Most recently, Gemma Sutton played Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, and performed in the new musical RIDE at the Garrick Theatre in the West End earlier this year. With an extensive stage career so far, Gemma’s roles have included playing Kate in Girl From The North Country, both at Gielgud Theatre and Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, Charity in Sweet Charity, Roxie Hart in Chicago and she was also part of Gypsy in the West End when it was filmed live from the Savoy Theatre. In 2019, Gemma appeared in Blues in the Night, a show she had previously done in 2014, and the National Theatre productions of Follies and Small Island. While theatres were closed, Gemma started her new business The Voice Box, a horse trailer which has been converted to a music stage, where she hosts live performances. Continuing with her theatre career, Gemma has been workshopping productions and is auditioning for new roles. Recently speaking with us, Gemma tells us about her recent run in Annie Get Your Gun, being part of new musical RIDE at Garrick Theatre earlier this year and starting her new business The Voice Box.
What was it like playing Annie Oakley in the recent production of Annie Get Your Gun?
The main feeling was relief that theatre was opening up again after such a long time! It was such a fun production as it was in an outdoor setting in the grounds of a working farm and the weather was glorious the whole time we were there. Annie is one of those roles you dream of playing – a strong, feisty, funny woman and the score by Irving Berlin is a dream to sing.
Can you tell us about working on new musical RIDE at the Garrick Theatre earlier this year and about the production?
I love working on new pieces of (particularly British) musical theatre. It is a form where collaboration is at the heart of it – to get the music, book and lyrics right is no mean feat! RIDE was a great challenge – with just two women in it, on stage the whole time. I played Annie Londonderry – a fascinating woman from history not many people know about. She was the first woman to cycle round the world in 1895 and gained much attention from the media at the time – but how much cycling she actually did we don’t really know. The piece explores what is more interesting and important to humans – a good story or the truth?
How was it playing Kate in Girl From the North Country, both at the Gielgud Theatre and Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto?
Oh I loved it! I’d seen the production at The Old Vic when it first opened and remember being sat in the audience spellbound and crying with everyone around me doing the same! It has a magical quality about it which is hard to explain – the juxtaposition of Conor McPherson’s story set in Minnesota during the Great Depression and Bob Dylan’s music arranged in a way that has not been heard before is a match made in heaven. We also got to go to Toronto with it – one of my favourite cities – everyone is so friendly there and there is so much culture to explore. It was the second time I’d worked there and it felt like everyone welcomed me back with open arms which was very heartwarming.
In 2019, you appeared in Blues in the Night, can you say more about this?
Blues in the Night is a brilliant four-hander which celebrates the great American jazz and blues songs from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I’d first done it at Hackney Empire in 2014 so it was an honour to do it again at Kiln Theatre in Kilburn in 2019, both times with the incomparable Sharon D. Clarke and Clive Rowe. It is set over one evening in a Chicago hotel – where four lonely people spend the night telling their individual stories through song and then joining together as the night goes on – which, of course, meant there was opportunity for some amazing harmonies – my favourite type of singing! We also had a smokin’ hot band on stage with us and two brilliant dancers so I couldn’t believe my luck.
Also in 2019, you worked with the National Theatre for Follies and Small Island, what did you enjoy most about these shows?
Working at the National! It is a building like no other – you know you are working with people in every department at the top of their game so there is a work ethic and sense of gratitude that permeates and carries you along each day you are there. Plus they have their own canteen and green room bar for after the show – what could be better?! Follies has been a career highlight for me – I’ve always loved Sondheim for the complexity and challenge his shows present and working with the director Dominic Cooke was a dream – you just wanted to write down every single thing he said in rehearsal! I just had a minor role in Small Island – on screen as a 1930s movie star – but being directed by Rufus Norris (Artistic Director at the National) was, again, a ‘pinch me’ moment.
Was there anything that drew you to the role of Charity in Sweet Charity and what was she like to play at the Watermill Theatre?
It was a role that was on my bucket list as one of those iconic parts you always want to play. She is a wonderful combination of great vulnerability, open heartedness and inner strength – the ultimate optimist, and a gift of a comedic role. The production at the Watermill will go down as one of my favourite jobs as we all got on so well as a cast. It was an actor-musician production with full choreography which meant we really had to think outside the box as to how to tell the story. The Watermill is in the most perfect countryside location, the actors all stay on site and there are ducks – for me, it doesn’t get any better!
You played Angel in the first London revival in almost twenty years of The Rink, what was it like to be cast in the show?
So exciting. It’s a show about two complex, damaged women that hadn’t been seen in the UK for many years. Written by Kander and Ebb (who wrote Chicago and Cabaret amongst many others) and originally starring Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, it certainly felt like I had big shoes to fill (or should I say roller skates as it’s set in a roller rink). Caroline O’Connor played my mum, and I’ve always admired her since seeing her in the Moulin Rouge film, so to work with her was really exciting. The show was at Southwark Playhouse – a great, intimate Off West End theatre so it presented lots of challenges such as how to choreograph a number with six burly men tap dancing on roller skates – but it was a great success and I would have loved to have done it for longer.
What was it like being in the cast of The Go-Between at the Apollo Theatre?
I always look for new challenges in the work I do and the challenge with this one was getting to grips with Richard Taylor’s complex, lyrical music which was almost operatic in parts. It’s also a fascinating story where a young boy gets caught up in a love affair with fatal consequences. I played Marian whose motives were not always pure to say the least – I just love playing women who have a darkness about them! It was also really exciting to work with Michael Crawford who is so dedicated and passionate about his work – it was an honour to be on stage with him.
