Before the pandemic, Romanie Jija-Wakeham had spent three months rehearsing for a West End musical and was one week away from opening in the show before theatres closed around the world. During Romanie’s career so far, she has toured as Duffy in Annie, made her West End debut as Marcy in School of Rock and was part of the world premiere of The Wind in the Willows, which was also her first professional contract. Romanie was involved with the workshop for Stiles & Drewe’s upcoming production Identical the Musical, directed by Trevor Nunn, and she performed at It’s Not the Robbie Williams Christmas Show as part of the Sylvia Young choir. Answering our questions, Romanie talks about having her most recent West End run put on hold due to the pandemic, touring in Annie and making her West End debut as Marcy in School of Rock.
You were set to join the cast of a West End musical the week after theatres around the world closed due to COVID, how had it been preparing for the role and what were you looking forward to most for opening?
Yes! It was so sad as I was a week away from opening night when we went into lockdown and all theatres had to close their doors. I had been in rehearsals for three months which although was really hard work, it was also the most amazing experience and very rewarding as I learnt so much. The thing I was looking forward to the most for opening night was standing on that stage as since a very young age this has been my dream show but it wasn’t meant to be but that is ok because everything happens for a reason.
Can you tell us about touring the UK and Ireland in Annie?
The girls in my team were all like sisters to me and we all got on so well. It was like we were on a six-month sleepover being on tour. Not only did I get to do what I love, which is performing, but I also got to travel around Ireland and the UK with my friends staying in hotels. An average day would be wake-up, have breakfast in the hotel, attend schooling, which depending on whether it was a two-show day or not would depend how long we had it for. Most days we were taken out by the chaperones to explore the city we were in by going to museums, seafronts, or parks. Sometimes we were called for rehearsals to clean some of the routines before the show but if not we would have dinner, do the show then back to the hotel for some supper before going to bed.
What was Duffy like to play and how was it being cover for Annie?
I loved playing Duffy, I got to be a bit cheeky and sassy which was fun. I also loved my costume as I got to wear dungarees and did not have to wear a dress! I was second cover Annie so never got to go on as Annie but rehearsing for the role was fun but also quite scary as I knew that if I ever did have to go on, I would have big shoes to fill as Ava, who was our Annie, was amazing.
What are some of your favourite memories from your time in the musical?
I think just spending so much time with the girls was my favourite memories. I have over a thousand photos of our time on tour and when I look back at them, they just make me smile. We all had our own handshake type of thing we would do with each other and I still remember them all now.
You made your West End debut as Marcy in School of Rock, what was the musical like to be part of?
School of Rock was just an amazing show to be part of and I am so lucky to have spent over a year with the show. Again, I made friends for life whilst I was there and still speak to many of them now. The schedule was hectic as even on your week on, if your team were not the team performing you still had to be in the theatre backstage on standby. Being on standby was so much fun though as we all got to spend time together doing crazy things. The chaperones were the best! They even taught us to play musical instruments.
How was it performing as Marcy, and how much did you know about the character before booking the role?
I loved playing Marcy as, again, she was the sassy and the cheeky one. We got to rock out on stage and the audience were so loud and engaging which made us go even harder. I had seen the show before being cast and even before I auditioned, it was either Marcy or Shonelle that I dreamed of playing, so when I got the part of Marcy I was really happy. I knew she was the back-up singer, but it wasn’t until I started rehearsals that I really got to learn about the character and how I would portray her. I even had to ask my dad what rock music was!
Do you have any highlights from your time in the West End?
I think my highlights from my time in the West End was having all my family, friends and teachers from Plymouth come and see me. I moved up to London from Plymouth when I got the role of Marcy so leaving my friends and family was really hard. I loved coming out of stage door to see them waiting for me, it was just the best feeling ever. I miss them all so much but they have been really supportive of me and have come to see me in all my shows.
How did you find the experience touring with The Wind in the Willows?
The Wind in the Willows was my first professional contract and I got to dress up in an amazing Hedgehog and Mouse costume. We opened the World Premiere in my hometown Plymouth which was really special and something I will never forget. Rufus Hound played Toad and he was the funniest man I have met. He was so friendly and gave us all a lovely opening night gift which I have in my memory box.
Can you tell us about your character in the show and what was it like being part of the cast?
One of my characters was a hedgehog where we got to sing a really funny song about crossing a road, the audience used to think it was hilarious. My other character was a field mouse where I had to sing a solo. The Plymouth Theatre Royal is a huge theatre (or it felt like it at eight years old) and I remember looking out into the upper circle when singing my solo thinking that there was no one watching as it was so dark and I couldn’t see anyone.
The cast were so lovely and very talented, so I always remember feeling very starstruck when I was around them. I was only eight at the time and, if I am honest, did not really get the enormity of it all. I used to come out of stage door where people would ask for autographs and I remember thinking to myself ‘What, me?’.
We understand you were part of the workshop for Identical the Musical, how was this?
This was such an amazing opportunity to work with some of the best in the industry and I felt so lucky to be cast. George Stiles and Anthony Drewe wrote the music and lyrics, and it was directed by Trevor Nunn! We spent a week rehearsing the workshop and then performed it to guests and family at the end of the week. This was a different experience for me, and I am so happy that I was able to learn from this. I cannot wait for the show to go out and I will be front row watching it!
What theatre-related projects have you been involved with during the pandemic?
I am lucky to be able to attend Sylvia Young Theatre School and during lockdown nothing has changed apart from all academic and vocational lessons have been online, so I have been able to continue in my vocational training and it has been really good. However, even though I did not mind online lessons, I am so happy to be back at school in person now.
I also attend DMA London where I train in TV & Screen acting and Spirit Dance Company and at every opportunity, I have been attending online training, workshops, and classes.
Can you tell us about your ongoing training?
I have 1-1 sessions every week with my DMA coach Dominique Jackson where we work on my personal development as an actor and the goals I have set myself. Once a month, I attend a DMA masterclass with my mentor Dominique Moore, where we work intensively with professional materials and have top industry professionals attend to work with us. This is where we learn about an actor’s role from a writer’s, producer’s, director’s, and a casting director’s perspective.
You were part of It’s Not the Robbie Williams Christmas Show, can you say more about the event?
A group from school got the opportunity to sing with Robbie on this show as his choir. This was my first TV experience and was so exciting! Being at Sylvia Young Theatre School gives you so many opportunities that I am extremely grateful for. The day was so special as we were picked up from school in a coach and taken to the studios where we got the chance to rehearse with Robbie before filming. As it was Christmas, the feeling was magical, and the outfits were pretty sparkly too!
How do you like to spend your time away from acting?
I like spending time with my school friends, and I love dancing, but I would say that my favourite pass time is sleeping.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and have you seen any TV shows or films recently that you’ve enjoyed?
Before lockdown I saw Dear Evan Hansen which was amazing and so emotional. I think I cried three times during the show! I love the soundtrack to & Juliet and when theatres can open again that is going to be the first show I see.
I am currently hooked on RuPaul’s Drag Race and am working my way through the thirteen seasons. I have just seen that the top four UK Queens are touring in 2022 and I am definitely going to be going to see them.
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