Currently, Emily Benjamin is in the cast of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club at the Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End as Swing and Alternate Sally Bowles, with the musical winning seven Olivier Awards including for Best Musical Revival at this year’s ceremony. Prior to the pandemic, Emily was Ensemble in Sally Cookson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, also covering the roles of White Witch, Mrs Macready and Mrs Beaver, and her other projects have included Zog Live! UK Tour and Bat Out of Hell, which marked Emily’s professional debut. Emily answered our questions about being in the cast of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club as Swing and Alternate Sally Bowles, seeing the show’s success at this year’s Olivier Awards and her time in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
You are currently in the cast of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, how did it feel booking your role of Swing and how much did you know about the show before auditioning?
I think the first I saw of this production of Cabaret was that article that got released about Eddie (Redmayne) and Jessie (Buckley) starring in it and I remember having a conversation with my friend along the lines of ‘oh, well that’s next years Oliviers sorted, isn’t it’ not even imagining for a second I’d be part of it.
I’ve loved the show for a long time – it was actually one of the shows PPA chose to perform in my third year at drama school, but despite auditioning for Sally Bowles with a desperation bordering on obsessive, I was cast with half the year in the musical Baby!, while the other half did Cabaret. In hindsight, I’m so glad because it meant that I had no previous set ideas about the show and went in on that first day feeling like I’d won the lottery.
How is it covering one of the lead characters Sally Bowles and what do you enjoy most about playing her?
Sally is an absolute dream for any performer – I think in part because she reflects back to us so much of our worst features, or at least that’s how it feels to me. She’s narcissistic, full of both false and genuine confidence, desperate for love while also always seeking out the next thrill, never satisfied and too self-involved to worry about anything but herself: I think all performers are guilty of that self-absorption at times and the joy and difficulty of playing Sally is it’s a little too close to the bone.
I learnt so, so, so much from watching Jessie create this part. She taught me that being true to yourself is enough – that so long as you care about the story you are telling you can’t go wrong. She did things with this character I couldn’t have fathomed and my Sally wouldn’t exist without having seen hers. And now watching Amy (Lennox) – a true West End stalwart – turn out exceptional performances every night with a completely different version of Sally is so inspirational. Covering is hard, but it is a gift made so much easier by the team around you. I find myself absurdly thankful for the freedom we are allowed at the Kit Kat Club to interpret the material. None of us are expected to go on stage as Sally or Cliff, or even when I’m swinging for one of the Kit Kat girls – and perform a carbon copy of the person who’s shoes I’m filling. The whole creative team are incredibly supportive and I can’t praise them enough.
Can you tell us about some of the other roles you’ve covered and what is the show like to be part of?
I cover seven tracks in total at the Kit Kat Club (I like to not think about it too much as it makes me sweaty) – Sally Bowles, five of the six Kit Kat girls (Rosie, Lulu, Frenchie, Texas and Helga) and, surprising to some – Frauline Schneider! A part that, though I’m a little too young to do justice to, I thoroughly love. I actually went on for three shows recently due to a combination of illness and holiday and had such a wonderful time – which is impossible not to have when your main scene partner is Elliot Levey and acting opposite him feels like an absolute masterclass. Actually – the whole building feels like a masterclass. The show itself is a melting pot of the best of the best of creativity, gender non conformity, queer culture, a backstage crew who are hilarious and work insanely hard to keep the show slick, fresh grads and acting legends alike. I mean, it’s nuts – I’m in a show with Anna-Jane bloody Casey, who I used to obsessively watch YouTube clips of (go watch her do Tap Your Troubles Away right now).
What was the experience like attending this year’s Olivier Awards and seeing the show’s success there?
The Olivier Awards felt like a fever dream. A good friend of mine who was sat on the ground floor of the Royal Albert Hall summed it up quite nicely, I think, when she said, ‘every time Cabaret got read out, it was like the assembly in school where the leaving year is really rowdy and raucous and they cheer like they know they rule the world? That’s what you lot sounded like up in the gods’, which – while I would hope we didn’t come across overtly confident – I can’t really argue with. Our cast that day felt so united. Every person went above and beyond to represent ourselves and our show to the best of our abilities, whether that be with our makeup and outfits, or the breathtaking performance courtesy of Amy, or the beautiful and personal acceptance speeches. I would hope that people saw that day how much everyone involved in Cabaret cares about the show. We’re showing audiences difficult truths at a time where sadly the show has never felt more relevant, and we do so with joy and love and huge amounts of support for each other. It was a beautiful day.
Have you had any stand-out highlights from performing in Cabaret so far?