Do you have any stand-out highlights from your time in Gypsy and how was it having the production filmed live at the Savoy?
Gosh so many – it was a whirlwind of a time and I still can’t believe I was part of such a revered production – led by the inimitable Imelda Staunton. Every night there was a famous person watching – Meryl Streep, Victoria Wood, Hugh Jackman, Adele, French and Saunders – we couldn’t keep up! My highlight would be when I began playing Louise (as in Gypsy Rose Lee) having played June for the first part of the contract. It meant I had so many juicy scenes with Imelda and I learnt so much from her. It’s lovely that it was filmed (when I was playing June) as I’ll be able to watch it when I’m old in disbelief that I could cartwheel, baton twirl and do the splits – all whilst in pointe shoes!
What are some of your favourite memories from playing Roxie Hart in Chicago?
My favourite memories are probably how we were able to reinvent it and step away from the production that we all know of Chicago – with all the black Lycra and minimal set. Our production (at Leicester Curve with direction by Paul Kerryson and choreography by Drew McOnie) had much more text, full costume (with colour!) and full set – so it really felt fresh and exciting. My highlights were probably the Roxie number where I could dance with the fantastic male ensemble and the great We Both Reached for the Gun number where I just loved being a ‘puppet’ whilst Billy Flynn directs Roxie in precisely what to say to the media. Roxie is another great example of a woman who knows how to manipulate but also is just trying to make a better life for herself in a male-dominated society – like so many of the roles I’ve been lucky enough to play.
How was the experience touring with Hairspray when you played Amber Von Tussle?
Hairspray is one of my favourite shows and is where I met my husband (who is a trombone player) so it was a very happy experience! You can’t help but leave the theatre with a smile on your face after seeing (or being in) that show – You Can’t Stop the Beat has to be one of the greatest finales ever written. The show has a really good message and all the songs are so well written. I loved playing Amber as she was (in simple terms) a ‘baddie’ which are always so fun to play and I loved developing the mother and daughter relationship with Lucy Benjamin who played my mother, Velma. Lucy is a hoot and a great friend. When you are touring you need good friends in the company and I made many in Hairspray which made the whole experience brilliant from start to finish.
Can you say about some of the other musicals you have been part of which have included Carousel, Legally Blonde and Oklahoma!?
Each of those are memorable in their own way. Carousel, as it was a gorgeous intimate production at the Arcola Theatre, with new orchestrations including a harp, and I loved exploring the character Julie and the very complex (and difficult to make sense of – particularly in the modern age) relationship between her and the violent Billy Bigelow. Legally Blonde I loved as I got to understudy and go on for Elle Woods – such a fun character and another great comedic role, in a big flashy West End theatre with all the amazing fans that came to see the show week after week. Oklahoma! was a special show as it was my first lead role and first tour – it was lovely to perform in Manchester where my family and friends from home could come and watch and there was a great company bond on that show – we recreated and filmed the whole nine-minute version of Lady Gaga’s Telephone on that job in our spare time with special cameo from Marti Webb – you can still find it on YouTube somewhere!
You do live performances with The Voice Box, can you tell us about this?
The Voice Box is my new business – born from having a lot of time to think about work ideas due to the pandemic! It’s a horse trailer converted to a mobile music stage, designed in a 1920s bohemian style. I’ve always said that I imagine myself singing jazz songs in bars when I get older – I just didn’t think it would actually be out of the back of a horse trailer! It’s a business to run alongside my theatre and performing work and is going really well so far – it’s great for outdoor events such as weddings and festivals and it gives me the opportunity to work with other musicians singing the songs I love that aren’t in the musical theatre genre. The conversion was a team effort between me and my brother-in-law – it was hard work but so, so satisfying! The journey from old wreck to live music stage can be found on the Instagram page here @thevoiceboxmusic.
Having performed in many cabarets and concerts, what do you enjoy about these?
Probably the freedom to be myself and sing the songs I love, without hiding behind a character. I’m actually quite introverted and shy, but telling stories through song is where I feel most at home. I love working with musicians and collaborating on our own versions of songs (I’ll always love the Great American Songbook). Doing concerts has also given me the opportunity to perform in some amazing places including The Barbican and The O2 – which I still can’t believe actually happened!
Where does your love of performing come from and how did you start?
My dad plays the piano and is very musical and my grandad on my mum’s side was well immersed in the local am dram plays so I guess it must come from there! For as long as I can remember I’ve been singing (first at Sunday School pantomimes and then with the local Amateur Dramatics Society) and I lived and breathed singing lessons, dance classes and rehearsing for local shows growing up. I remember doing impressions of the women in the TV show Birds of a Feather for my family aged about seven and enjoying it when they laughed so I think that might have aided my addiction for pleasing an audience!! As I’ve got older, I now get more and more joy and satisfaction from researching the characters and context of the shows and work I’m involved in, telling and sharing stories is something that humans have always done and there is something magical that happens when people are in a room together. It’s an atmosphere that TV can’t recreate which is why I’ll always love and want to be involved in live performance.
What plans do you have for the upcoming months and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?
It’s very reassuring seeing theatre slowly open up again so I’ve been enjoying being involved in some workshops for a few new British musicals in London and Sheffield (the future looks bright!), getting back into auditioning again and I’m loving the variety of gigs I’m doing in The Voice Box and continuing to develop the business. Away from my career, I’m enjoying hanging out with my husband, Matt and Louis Armstrong the cat, seeing more of my family and catching up with friends after months of not being able to meet up in person after such a long time – you just can’t beat it, can you?!
Follow Gemma on: