Katie Bernstein is currently playing Peggy in Mrs Henderson Presents at the Noel Coward Theatre, having originated the role last year at the Theatre Royal Bath.
Her theatre credits include: Little Becky Two Shoes in Urinetown (St James/West End), Isobel in Payback (Riverside Studios), understudy Mimi/Maureen in Rent (UK tour), Nancy in Run (Polka), Pilar in Goodbye Barcelona (Arcola), Godspell (Manchester Palace) and Helen Shapiro in 20th Century Boy (New Wolsey).
In addition, Katie regularly works as a session singer. She previously supported Katie Melua at BBC Proms in the Park and performed backing vocals for Belgium at last year’s Eurovision Song Contest.
I recently sat down with Katie to discuss what it’s like to take on a new musical, how audiences have been responding to Mrs Henderson Presents and what everyone’s like to work with. We also discussed Urinetown, playing Amy Winehouse in a musical and how she fell into musical theatre…
Mrs Henderson Presents is such a beautiful new British musical! How much did you know about it at first?
Well we weren’t actually sent that much material, so I went into it quite blind. I had seen the film and knew the premise of the story so knew it would have a comic element to it. I knew it had heart because of how British it is. I just had to read one or two scenes and didn’t know any of the music – I sang my own song when I auditioned. I just went with it!
So then what was the first rehearsal process like for Bath? When did you realise you were working on something pretty special?
I think I knew when we did the table read because it was funny straight away. There were some big laugh out loud moments and a real mix of characters. Even though there are only three leads in the show, there are lots of other characters who pipe out. My bits of the script actually didn’t change very much – it’s always nice to be part of a new piece though because if something doesn’t feel right you can talk about it, it’s really exciting to have that creating element.
Katie in Mrs Henderson Presents
The show went down extremely well in Bath, but then there must have been a period where you were wondering if it would transfer…
I had my heart in it and really trusted it, I think there was a part of me that knew it would transfer. Urinetown also took ages before it transferred, but I guess you never know. Luckily it did… and here we are!
Why are audiences loving Mrs Henderson Presents? What is its secret?
It’s so British! It’s so exciting to be part of a new British musical. The music is new and isn’t shoehorned in. It feels like the music was written in the 40s because it has that Vaudeville feel to it. Even the ballad songs don’t creep into that contemporary sound – you can’t secretly riff [laughs]. It’s really relevant.
What has everyone been like to work with?
We are genuinely a massive family! It’s such a nice atmosphere. I mean… thank god the girls are all really nice because of the nudity element. It was quite scary from day one.
|Katie in Mrs Henderson Presents|
How was it approached?
On like day three of rehearsals Terry (Johnson, director & book writer) said, “We might just do something to do with the nudity tomorrow.” It was all done really tastefully, because the nudity is based on artwork we were all sat around the room and one by one went up, took our clothes off and had to strike a new pose like a painting – we were all given a different painting on paper for inspiration.
I don’t even remember what anybody looked like, I just remember the adrenaline. It’s not about what your body looks like, it’s just about the confidence of doing it – that’s what is really attractive. Oh gosh… that sounds really cheesy [laughs]. It’s empowering because you think, ‘Who cares if I’ve got hips and boobs’. You’ve just got to embrace your body!
And is it not a big deal any more?
Weirdly it is… well it’s not a big deal, but you are still fully aware that you’re stood onstage fully naked [laughs]. You don’t suddenly just chill! I don’t think the nudity is the focal point you come out talking about though.
Not at all! There are so many contrasting factors in this show. One minute it’s funny and next it’s very powerful.
Exactly, the audience come to the realisation that there’s a war on and that bombs are going off outside the theatre. It’s based on a real story which I never knew before. It’s nice having the older demographic in who really get the older music hall jokes. The younger generation love the style of the period with the fashion and everything. I really love Terry’s writing, there are some things you might not have trusted during the rehearsal period… but once you got in front of an audience it all made sense. He knew what he was doing! He writes really cleverly.
We need to talk about Urinetown – I absolutely loved that show!
I love it so much… Lizzy Connolly always laughs at me because I talk about it quite a lot [laughs].
What’s it like to now look back at your whole journey with it?
