Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Big Interview: Anna-Jane Casey

Anna-Jane Casey is currently starring as Violet Butterfield/French Char Lady in Flowers for Mrs Harris at the Sheffield Crucible.

Based on the novel by Paul Gallico the new musical is by Richard Taylor and Rachel Wagstaff. The show marks the final production Daniel Evans directs as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres. With the cast also including Clare Burt, Rebecca Caine and Laura Pitt-Pulford, Flowers for Mrs Harris runs until 4th June.

Later this year Anna-Jane will return to the Sheffield Crucible to star as Annie Oakley in a revival of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun directed by Paul Foster with choreography by Alistair David. She has worked at Sheffield Theatres many times, previously appearing as Jenny in Company, Edith Piaf in Piaf and Charity in Sweet Charity.

Anna-Jane’s West End credits include: Forbidden Broadway (also Menier Chocolate Factory), Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, Lady Of The Lake in Spamalot, Velma in Chicago, Anita in West Side Story, Buffy/Dinah in Starlight Express, understudy Rizzo in Grease, understudy Narrator in Joseph and Rumpleteazer in Cats.

Just a few of her extensive credits include: Lottie in Mack & Mabel (Chichester/UK Tour), Miss Jones in How To Succeed In Business... (Royal Festival Hall), Jerry's Girls (St James Studio), Ella Peterson in Bells Are Ringing (Union), The Courtesan in The Comedy Of Errors (Regent's Park), title role in Aladdin (Hackney Empire), Maggie Hobson in Hobsons Choice & Mabel Normand in Mack And Mabel (both Watermill) and Dot in Sunday In The Park With George (Menier Chocolate Factory).

I recently spoke to Anna-Jane about her crazy busy life, why Flowers for Mrs Harris is such a different project for her and how she reacted when she was asked to do Annie Get Your Gun...

Before going into rehearsals for Flowers for Mrs Harris you had solo shows at the Hippodrome and Charing Cross Theatre, you did the 48 hour musical as well as various other concerts… and you also have Annie Get Your Gun lined-up for the end of the year. What is going on inside your brain?! 
Well at around ten o’clock at night my brain turns to porridge [laughs], my husband and I sit in front of the telly and I can’t function anymore. I really do believe that once you’ve had children, because you have to schedule your life like a military operation, you can apply so much more. Also… just to add more drama to my life I’ve got lots of concerts to do this summer – when you do these things they’ll tell you what the programme is, they send you the music and you have to learn it yourself so you turn up on the day and are ready to go. So I have lots of songs to learn. 

It all requires a lot of oomph… but the satisfaction at the end of it is brilliant. I can think, ‘Right, I’ve managed to get the kids to school, I’ve paid the fees for their dance classes, learnt four songs for a concert with the RPO and I’m in rehearsals with the lovely Daniel Evans. Yay!’ [jokingly] I might drop dead by the time I’m 47!

Anna-Jane, Rebecca Caine & Clare Burt in rehearsals

It’s always so exciting when a new project like Flowers for Mrs Harris comes along. At what point did you go ‘I really want to be a part of this’?
Well… I read it and thought there was no way I was going to be included… I’m 44 now, but Violet Butterfield and these ladies are in their 50s. That feels like a long way away for me, even though it’s probably not. Ladies at that age in the 1940s were obviously like our Nanas are now. I was honoured they were having me in to audition, but thought I was never going to get it. I know Daniel Evans quite well, I’ve worked with him a couple of times as a director and as a performer. When I went in he just told me to do my thing. It’s so beautiful – it’s one of those shows that you don’t need to try and find emotion because it’s all there on the page and in the music. I stood there in the audition, sang this little bit I had to sing and was just sobbing because it’s beautiful. Apparently that’s what got me the job – the crying [cackles]. I’m going to try that now in every audition! 

I’m really honoured to be doing it because my background is basically your classic American musical theatre – jazz hands, splits and big singing – but this is so different. It’s beautifully English. It’s set at the end of the Second World War, things are still rationed and it’s about a couple of cleaning ladies who work in London. Clare Burt plays Mrs Harris so beautifully it’s not even worth talking about how amazing she is. I play her best friend. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of theatre. All of us were even crying in the rehearsal room. 

You have such a stellar cast including the likes of Rebecca Caine and Laura Pitt-Pulford. What has everyone been like to work with?
I’ve got to be honest, after the first couple of days of rehearsals I went home to my husband and said “I feel like a fish out of water” because they were all sitting there meaningfully going ‘and then this character does this’ and I’m like ‘I do jazz hands’! But it has been so nice to learn from them. Rebecca Caine, Laura Pitt-Pulford and myself are actually sharing a house in Sheffield. It has to be the stagiest house you’ve ever heard of. I’m jumping into the splits, Laura is being deep and meaningful and Rebecca is doing scales. It’s outrageous! We should do our own little TV show.

