Thursday, 26 November 2015

Interview: Ellie Nunn, starring in Desperate Measures

Ellie Nunn is currently starring as Isobel in Desperate Measures, a new musical adapted from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, by Robin Kingsland and Chris Barton. 

The musical opens officially at the Jermyn Street Theatre tomorrow (27th November) for a limited run until 20th December. 

Ellie’s theatre credits include: Gatsby (Arts Theatre), Shakespeare in Love (Noel Coward Theatre), Lady Windermere's Fan (Kings Head Theatre), Bombshells (Jermyn Street Theatre) and The Last Laundress of Queensway (Drayton Arms). Her film credits include The Brief History, Untimely Death of George III and Cracks.

I recently spoke to Ellie, who is the daughter of Trevor Nunn and Imogen Stubbs, about what people can expect from Desperate Measures, returning to the Jermyn Street Theatre and how it feels to be venturing into the crazy world of musical theatre…

What were your first impressions when you found out Measure for Measure had been adapted into a musical?
When I first heard about it I think I was really surprised! As someone who is quite new to musical theatre as a world, I was so excited by the prospect of creating something and being the first people to do it – it is so exciting to be a part of that creation process and being able to put your mark on something. In Measure for Measure Isabella was the part I had my eye on and really wanted to play [laughs], so when this came around I thought ‘Wow I get to play the role AND sing’! It was very attractive. I had seen the work this company (Banter Productions) had done before at Jermyn Street and absolutely loved it, so I knew what they could do.

The musical reimagines the story to the ‘swinging sixties’ in London, what can people expect?
There’s a lot of new, exciting talent in this cast which has been so exciting to see during the rehearsal process. I think the score and book are both phenomenal. There’s humour, there’s freedom and lightness to the sixties and free love and things like that… but actually, the piece is also so moving. It’s still the same Measure for Measure which is famously the problem comedy and I think that stands in the musical as well. There’s such a sense of fun to the show, but it’s also a very upsetting story in many ways. I hope we can entertain and move the audience in equal measures.

How does it feel to be playing a dream role in such a new, reimagined context?
It’s an odd one to be playing a role that already exists in such a different format. I found it really challenging, but then I had a conversation with the director and we realised that I’m very cynical and will make a joke out of things but there’s just no room for that in Isobel’s world. Her way of thinking is very straightforward so I’ve had to stamp out my own cynicism. As an actor I’ve found it extremely challenging to remove so much of myself to be able to play this character. Often we bring lots of ourselves to a part, but for this role I’ve had to step back. 

How have you found the rehearsal process? Working on something new must really bring everyone together!
It has been one of the best atmospheres of any rehearsal room I have ever been in. We’re lucky enough to have such an incredible MD in Jordan Li-Smith who doesn’t just drill the music into us, he is actively training the cast. The difference he has made in my voice over the last three weeks is amazing – I can’t thank him enough! Because it’s such a young cast there is an exciting energy in rehearsals and such a sense of fun. It has also felt very safe which is, for me, the most important thing. Everyone has supported each other. 

Are you excited to be back at the Jermyn Street?
When I worked here last time I was doing a one-woman show so was, obviously, on my own onstage for two hours. It’s amazing to be back with thirteen people onstage – it couldn’t be more different! I’m such a big fan of the Jermyn Street Theatre. They are doing the most phenomenal job, I think the programming of their shows is so exciting. I love everything and the range is fascinating! 

What has it been like for you to venture into the crazy world of musical theatre?!
[laughs] Really interesting! It’s funny because I’ve grown up around musicals and they have always been a huge part of my life, but this is the first time I’ve come into the musical theatre world as a working actress. I’ve just finished working on another show called Gatsby with some incredible names in musical theatre. Talking and working with them made me realise that it is a totally different world. I always have a slight feeling that I’ve talked my way into it and don’t really belong there when it comes to singing. 

Don’t say that!
The most incredible thing I’ve learnt with musical theatre is that there’s such phenomenal support and it’s so amazing seeing how celebrated musical theatre actors are! The thing I find most moving is the support that understudies get in the world of musical theatre. I was understudying in Shakespeare In Love which was amazing, but I’ve just been working with Maria Coyne (who recently understudied Glinda in Wicked) and I was talking to Adam Bayjou (who recently finished as a runner-up in WEF’s Understudy of the Year Award) the other day and the support that they have is incredible and I really champion that! And I really champion understudies… which we don’t have on this show [laughs]. 

Previously did you ever think you might end up doing musical theatre?
I’m an odd one because I think I actually wanted to be a dancer! It was kind of really sad because as a seventeen year old I was very aware that I was not built to be a dancer – I’m quite tall and a bit pudgy. It was what I really wanted to do, especially Matthew Bourne’s work which I was absolutely fascinated by because of the combination of acting with dance. 

But you must have seen lots of musicals whilst growing up?
Oh yes; growing up and watching all these big musicals, as a child I definitely wanted to be in musicals rather than plays. I can’t tell you how many parts I was determined to one day play. Then when I went to university there was the musical theatre society and, honestly, I felt really intimidated by it and thought ‘oh gosh, I can’t sing like that’ so continued to do straight plays. Then I was lucky enough to do Merrily We Roll Along and Cabaret - both which people describe as musicals for actors so I still didn’t think I had the confidence to do a musical… I still don’t [laughs]! [jokingly] I don’t think it’s possible for me to actually be in a musical! But it was certainly the dream when I was younger.

So I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
I've been waiting for this one! I absolutely love reading people's answers to this question, I've been thinking what mine would be for a while! My first one would have to be 'America' from West Side Story… if I could I'd take the whole album. That track may be my favourite piece of music of all time. When the instrumentals kick in it's like nothing else; the music is so full of fire and energy and passion, it makes you want to dance and shout and cry all at once. Next would be 'Sunday' from Sunday in the Park with George. It's got to be one of the most beautiful arrangements ever written, it always clears my mind and calms me down. I like to listen to the chaos at the beginning and think of it as all the different worries on my mind, then let the song do its work. And last has got to be 'Make 'Em Laugh' from Singin in the Rain. That song is like a vitamin you should take on a daily basis – it’s pure joy.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Desperate Measures runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 20th December 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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