Summer has come to Regent’s Park’s Open Air theatre in more ways than one this year. Joining the season of long days and exposed flesh is actress Summer Strallen who, like the sunny season, is both bright, breezy and makes you feel better about life in general. The niece of Bonnie Langford and sister of current Mary Poppins, Scarlett Strallen, is making debut lead performances in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Boyfriend. Matthew Amer caught up with her in the leafy environs of Regent’s Park.
It is a beautiful summer’s day and there are few better places to be in London when the sun is shining and the birds are singing than Regent’s Park. The offices of the Open Air, where Strallen has just finished a rehearsal for this season’s musical The Boyfriend, are tucked away at the bottom of a secreted path, guarded on both sides by glorious greenery.
Before this al fresco season, Strallen had appeared in shows including Guys And Dolls, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Cats. Though she has understudied major roles before, most notably covering Truly Scrumptious in Chitty, this is the first time she has played leading roles in her own right; this season she plays Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Maisie in The Boyfriend. Strallen has taken this daunting step up in her stride: “It’s not any different,” she says, “because any job I’ve done, I’ve always put 100% into; you put your heart and soul into anything you do. I think the only thing that’s different is the pressure.”
As a central character in The Boyfriend, Strallen has a number of songs that revolve around her. It is during these numbers that the pressure mounts. “There’s nothing else to look at apart from you,” she explains, “so you can’t do anything wrong, you can’t be blasé about anything, you have to get everything totally right every time.”
"I have four boys behind me, which is lovely"
The Boyfriend is set in the 1920s at the French finishing school of Madame Dubonnet, where the only cares her young charges have concern boyfriends. Sandy Wilson’s show is a light-hearted pastiche of earlier 20th century musicals and it retains their warm-hearted glow. Strallen enthuses that it is as much fun to perform as it is to watch, and is particularly effusive about the endearing naivety of the juvenile characters. “It’s a child-like approach to life that they have which is really refreshing for people to see nowadays, because of everything that’s going on in the world,” she says of The Boyfriend’s escapist attraction.
Of the two characters that Strallen plays in the Open Air season, she admits that she is more like The Boyfriend’s fun-loving, confident Maisie than A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s confused lover Helena. At 5’7” with flowing blond locks and dancer’s legs – as evidenced in the Guys And Dolls publicity shots of Ewan McGregor balancing one of Strallen’s legs on his shoulder – Strallen’s ‘English rose’ look and striking figure certainly put her in the same ‘pretty’ category as Maisie. “She’s fun loving, wants to have a good time and she’ll do anything to do it,” she laughs of the characteristics they share. “She’s very flirty too.”
Strallen has a twinkle in her eye that shows she has it in her to be a little bit cheeky. When talking about one of her songs, Safety In Numbers, she says “I have four boys behind me, which is lovely,” and the twinkle is there again.
She also tells the story from her time in Cats, when one un/lucky usher had the pleasure/embarrassment of receiving her feline affections; Strallen arched her back to rub along his legs, before batting at his buttons with her paws as the usher tried to stay in control and shoo her away. Strallen smiles naughtily at the reminiscence, before reassuring me that she bought him a drink after the performance and he seemed to have recovered.
“I have to be very low when I’m talking to somebody,” Strallen explains about why her voice is deeper and quieter than usual today. “I’ve got a bit of a cold.” This is just one of the risks of performing at the Open Air as Strallen goes on to make clear: “If it spits, we carry on. If it drizzles, we carry on. If it gets absolutely torrential, then we have to stop, and the voice of God comes over the PA system.” The season has been pretty uninterrupted so far, but the start of Wimbledon inevitably brought about the first rain, which put Strallen a little under the weather.
Professional that she is, a touch of the sniffles is not going to keep Strallen off the Open Air stage. She talks with great admiration of the leads of Guys And Dolls, who “would have to be on their deathbeds to go off. There was such a feeling of family in the company and the only time people were really off was when they were on holiday for a week. We [the ensemble] got holidays, whereas Jenna [Russell], Ewan [McGregor], Jane [Krakowski] and Doug [Hodge] didn’t. Bless them; they plodded on while we went ‘I’m going to Tunisia, bye!’”
"As much as everyone would love there to be, there is no sibling rivalry"
Her Guys And Dolls co-stars McGregor and Krakowski have sparked an interest in movies that the young actress is now working towards. “Film, film, film, film,” she repeats for dramatic effect, “is the word for me at the moment. It’s not at the front of my mind, it’s at the back; it’s just a little thing saying ‘Come on’.” Among the stars she hopes to work with are Dame Judi Dench, Robert De Niro and Woody Allen, though she is grounded enough to see this may be some way in the future: “I’m not silly,” she says seriously. “You have to do the groundwork; that’s what I intend to do, a lot of good, proper, theatre-based jobs.”
It was always likely that Strallen would end up a star of the stage. For the daughter of dancers Cherida Langford and Sandy Strallen, niece of Bonnie Langford and granddaughter of Young Set founder Babette Langford, performing is in the blood.
-“The most nervous I get is when my mother or my grandmother is in [the audience],” Strallen says of the pressures that come with a performing family, “but I would never feel pressure in a bad way, just pressure from myself, my own pressure to make them proud. And they always are.”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has been a rite of passage for the Strallens. Summer’s younger sisters were in the first and second cast of the show, while Scarlett started in the ensemble before moving up to play Truly Scrumptious. Summer stepped into her sister’s shoes, taking her place in the ensemble, but also understudying Scarlett. She is more than aware that this could have been a tense situation. “There are two ways it can go,” she says, “and it went the best way. As much as everyone would love there to be, there is no sibling rivalry. I think she is one of the best performers in the world, and I think she probably thinks the same about me.”
There is, of course, an added advantage to understudying her sister; any time Scarlett thought she might be off the following day, she tipped Summer off, and the understudy was tucked up in bed with a nice cup of cocoa by 21:00.
With her mum also acting as chaperone for the production and close family friend Christopher Biggins playing Baron Bomburst, it might have been a sad day in the Strallen household when Chitty finally flew off into the sunset. Strallen pauses to consider this for a while, before a smile breaks and the laughter returns: “No,” she giggles, “we’d all done it so we didn’t really mind!”
"If you don’t like it, stuff it, because I’m trying my best"
It may be that coming from a performing family has prepared her for life on the stage, or it may be that there is something inherent within Strallen, but she has an enormous amount of self-belief and confidence. At the thought of unfavourable responses to her performance she exclaims “If you don’t like it, stuff it, because I’m trying my best.” At times it seems the confidence could just be a defence against letting bad reviews or unhealthy opinions drag her down, though she is often surprised at the amount of performers who don’t have that strength to fall back on.
The danger, of course, is that confidence turns into an unattractive arrogance. Yet coming from a family that has been there, done it, and will always offer constructive criticism – there is now a running joke that every time a family member attends a show, a note of advice is expected – Strallen’s feet are firmly on the floor. “I’m not ‘I’m fantastic’, in any way,” she says, getting a little flustered at the thought. “The motto of our family is ‘You can always be better, you can always do better.’” With that in mind, this season is a building block which Strallen hopes will lead to more central theatrical roles and hopefully onto the big screen, though, as ever, she takes a sensible view of the future: “Things happen for a reason and we’ll just see what happens.”