The first time I got to go on as Sally Bowles, I came off stage and cried and cried from relief and happiness and confusion that – had I really just done that?! – and people kept coming in to hug me and congratulate me and I remember being stood there in my pants just limply accepting hugs – I could barely get words out but I just felt immensely grateful and privileged to have told her story.
For those that haven’t seen the musical, why would you recommend booking tickets and what are you looking forward to most for continuing in Cabaret?
I don’t think anyone can fully predict the way they will feel leaving the theatre after this show. I’ve performed it now so many times and the gut punch still feels as palpable the 100th time as the first. There is joy and freedom at the Kit Kat Club – there is the true opportunity to come as you are whoever you are but there is also an unavoidable accountability that Cabaret manages to plant a seed of in its audiences. It’s high camp entertainment, but comes with a heavy warning to be heeded. Best of both worlds.
Prior to the pandemic, you’d been in the cast of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, how was your time in the show?
I loved that show! It’s the shortest contract I’ve done in my career so far and the opportunity to work at the Bridge Theatre is something I’m very thankful for – it furthered my education in puppetry, which is such an exciting and rewarding performance element that involves so much control and teamwork. It was also a proper dream come true to work with Sally Cookson, who has a fantastically fluid and collaborative approach to theatre creation.
What was it like as an Ensemble member and what were the roles of White Witch, Mrs Macready and Mrs Beaver like to learn?
The show was much more of a play with music than my previous experience in musical theatre and being in the Ensemble involved a huge amount of multi-role. At one point, I had about four costumes layered on top of each other as the changes were so quick! It was very fun to go from a Scottish nun to a maid to a snow creature to a badger (and many more) all in the space of one show – finding the physical, vocal and emotional dexterity to bring each individual to life.
Covering was intense as the characters were physically demanding roles – prop heavy and with huge chunks of dialogue but the challenge is always so fun!
How was it playing Princess Pearl in the Zog Live! UK Tour?
Eye-opening, for sure! Kids are the toughest critics and they can spot a falsehood a mile away. I met some of the best friends of my life on that tour and we performed at quite a gruelling schedule (10am shows are the true test of an actor’s ‘get up and go’) but I really do miss the inputs I used to get from the audience when, at the end of the show I’d shout, ‘I know what I want to be!’ – the next line is meant to be ‘a doctor!’ (Princess Pearl is not enthused with the crown), but I had all sorts of creative ideas thrown at me from the UK’s under sevens. I think everyone should do kids’ theatre at least once.
You made your professional debut in Bat Out of Hell, what was it like performing the Meat Loaf music?
An absolute dream. My mother had played the Bat Out of Hell album to death growing up and I knew it cover to cover – I think Jim Steinman’s music speaks to the dramatic rockstar in us all. Performing it every night to people that loved that music – that was why they were there after all – that was an absolute adrenaline rush.
Where does your love of acting come from and was there anything that encouraged you to train at Performance Preparation Academy?
I’ve luckily been encouraged throughout my life by my wonderful family – my mother showed me an advert for Stagecoach in the newspaper when I was about six to test the water and I think was relieved at my enthusiasm – she’s yet to have a break from the constant tirade of Disney songs at full volume around the house. My father always sang and one of my earliest memories is singing Summer Nights from Grease on an old plug-into-the-telly karaoke machine. PPA actually came about as a happy accident when a girl I met at a drama school audition mentioned she went there – it turned out to be the perfect choice for me and I spent five gruelling but rewarding years learning some technique alongside all the pre-existing enthusiasm.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
I’m obsessed with NT Live online – it means that those performances I would have killed to have been at (Billie Piper in Yerma, Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea) I can watch in the comfort of my home over and over again! But then again – nothing beats live theatre. I most recently got to see the version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on at the Gillian Lynne and the magic was so palpable. A little girl in front of me sat with her jaw hanging open and that just made the whole experience all the better – that’s the reaction you want.
I also went to my first midnight matinee at The Globe earlier this year and it’s such an excellent way to spend an evening!
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I read, I draw and paint, I read some more. I play guitar (very badly). I drink strong coffee with silly friends and laugh about the same old stories we always laugh about. I eat a lot of bread and drink a bit too much red wine. I watch half a Netflix series and forget to finish it. I sit in parks and hope a dog will come and say hello. I doom scroll Twitter and try to stay on top of things like politics and environmental concerns and, when it all gets too much, I go for a run or I go home to Wales to spend time with my mother and our three cats. I write, nothing to show anyone just yet but I write. I listen to new shows, I go to Zumba classes, I buy clothes I absolutely do not need. Just the usual really!
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