After playing Oolie/Donna at Donmar Warehouse in 2014, Rebecca Trehearn was cast in the roles again at this year’s City of Angels West End transfer at Garrick Theatre, with the show now on hold due to the current pandemic. Last year, Rebecca was part of the UK premiere of RAGS the Musical, performed at the Watermill Theatre in Kiss Me, Kate and appeared in her first The Old Vic production, A Christmas Carol. Her many stage roles have included shows such as Sweet Charity, Floyd Collins and Show Boat, which her portrayal of Julie LaVerne in the production saw her win Best Supporting Actress in a Musical at the 2017 Olivier Awards. Alongside stage work, Rebecca has filmed as Karen in TV series Dim Ond y Gwir, has appeared on a number of soundtracks and albums and, over the last few years, she has performed at many concerts. Recently speaking with us, Rebecca tells us about playing Oolie/Donna in City of Angels, performing in A Christmas Carol and winning an Olivier Award for Show Boat.
Before theatres closed, you were playing Oolie/Donna in City of Angels at Garrick Theatre in the West End, what were you looking forward to for the run?
I was mainly looking forward to revisiting two brilliant female roles, with the benefit of four years of hindsight. I felt that being a little older and wiser, I had more to bring to both of these brilliant women and was really excited to explore them again. We had a really lovely mix of old and new in terms of the acting company too; I was looking forward to working with old friends again and discovering the ways in which the show would change and grow with the input of our new, incredibly talented company members.
You’d previously played Oolie/Donna at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014, what are the characters like to play?
They’re both a joy. Oolie is a classic Hollywood broad, always ready with a wisecrack. Donna is really intriguing; on the surface she appears to be very much in the same mold as Oolie, but there is a great deal more to her than meets the eye. She’s intelligent, ambitious and prepared to use what she’s got to get ahead, always discreetly looking out for number one.
Can you say how it was playing Belle in A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic?
I’d long wanted to work at The Old Vic and my partner had seen and raved about the show the first year it played, so when the role presented itself I jumped at it. It’s a truly beautiful adaptation and the audience response would frequently put a lump in my throat. It’s been a long time since I went into a show that wasn’t being put together from scratch, so it was a little strange to be reminded of the restrictions that come with re-creating a production. It was a pleasure to get to play Belle from forthright teenager to forty-something with a family of her own; my favourite moment without a doubt, was the reconciliation scene between Belle and Scrooge. Getting to go toe to toe with an actor as formidable and as generous as Paterson Joseph was a real treat.
What was it like playing Kate in Kiss Me, Kate at the Watermill Theatre last year?
One of the best summers of my life! I fell totally in love with the Watermill theatre; it’s the most idyllic place, run by an incredibly kind and supportive team. Lilli/Kate is a monster of a female role, especially vocally. You’re swinging from torch song to furious belt to full on soprano cadenza within the space of the first act and the fact that it was an actor-musician production certainly added to the challenge! I got to dust off my clarinet for the first time in twenty years, which was tough but ultimately really satisfying. Indulging my inner diva was great fun; Lilli has such fire and wit, with an infuriating achilles heel in her ex-husband. I was immensely lucky to play opposite David Ricardo-Pearce as Fred; he’s a superb actor, extremely funny and made me corpse more than anyone else ever has! The whole company was wonderful; so gifted and so much fun. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
How was it playing the role of Rebecca Hershkowitz in the UK premiere of RAGS the Musical at Hope Mill Theatre?
It was a privilege to get to work on this show alongside Stephen Schwartz, who was very involved in our production as there were elements of the show he wanted to revise. Those revisions brought their challenges in a tight rehearsal period of course, but I was really proud of the way the company pulled together to create what is now more or less the definitive version of the show, as I understand it. Rebecca is another monster role; it’s a pretty big sing and she’s carrying so much emotional weight on her shoulders that it was a tough role to play eight times a week, but I enjoyed both the challenge and the research element that came with playing these characters based on historical truth. God knows a story of refugees finding themselves adrift in an unwelcoming new world is pertinent right now.
Can you tell us about performing as Charity in Sweet Charity?
Charity was a dream of a role and not one I’d ever anticipated playing! It’s known as a big dance role and I am no dancer, so the physical aspects of the production were immensely challenging for me. I was so lucky to have the support of Alistair David and Emily Goodenough, our choreographer and choreographer’s assistant; they held my hand through the whole process and convinced me I was capable of things I didn’t believe I could pull off. Our director and MD, Bill Buckhurst and Caroline Humphris were both utterly wonderful too and I remain immensely proud to have been a part of that production. Charity is a gift of a role; funny, charming, heartbreaking. I was surrounded by an incredible company and am only sad that our run was so short. I would happily have continued in that show for a long time, although I’m not convinced my body would have held out!
How did you find your time as Charlotte Goetz in Diary of a Teenage Girl at Southwark Playhouse?
That was an interesting one! The play was based on a graphic novel, which was a fascinating source to work from. As I remember, there were quite a few revisions made to the script along the way and some eleventh hour creative changes, which kept us all on our toes. Charlotte is a pretty unsympathetic character, with a daughter she had very young and has no real idea how to parent; indeed, she has come to view her child as competition. If I’m perfectly honest, I never quite felt that I’d truly gotten under her skin.
Your portrayal of Julie LaVerne in Show Boat won you the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical in 2017, what was this like?
Surprising and thrilling. As a company we had all initially signed up for a four-week run at the Sheffield Crucible and I don’t think anyone anticipated back in the beginning that the show would have a life beyond that. It was the gift that kept on giving, really! The West End transfer was such a joy; I don’t think anyone was ready to say goodbye to the show in Sheffield. An incredible creative team, one of the most talented companies I’ve ever worked with and some kind of theatrical alchemy all combined to create an exquisite production that I’m so lucky to have been a part of. The award was the cherry on the cake; the show had closed in August 2016 and the Oliviers were the following April, so it was strange and wonderful to find myself suddenly caught up in this whirlwind of excitement about a production I’d left behind many months ago. I still can’t quite believe it happened.
