Kayleigh McKnight can currently be seen performing in LIFT at Southwark Playhouse, in which she will be continuing in for the rest of the run booking until 18th June. Before opening in LIFT, Kayleigh had recently been in the cast of Heathers the Musical at The Other Palace, where she understudied the leading role of Veronica Sawyer. Other shows for Kayleigh have included Vanara at the Hackney Empire last year in the role of Sindah, being part of the original West End cast of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables and Bend It Like Beckham as cover Jules. As a vocalist and singer-songwriter, Kayleigh was a solo vocalist on the Hugh Jackman World Tour, making appearances at venues such as Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden, and has performed her own concerts as KAELI with an upcoming one on the 7th July at The Old Queens Head in Angel. Having already released her debut single Home and EP Kaleidoscope, Kayleigh is working on her future debut album, with 2023 being a big year for her music. We talked to Kayleigh about performing in LIFT at Southwark Playhouse, her time in Heathers the Musical and releasing music.
You are currently in the cast of LIFT at Southwark Playhouse, what drew you to the show and why would you recommend booking tickets?
I first heard of LIFT almost ten years ago after discovering the show at a New Musicals showcase. I was instantly drawn to the music and was thrilled they released a concept album. I’ve always been a huge champion of British MT writers and so to be a part of a production that I’ve been a fan of from the beginning is so exciting. If you haven’t heard the show before, expect heart-wrenching numbers, unreal harmonies and some craziness thrown in too. It’s pure London in a show and well worth a watch!
What was it like reading the script for the first time and preparing for the role?
Having been a fan of the album for the longest time, it was great to finally flesh out the role I would be playing by reading the scenes. The script actually changed a lot during the rehearsal process which meant I got to have a lot of input in how I see the character which has been a total privilege. For me, most of the prep came from really digging into the music and lyrics, and fleshing out for myself what the various moments in my song are about, helping me to build a wider background for my character of the French Teacher. She’s a really sweet character who is deeply in love but also deeply afraid to confront the shame and confusion it’s brought up in her. A real challenge to play and a wonderful gift to explore as an actor!
How is it being part of the cast and what are you enjoying most about the run so far?
Oh the cast of LIFT are a bunch of absolute dreamboats. Everyone is so talented and just so lovely (I know everyone says that… but I really do mean it!). We’ve all got such different energies, backgrounds and experiences and it’s meant they’ve managed to assemble the most unique and gorgeous group of crazies! I love watching everyone thrive and grow and find new things every night, especially as four members of the cast are making their professional performing debuts!
What is it like performing at Southwark Playhouse and what are you looking forward to for continuing in your role until 18th June?
I think what’s great about Southwark Playhouse is how transformative the space is. The week before tech I’d been to see Anyone Can Whistle and once I walked in the space to begin tech rehearsals it was TOTALLY transformed, mostly down to Andrew Exeter’s truly sublime design! Now, as we move through the production, I’m looking forward to playing with the different ways the French Teacher experiences her emotions each night. I don’t want to ever create a replica performance night after night and I hope that I can find something new in her journey during each show.
Prior to joining LIFT, you were in the cast of Heathers the Musical at The Other Palace, what was the musical like to perform in?
Heathers is an entire beast of its own – no one can prepare you for what it’s like to join a show with as big a following as Heathers. The atmosphere night after night was always electric, and the show required a lot of energy and hard work! We had a lot of absences due to injury and the dreaded C-word so every night the show would be different. An amazing (and tiring) challenge but one that brought the entire cast together. I miss them all a lot.
How was it understudying and playing the role of Veronica Sawyer?
Veronica Sawyer has been a dream role of mine for a very long time. There’s something about her complete dorkiness that makes her actually the coolest character on stage. Plus, the songs are such a challenge. I never got a chance to do a cover run of the show before my one performance and so it felt like I was diving head first into oblivion, but it was strangely the calmest I’d ever felt in an understudy performance once we got started. And once it gets going… it truly doesn’t stop! I’m very grateful for the opportunity and for all the kind words I received from fans of the show after my performance – they are so much a part of the fabric of Heathers and I’m so glad they thought I did her justice!