You need to do a video blog!
Yeah – Three Stagey B*****s Over Breakfast! We have a wonderful man, David Durham, in the cast playing the Major and his background is in opera so he’s got this stunning big baritone voice. The sounds which are being made are gorgeous! 

What’s the music like? What can people expect from this score?
When you first listen to it you think it’s very complicated, then all of a sudden a chord or lyric will come in that makes your heart melt. It’s got a Sondheim-esque way about it in that it’s conversational. There are some stunning moments – we have a twelve piece orchestra. Your heart will ache and you won’t know why because of the way the chord has moved and because of the way Clare Burt sings it.

Have you enjoyed the process of working on a new musical?
Yes, Rachel Wagstaff who is our writer has two tiny children – her youngest is five months – and she was often in the rehearsal room breastfeeding in the corner. The other writer Richard Taylor was also in the room a lot – it was so helpful to have them there so we could ask about their ideas and how certain things should be done. We didn’t have to guess or make assumptions. 

Anna-Jane does a high kick in Jerry's Girls

It must be so special to be working with Daniel Evans on his final production as artistic director of Sheffield Theatres!
It is! Every time I work with Daniel, I get pregnant… which is slightly terrifying. I’ve said that I can’t be having any more babies – I’m too old for babies. Can I just clarify that it’s not Daniel who gets me pregnant! We’ve just been joking that I can’t get knocked up again [laughs]. He’s lovely and a wonderful, wonderful man. Being such an amazing performer, when he puts his directing hat on he knows what he wants to achieve and how he would feel as an actor doing it. He can express different things to you which is such a bonus.

Do you enjoy doing these regional jobs where you spend a couple of months in Sheffield or Chichester? The audiences are completely different to London.
Absolutely! I was saying to my sister (actress Natalie Casey) recently that we’re so lucky! Normal people who do a 9 to 5 job for twenty years must think it’s terrifying that about every six months I have to go and find another job, but it’s brilliant and so rewarding to do different stuff. Even though I’m a Lancashire girl, Sheffield is my absolute favourite theatre to work in. Not only do you get fantastic audiences who are very responsive to whatever work is on there, but you get to know everybody from the cleaner, to the managing director… and the woman who works in the box office. It’s such a warm feeling of a place to work in. I love it!

So this Christmas you are back in Sheffield to star in Annie Get Your Gun… best casting ever!

[laughs] Tell me everything!
What’s so weird is that the film was on over Christmas, during that week between Christmas Day and New Year. I was at my mum’s at the time with my daughters. I saw it out the corner of my eye and said, “I’ve never seen this film, Betty Hutton is amazing in this”. My mum told me a few stories about the film and so on. Literally a month later we were back in London, and the phone rings… it’s Daniel Evans… [imitates Welsh accent] “Hello love, would you like to do Annie Get Your Gun at Christmas?” I was crying in the lounge and my eldest girl was holding on to me asking if I was ok. I was being incredible stagey and said [does stagey impression of herself sobbing], “Mummy has just been offered a fabulous part”. 

I can’t wait! The scary thing is that apparently they’ve already sold a quarter of the tickets so I can’t be s**t because people are actually coming! The pressure is on. It’s going to be brilliant because Paul Foster, who is going to direct it, is just the most wonderful man and a good friend of mine. Alistair David’s choreography is going to be brilliant – he’s also a good mate of mine. I do feel a little bit of pressure, but that’s what keeps us going. Otherwise I would just work in Tesco’s and go, “That’s £2.99 Madam”. 

I’m sure that if you worked in Tesco’s you would still manage to get a high kick in there somewhere.
[laughs] There would be jazz hands!

Stagey question – you’re hosting a dinner party and can invite three theatrical legends dead or alive. Who would you invite and why?
Clearly you’ve got to have Liza Minnelli. A lot of people would say Judy, but I’m going for Liza because I want to hear the stories about Judy from Liza. Who’s ultimate stagey? You’ve got to have a beautiful choreographer… probably Mikhail Baryshnikov you know! Because he’s still hot. He’s just gorgeous! Who else? Oooo… do you know what? I might invite Howard Keel because in all those ultimate movie musicals he’s your dude – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Annie Get Your Gun! Plus he’s just such a big hunk of a man, so I’ve got two lots of eye candy and one stagey cow next to me. 

You need to invite them to this stagey house in Sheffield with Rebecca Caine and Laura Pitt-Pulford!
[laughs] Now that would be brilliant!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Flowers for Mrs Harris runs at the Sheffield Crucible until 4th June 2016. Annie Get Your Gun opens at the Sheffield Crucible on 14th December 2016 (previews from 8th December) and runs until 14th January 2017. Please visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk for further information and tickets for both shows.

Photo Credit 2-3: Johan Persson
Photo Credit 4: Darren Bell

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