Before the announcement of theatres closing, Jenny O’Leary was playing Killer Queen on the UK Tour of Queen and Ben Elton’s smash hit musical We Will Rock You, with the remaining tour dates rescheduled for 2021. Prior to this, Jenny played Martha Dunnstock in the Original London Cast of Heathers the Musical, both at The Other Palace and the West End transfer at Theatre Royal Haymarket, as well as appearing on the Heathers London Cast Recording. As part of the 20th Anniversary UK Tour of Rent in 2017, during lockdown, Jenny reunited virtually with the rest of the cast for Seasons of Love and also performed Bohemian Rhapsody with past and present members of We Will Rock You. With her work on screen including Casualty, Jenny could recently be seen in the new drama series Gangs of London for Sky Atlantic and HBO in the role of Kelly. Jenny recently chatted to us about playing Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, her time in Heathers the Musical and filming for Gangs of London.
You have been touring with the recent production of We Will Rock You as Killer Queen, what is this role like to play?
Playing Killer Queen has always been a bucket list job of mine, I just thought it would happen a bit further along in my career! I’ve been very lucky to land such an iconic role at the age I am. It’s the best of both worlds really, I get to belt out Queen songs all night, which having been a Queen fan my whole life, makes the job a winner, whilst also getting to play the baddie on stage, which for me is very different to all my previous jobs and roles I’ve played.
How is it working on the Queen musical and what was it like meeting Queen for the first time with the show?
As I said before, it’s great as I never get enough of hearing the songs. When Brian May and Roger Taylor came into the rehearsal room to watch a run of the show, I had never been so nervous, but they are the loveliest of men! Brian also took me aside and praised me for my final audition which inevitably won me the role! He said he was blown away by my audition and he couldn’t wait to see me in action, which coming from a music icon such as himself, is something I will cherish forever.
What was it like seeing the costumes and the set for the first time and reading the script?
I was already very familiar with the script as I was a We Will Rock You “fangirl” back before I started training for musical theatre myself. And seeing my costumes and the set designs was amazing. This production of We Will Rock You was a new concept so I was not going to look how previous Killer Queens had looked, which again was a blessing as I felt I would then be able to put my own stamp on the part!
What are the Queen songs like to perform and how did you feel on your first night as Killer Queen?
My first night I was honestly the most nervous I have ever been. I just know a lot of people are familiar and hold We Will Rock You in their hearts, so it’s the worry of acceptance from the hardcore fans, whilst also wanting to be individual with the role.
And singing those songs is just incredibly fun! My onstage partner in crime, Adam Strong, who plays Khashoggi, is a dream to bounce off of and our voices blend so well, so songs like A Kind of Magic where we can let rip and have fun nightly are just a blast!
You were in the Original London Cast of Heathers the Musical at The Other Palace, how was this?
I was not prepared for what Heathers entailed, ha! I had no idea of its fan base, to tell the truth, I auditioned knowing very little about the show at all. I had heard of Laurence O’Keefe because of Legally Blonde, and he was also the composer of one of my favourite shows Bat Boy, but as far as the fan base, I literally had no idea what I was getting myself into! I knew obviously the cast were incredible and we were going to put on a brilliant show, but it wasn’t until the opening night that the true level of hype about the show hit me. But what an experience that first night was. I’ve never felt a buzz like it! From the cast and the audience. It was amazing and overwhelming all at the same time.
You transferred with the show to Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End, how was the atmosphere on both the opening and closing nights?
The opening night at the Haymarket was very different to The Other Palace, as obviously you’re going from an intimate venue to a bigger theatre, but it certainly didn’t stop our audiences from making themselves known! They would sing along and speak along with the lines sometimes, which was a task in itself to get used to but still, you can’t be frustrated by people who just genuinely love the show! As for closing night, it was wonderfully hectic. The audience were hanging on every line and singing along and were so invested. And all of us were just giving it whatever we had left to match their energy. It was electric.
Can you tell us about playing Martha and being involved in the London Cast Recording?
In all honesty, I struggled with playing Martha sometimes. I am a larger actress and have always been very comfortable in my own skin. So, playing a character that is a victim because of her size and personality was something I had to really tap into and get on board with. I’m very different to Martha as a character, during my high school years when I was still a “bigger girl”, I would never allow myself to be a victim or people to be mean to me and accept it, so I was very rarely bullied for my size. So, playing a character that is the complete opposite was a challenge, but I just hope I did her justice as she is the sweetest and most genuine character to play. And what a song she has!