Last year, you played Sindah in the original London cast of Vanara at the Hackney Empire, what was this like to do?
It’s amazing to originate a role in a new show – you get such a say in how the character moves through their world as you are the one in their shoes. It was definitely a tricky process as the rehearsals were short but we managed it and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to bring Sindah to life. She’s a character with a lot of heart and courage – a strong woman through and through but still totally vulnerable. So many parts fall into the stereotypical tropes of having the ingenue, the best friend, etc… so to have some say on how we made her a well-rounded and authentic character was a true privilege.
Having been in the original West End cast of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, was there anything you enjoyed most about this run?
Again, originating any show presents its challenges but also is such an honour. Tina was no exception to this. Getting to be in the room with THE Tina Turner and hear her words of gratitude to us for telling her story was a moment in my life I’ll never forget. She is truly a remarkable woman so to even be a small part of her legacy is a total honour. Plus, who doesn’t want to get paid to sing those songs and dance your absolute heart out to a roaring crowd? It was magic and something I’ll never forget.
How was it performing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in Jesus Christ Superstar as Soul Girl and understudy Mary?
The Open Air Theatre at Regent’s Park is one of the most stunning venues, especially for a show like Jesus Christ Superstar. The way nature can inform and enhance the performance is just magical. There was a performance where the show ended with Jesus’ crucifixion and as the final note played, a flock of birds flew out of the trees over the audience. You could have thought they were paid actors because it was so perfect! The show itself will always be a favourite of mine – it was so raw and aggressive and beautiful all at once, which I think is necessary to tell a story that brutal. Getting to be one of the Soul Girls as well meant I could also feel like I was a part of the band (We used to join the band on their platform at the top of the stage during some moments) which I absolutely loved. I never got to go on for Mary in the end but learning that role was amazing – the songs are just so iconic and so it was a total joy to learn.
Was there anything that drew you to Les Misérables and what was the musical like to be part of?
Les Mis is one of those shows that a lot of musical theatre students dream of doing and I was no exception. I remember getting the call to say I’d booked the job and I instantly cried – it was the hugest of achievements. Working at Les Mis is truly like joining a family. Most of the crew and backstage staff had been there for years and it was such a smooth working building that it really felt like you were just slotting in to join the ride. That’s not to say we didn’t have some freedom to shape our roles though – I was told my Factory Girl was one of the more nasty ones they’d had in a while… not sure what that says about me though, haha!
In 2015, you made your West End debut in Bend It Like Beckham, do you have any favourite memories from your time in the musical?
This was my first West End job and was such a learning experience. I was an on-stage swing which was just the biggest challenge. However, it forced me to be confident with my choices, to really work hard and to actually learn to enjoy the chaos that can sometimes ensue on stage. Despite my confidence nowadays, I remember feeling incredibly anxious when starting that job. I was so lucky to meet and work alongside some incredible women who helped me learn, guided me through that contract and shaped me to be the performer and woman I am today. Plus, we got to meet the England Women’s football team which had me fangirling like crazy (As I’d understandably got very into women’s football during the show!). It was an amazing start to my career that really helped propel me onwards – I’m incredibly lucky to have done it.
You were part of the original cast album of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical and the original London cast album of Bend It Like Beckham, what was it like working on the releases?
It’s amazing being a part of a cast album. I personally just love studio time, as I’m also a session vocalist and singer-songwriter, but it’s such an amazing memoir of the time I had on these shows. I can still pick out everyone’s voices and remember the amazing time I had working with these very talented people. I hope I get to do another one in the near future!
As a singer, you were a solo vocalist on the Hugh Jackman World Tour in 2018, what was this like?