For me it was my first West End gig so it was really exciting and really special. The whole group of people put together, from the creative team to the cast, were so talented. I was learning from everyone all the time. I don’t think I’ll ever get to do anything like it again. I got to be ugly and didn’t have to worry about my hair or makeup. I loved the music so much!
Katie in Urinetown
What was ‘Run, Freedom Run’ like to perform every night?
We called it the trilogy because at the top of act two there were three songs back to back… at the end of ‘Run Freedom Run’ my character was pushed to the floor because her leg braces were taken off her… I was always like ‘It’s nearly finished… I can breathe!’ That was my favourite section of the show. Jamie Lloyd (director) is really good at putting the right people together in a room; he trusts you to do your thing, and then he’ll walk around and talk to you on your own and help you tweak it. He’s very calm and trusts you to get the best out of you. I loved the choreography too – Ann (Yee) is fantastic.
Time for a stagey question! 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?
God… this is so difficult! I’m a huge fan of Carole King, so now there’s a musical I would take ‘Natural Woman’. It sounds cheesy, but I grew up with her music. Does it have to be stagey? I can’t take Amy Winehouse music?
No – there’s not an Amy Winehouse musical yet! Actually… you could totally play Amy Winehouse!
[laughs] I guess she’s a Jew and I’m a Jew… who knows?! I just saw the spark in your eye! This could be my moment [laughs]. The thing is, I don’t know how anyone could recapture her sound. I mean, I would love that. Can you imagine? She went through a lot.
Sorry… I’m avoiding the original question. Weirdly I don’t listen to much musical theatre. I would take ‘Move On’ from Sunday in the Park With George because it was one of the first songs I ever sang at drama school. Dot is one of the real dream parts I would love to play. There’s a comedy element but she has so much heart. Right, I’ve got two! One more… if we’re going contemporary I’m loving Hamilton at the moment. I guess if you’re on a desert island you want to keep it fresh! I would choose ‘Satisfied’. That’s a tune!
So as well as Dot, what are your other dream roles?
Well I know I’ve done these two really nice roles in the West End, and it would be great to get a third. Something like… one of the Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton would be amazing. Also I would like to change it up; I’ve always dreamed of doing a season at the RSC or doing a Shakespeare at the Globe… everyone wants to work at the National. Maybe something completely different. As long as there are some acting chops involved it excites me whether it’s a musical, Shakespeare, film or TV.
When you were growing up did you always veer towards theatre?
When I was growing up I really wanted to be a recording artist. I was signed to a label when I was young and did some really cool gigs. I was a teenager and never had the right management or guidance and after a while lost my way because I didn’t write music or know the kind of music I wanted to sell. After a while it ran dry and I had to work out what I wanted to do – I knew I still wanted to use my voice. I did an acting course at LIPA. Whilst training in straight acting I realised it was just the acting side with the singing that I loved the most which is what led me to musical theatre. But now it’s not just musicals I want to do. Because of what I did growing up, now I get to also do a lot of good session work and some cool gigs.
Would you ever consider putting together your own solo show?
I mean… maybe. I like the showmanship to it. Doing something like that is quite an intimidating thought though! Maybe once I get a couple more shows under my belt it’s something I might want to look into. Me and Lizzy Connolly always talk about that because she loves the comedy side.
Kate & the cast of Mrs Henderson Presents
Oh my gosh you should do something together!
Like a double act? She’s such a legend, isn’t she?
Lizzy is one of my all-time favourite interviewees. She’s so talented – you have to make this happen!
[laughs] You would love it, wouldn’t you? We should put a show together because we both have the same sense of humour.
Finally, what is it like to have so much support behind you from theatregoers? They’re so dedicated!
It’s really, really nice. It’s really nice to have people that support you and want to come and see you. Theatreland is its own little bubble, and it’s really nice that the same people come back to see you in things again and again. It’s really nice talking to people at stage door, finding out who they are and what they thought of the show. Me and some of the girls were worried that we might get some strange people at stage door because of the nudity, but it’s not like that at all. Everyone has been so lovely!
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
Mrs Henderson Presents runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until Saturday 18th June 2016.
Please visit www.mrshenderson.co.uk for further information and tickets.
Photo Credit 2-3: Paul Coltas
Photo Credit 4: Johan Persson