I’m sure former EastEnder and star of Cabaret Michelle Ryan doesn’t need to garner any extra brownie points with the musical’s director ahead of the new production’s West End debut, but describing Rufus Norris as “a bit like a young Clint Eastwood” can’t do her any harm.
The director, you see, was forced to step out of the backstage shadows and into the glaring limelight during the pre-West End tour of the famous Kander and Ebb musical when the show’s Cliff of choice, West End regular Matt Rawle, picked up an injury. Performing opposite her director, despite his resemblance to the American film icon, was, Ryan says, “like the school teacher being on the school trip”.
Leading the musical alongside four different Cliffs in the space of just two hectic weeks was, arguably, not ideal preparation for an actress better known for her screen work than for her stage prowess – her previous notable theatrical experiences include Who’s The Daddy at the King’s Head and The Talented Mr Ripley in Northampton – and one who is making her stage musical debut playing one of musical theatre’s most iconic roles at London’s Savoy theatre.
Luckily, Ryan has a stoic nature, speaking about touring the production as if she has been doing it all her life. “It’s all about experimenting and being brave and seeing what works and what people respond to.” That is what she has been doing, looking at every venue as a new challenge offering new opportunities for a new way of looking at her role.
What a role it is. Just utter the name Sally Bowles and for most musical theatre fans the image of a bowler-hatted Liza Minnelli leaps to mind like a bestockinged frog. Having played her to award-winning success on film, the US star is inextricably linked to the cabaret performer who leads the show at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub in the musical’s tale of decadence and debauchery in a land on the brink of the most hideous, Nazi-fuelled change.
“It will always be Liza’s role,” says Ryan, who previously saw her friend and EastEnders’ colleague Kim Medcalf play the role in Norris’ first production of Cabaret. “I feel it’s been loaned to me.”
That’s right. Norris, himself an award-winner for productions including Festen and Afore Night Come, first directed Cabaret in London six years ago. Back then Anna Maxwell Martin opened as Bowles before a number of actresses – among them Downton Abbey’s Amy Nuttall and Les Misérables’ Samantha Barks – stepped into the role. But this is not simply an exercise in reviving a past production. The producers are keen to emphasise that this is something new, a re-imagining. It is, Ryan explains, the culmination of all those productions and this company’s own experimentation, “a fresh approach with a new energy; it’s the best of everything that has been found”.
It’s a brave production too. Even in the age of ‘star casting’ how many shows would open in the West End with two entirely unproven leads? Ryan may be a novice stage performer, but she has years of acting experience behind her having joined EastEnders to play Zoe Slater at the age of 15. Her co-star, playing the charismatic Emcee, is former Pop Idol winner Will Young who, despite years of live performance experience, is a rank newcomer when it comes to acting with just a handful of screen appearances to his name. Ryan laughs when I point this out, not a quiet, nervous laugh, but a big, hearty guffaw. She knows just how brave it is, describing producer Bill Kenwright as ‘ballsy’ for making such a move, but adds “Sally and the Emcee are such vulnerable and messed up people. I think there’s a raw energy to both of them, and I guess that’s what novices bring.”
When the curtain first rises at the Savoy theatre in early October, Ryan will achieve an ambition sparked when she saw a production of Grease in London aged just 10. “I thought everyone looked like they were having so much fun,” she says. She immediately joined a theatre group where she was inspired by a teacher who told stories about taking to the stage with broken ribs. It cemented the need for dedication in the mind of the impressionable young actress. Ironically much of what she learned there was musical theatre, yet much of what we know her for is gritty drama and TV sci-fi roles.
That may be because as a teenager she had a key decision to make. She was accepted to Laine Theatre Arts College at the same time as being offered the job on the BBC’s long-running London-set melange of misery EastEnders. Had she taken the first option we may have been made aware of her musical talents earlier, or not. She chose to learn on the job and has not looked back since. Five years walking the streets of Walford was followed by memorable appearances as an aristocratic jewel thief in Doctor Who, an assistant with a distinctly dangerous job in ITV’s Jekyll and dark sorceress Nimueh in Merlin. But she is known almost as much for a job that didn’t go quite as well, as for those that did.
In 2007 she won the lead role in an exciting new US version of The Bionic Woman. She had become the latest young British star to leap across the Atlantic and win a major role in a stateside drama that promised to be the next big thing. The world was her biologically modified oyster.
Except, the bionic plan was not as faultless as the body of Ryan’s rebuilt character. The show was cancelled after one season. She could feel disgruntled. She could be protective. She’s neither. When the woman who brought her into the show was released from the project early on, she says, “I knew that it wasn’t likely to run. It happens, you sign up for a project and it becomes something different. I had real fun. I loved doing all the martial arts. She was a brilliant role. The disappointment is that it never fully realised its potential. That’s the thing that is a shame, but it happens.”
Listening to Ryan speak, it feels like she believes everything she has done, the ups and the downs, have brought her to where she is now, about to lead a show into the West End, a successful British movie Cockneys vs. Zombies just opened, a DVD – The Man Inside – due out later this autumn. “I’m 28 now,” she says, maturity weighing in her voice. “It feels like now is the prime time, before I have children or any distractions, to give my all to Sally.”
“I feel like this is the beginning of a new chapter,” she contniues. “I think that’s probably why it feels like I have boundless energy. An older girlfriend of mine said 28 is the year when as a woman things start shifting. I do feel that all of the projects that are happening, that have come out or that I’m working on at the moment, they just feel right. I’m not promoting anything where I feel I can’t be honest about what it was like working on it.”
However well Ryan is received when the press file into the Savoy, I wouldn’t expect the actress to be a constant presence in the West End, not because she wouldn’t be welcome or she doesn’t have the talent – if what I’ve heard from within the industry rings true, she’ll surprise a few people who might already have written her off as another soap star trying to go legit – but because, despite the maturity of her arguments, there is still a wealth of youthful eagerness to learn and explore everything and anything she can. Fellow cast member Harriet Thorpe might be teaching Ryan how to take a bow without running off apologetically – “she says by the Savoy she’ll have me ready” – but, Ryan says, despite moving from Walford to Vancouver via trips into alternate realities, “there’s such a huge world out there; I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface”.
“I think it’s going to be pretty emotional,” she says of her West End debut. I hope it lives up to all she dreamed it will be. I’m sure it will. I’m also sure she’ll take it in her stride, bionic or not. She’ll probably make Norris’ day.
"There’s such a huge world out there; I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface"