers are from shows like Les Misérables, Hamilton, Miss Saigon and Six (which I LOVE!). I think tickets are still available from the Southwark Playhouse website – it’s going to be really amazing. Everyone should come!!
Do you enjoy watching musical theatre as well as performing, if so, what West End shows would you like to see but haven’t done so as yet?
YES! I love watching shows. I have seen some multiple times (Hamilton, Six, Waitress!) I still haven’t seen The Book of Mormon, and I really want to see Dear Evan Hansen when it comes to London this November.
What are commercials like to film?
Great fun – because you get picked up in a car from your house, and taken home again after! Also, you get loads of food and drink and really spoilt!
What are your acting plans this year?
I have some potential things in the pipeline. I also sing in a band called AngelsnBandits who are awesome!
My ideal jobs are those that combine acting with singing – my two great passions – so watch this space!!
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