This was probably the most life-changing moment of my career. Getting to be one of the vocalists alongside Hugh was a genuine dream come true. I was a huge fan of The Greatest Showman, so getting to perform these songs alongside Hugh himself, to arenas across the world, was mind-blowing to me. I played venues I’d dreamed of visiting never mind performing in (think Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden) as well as getting to see parts of the world I thought would never be possible for me. But ultimately, working on the tour taught me a lot about humility and grounding. Hugh is the most down-to-earth, exceptional human being who consistently works hard, is honest and ultimately an absolutely lovely guy. I’ve seen success affect people as they progress through their careers and this moment really helped me realise that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s an experience I will be telling my grandkids about, that’s for sure. It truly changed my life.
What do you enjoy most about performing at your own concerts and what can audiences expect from your upcoming events?
Anyone who’s been to any of my own gigs will tell you that it’s always about having fun. I’m totally real at my gigs: I’ll always likely have a G&T in my hand, I’ll probably tell embarrassing stories about myself and I’ll definitely be singing loud… a lot, haha! But it’s been amazing getting to perform my own music recently (especially when people sing it back at you… that always blows my mind!).
What upcoming shows do you have that you can tell us about?
I’ve got a gig at The Old Queens Head in Angel on 7th July – it’s going to be an absolute vibe so head to my socials or my website to book tickets!
Do you have any planned upcoming releases and how is it seeing the response to your music, which has included your debut single Home and your debut EP Kaleidoscope?
I’m now working on what will likely end up as my debut album, which is very exciting. So maybe there’ll be a release of a song or two by the end of the year but 2023 is going to be a BIG year for me and my music. I can feel it! It’s been amazing to see people sharing and streaming my tunes though. It honestly makes my head explode that people spend their time listening to my music, that they like it and know the words… It’s crazy but so comforting to know that people relate to the music in the way I wanted them to!
How long were you working on the EP and how was it seeing the finished project?
I actually wrote the first song for the EP (Home) at the end of 2019 so it’s been a LONG time coming. With the pandemic though, it wasn’t the right time to release music and I decided to spend more time writing. I’m glad I did because some of my fave songs on the EP would never have made it on otherwise! It was a huge relief once it was released, to be honest. There’s something incredibly scary about sharing music you’ve written, especially when the subject matter is so personal, so to finally let it go was actually strangely comforting.
Where does your love of performing and singing come from and how did you start in both?
I honestly do not have a clue, haha! My parents always argue which one of them I’ve inherited any talent from, but no one in my family is in the arts at all. However, I remember being put into drama classes as a young girl as I was incredibly shy – it was a last ditch attempt to get me to open up and it obviously worked. From there, I got to see musicals through my theatre group. We’d get on a big coach and go to see shows altogether with our parents. I was so lucky I had that opportunity. It sparked something in me that made me realise this was what I wanted to do. I still pinch myself that I achieved that dream. Ten-year-old Kayleigh would have never thought it could happen to us.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career and do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and music artists to listen to?
I’m actually a huge fan of solo travel. So if I have the time and funds, I try to take a trip away. It’s an amazing way to refocus and reconnect with yourself without any ties to work or home or the everyday humdrum of life. I’m hoping I can get away somewhere this year so I can go and explore and adventure again. Aside from that though, if I manage to calm my brain enough, I do love a good book. My flat is filled with more books than I could ever read in a year but stories are what make me tick – it’s no wonder I fell into theatre really! In terms of shows I love to watch, I try not to see anything multiple times as I like to see as much as possible – I’m really excited to see the new production of Legally Blonde soon, and I’m really hoping that Mean Girls makes it over here from the US sometime soon. I saw it on Broadway and it’s a show I’d love to see again (or be in, fingers crossed!). Music-wise, I love chilled pop/RnB vibes – think LEON, Banks, Violet Skies, Sabrina Claudio and Jessie Ware. Absolutely phenomenal female artists who I aspire to!
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