Was there anything that drew you to the role of Julie and what was it like being part of the production?
I think I was as drawn to the show itself and the creative team involved as I was to the role. I’d been an admirer of their work for a long time and the Crucible has a fantastic reputation for their musical productions, so I was keen to be a part of that! Julie is fascinating in that the script tells you next to nothing about her, so it’s down to the actor to decide what her backstory might be and where her motivations lie. To inhabit a character at such extreme moments in her life, so many years apart, gives you so much to get your teeth into as an actor. It’s been one of the privileges of my career to be a part of that production, which was so beautifully put together by an astonishingly talented group of people.
What do you remember most from your time as Molly in Ghost the Musical on tour?
Crying. Lots and lots of crying 😂. Seriously, it was a wonderful year; the first and only time I’d toured. Molly was a role that I really, really wanted, so to get to play her full-time having understudied the role in the West End meant a huge amount to me. It was close to home; I’d lost a partner a few years earlier, so to relive that kind of loss onstage eight times a week was both difficult and healing. I was surrounded by a gorgeous company; Stewart Clarke (Sam), David Roberts (Carl) and I all got on really well and looked out for one another, which becomes important when you’re away from friends and family for so long. It was great to visit so many beautiful theatres up and down the country and interesting to see how audience response varied depending on the location!
Can you tell us about some of your other stage work which has included Floyd Collins, Dogfight and Aspects of Love?
Floyd Collins and Dogfight are two of my all-time favourite jobs. In both cases, the productions, the writing and the people involved were nothing short of wonderful (hands up Dogfight fans who get the reference…!) My roles in each were vastly different; Marcy in Dogfight is a crude, mouthy, brutally funny, toothless prostitute, who provided me with perhaps my favourite ever moment onstage. It involved an outrageously inappropriate use of her underwear, that’s all I’m saying…! Getting to tear through the title song with the incredible Laura Jane Matthewson every night was delicious. By contrast, Nellie in Floyd Collins is maybe the purest person I’ve ever played. She has an unspecified mental illness and has only recently returned from an asylum, yet she is open, honest, sunny, optimistic to a fault and utterly comfortable in her own skin. I adored playing her and am something of an Adam Guettel obsessive, so getting to sing that exquisite score for a few weeks was an unforgettable pleasure. Aspects of Love is more of a blur for me; I was going through a tough time personally and don’t remember a huge amount about the process. What I do remember is the immense kindness the company showed me at a very difficult time in my life, for which I will always be incredibly grateful.
You’ve filmed as Karen in TV series Dim Ond y Gwir, can you tell us about your character and what the show was like to do?
Karen was a workaholic, high-flying lawyer, who had a difficult relationship with her mother and had never really gotten over the death of her father. Her life is thrown into disarray when her ex returns to the local area and she finds herself frequently squaring up to him across a courtroom while trying and failing to put her personal feelings towards him aside. I had a brilliant time filming the series over a summer in a beautiful part of North Wales; having grown up in Wales, it was really special to get to spend some proper time there after living in London for so long. Being a courtroom drama, there were plenty of hefty speeches and a lot of legal jargon to memorise; tricky in Welsh! I’m a fluent Welsh speaker but don’t use the language as often as I do English, so found that it took me a little longer than usual to learn lines. I had little TV experience at the time so it was something of a learning curve; one I’d love to explore further, should the opportunity ever present itself.
You’ve recorded for a number of albums and soundtracks, what do you enjoy most about recording music and performing at concerts?
The joy of concerts is that you’re often in control of the songs you perform, so it gives you the opportunity to indulge in the material you really love. It’s very different to playing a role; engaging with an audience without a character to hide behind is a skill in itself! I’ve done a lot of concert work with full orchestras over the last few years too and there is simply nothing like it. I only wish West End theatres could accommodate musicians on that scale. I do quite a lot of session work that requires sight singing, which keeps you on your toes as a musician and can be really satisfying. I definitely prefer performing live, but the useful thing about recording is that you can retake your mistakes…!
What are some of the projects you’ve been involved with during the times theatres have been closed?
The online projects I’ve been involved in since March have been in support of new UK musical theatre writers and/or charity events; something I feel is important, particularly at this incredibly difficult time. It’s a strange new world, to be singing from your bedroom with musicians and duet partners you’ve never met. I’ve recently invested in some decent recording kit and am enjoying the challenges of working in this new and peculiar way. There is truly no substitute for making music in a room with other singers and musicians, but I think the inventiveness we’re seeing in the meantime from the arts community is to be celebrated and supported. Miwsig fy Mywyd was a TV series showcasing Welsh singers, with an episode centred on the Welsh of the West End filmed prior to lockdown. It was a tough watch in some ways; my interview segment was conducted in the City of Angels rehearsal room. I could never have imagined back then that by the time the programme was broadcast, every single person involved would have lost their livelihood.
Was there anything that encouraged you to get into a theatre career and how did you start?
I started singing competitively in the Eisteddfods (an annual cultural festival held in Wales) when I was eight, joined my local youth theatre group aged nine, was working professionally by the age of ten and never really looked back! I was fortunate to be surrounded by some incredible teachers who felt that I had a talent worth nurturing; without their early support there is no way I would be doing what I do today.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch?
I’m mainly interested in seeing new work these days! I think the last show I saw more than once was People, Places and Things; Denise Gough was so superb that I had to go back for a second helping.
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