When it came to the cast recording I found it, again, quite stressful. We didn’t have a lot of time as we were doing it within our show schedule, so trying to vocally give it your all while also having to relive it on stage that night was hard! As recording is knackering, ha! There are obviously bits, especially within Kindergarten Boyfriend, that to me aren’t perfect, but that’s because actors are all perfectionists at heart and would probably very rarely be fully satisfied with hearing themselves, ha! But the overall end product, I think, was brilliant and really did justice to our small but mighty show!
You were part of the cast of The Secret Garden at The Barn Theatre, can you say about the production?
I can say that it was one of the loveliest jobs I’ve ever done! I was surrounded by the most amazingly talented actor-musicians, who (through no fault of their own) made me feel very untalented haha! The show was an actor-muso show, but I was the only person in it who couldn’t play an instrument or even read music! I’ve always worked completely by ear when learning music. But what we created in this lovely quaint regional theatre was beautiful and I only wish more people could have seen it! It was the classic story reimagined and reorchestrated.
How was the experience on the Rent 20th Anniversary UK Tour as Ensemble and Cover Joanne?
I’ve made some friends for life on this job. Rent is a difficult one as, again like heathers, it has a very hardcore and protective fan base. It falls into that same “cult” musical category, so you always have to hope you do the show justice! But it was a lot of fun! And came with the usual tour dramas, in some venues we were a hit! And some venues definitely weren’t prepared for what Rent is as a musical.
You appeared in the workshop and the world premiere of Groundhog Day at The Old Vic, can you say more about this?
Groundhog Day is one of my proudest moments to date. I spent a year workshopping that show to the actual opening night, lots of workshops, trying things, things changing last minute, originating a character (Debbie the Band Geek) and working with possibly the most outrageously amazing cast and creative team, and Tim Minchin is honestly one of the loveliest and most intelligent men I have ever known, a genius! It was a labour of love but the end product was something I will always be proud of!
What can you tell us about playing Kelly in the new Sky Original Crime Drama series,
Gangs of London, and what was it like to film?
Kelly was only my second ever TV role, and it was so surreal coming into the TV world. It so different to musical theatre but also I learnt so much about that side of the industry in such a short amount of time! The team and fellow actors were amazing and I honestly can’t wait to get more into the world of TV and film. It is fascinating to see how they work angles and use green screen and manipulate spaces to make them look a certain way, it’s genius to watch and then to see the rough edits before release.
Who was your character Beth in Casualty and how was it working on your professional screen debut?
I was honestly thrilled and so nervous! I had no idea what a filming set was like, no idea how the other actors worked, as obviously I was a guest actor amongst regulars, but they were incredibly lovely and welcoming and made me feel very at ease! I was surprised by how relaxed the atmosphere is! You have as much time as you need to work through the scenes, and even when things change on the spot, you’re made to feel that mistakes are ok! And there were quite a few comical mistakes made while filming scenes, ha! Beth was a very strong and fierce best friend, whose best friend had got herself in a tricky situation with a guy, which inevitably ended her up in hospital, so playing a feisty character on screen for my first job was great!
Had you always wanted a musical theatre/acting career and what do you enjoy most about working on stage and screen?
I have always been interested in musical theatre and doing am dram shows, but I didn’t start taking it seriously until I got into my final year at The BRIT School, while auditioning for drama schools. I think I always just enjoyed it but didn’t get the bug for wanting to do it professionally until quite late, and I think that came along with having the confidence to believe I was good enough!
I love both sides of the industry for totally opposite reasons, I love theatre for the live aspect, always being kept on your toes and having to react as if what you’re hearing is new and keeping it fresh, while with TV it’s a lot more relaxed, but you also only have that short amount of time to nail what you’ve been given! So, they’re both the opposite of each other, but I love them both for those opposites.
When you’re not performing in a theatre show, how do you like to spend your time?
I am an avid gamer haha! I love Xbox and PC and spend lots of my downtime winding down playing. Or the usual, Netflix, seeing friends and taking out my dog Polly (chihuahua) for walks, all very normal haha!
What’s it been like working on special videos with casts of shows you’ve been in during lockdown?
It’s so lovely to come together with friends and spread a little joy! The Rent one has a powerful message of love and friendship, so was more about spreading the meaning, and was organised by my very close friend Billy Cullum. Doing Bohemian Rhapsody was mostly fun and was amazing as Brian was involved and it was a big project, wonderfully organised by the lovely Sabrina Aloueche. I’m very blessed to have been in the shows I have and met the people I have! With whom some are friends for life!
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