Thursday 14 December 2017

'Musical theatre is a lot more hard work than people think'

'Blood Brothers' star has finally struck a balance between work and play

Storm and a teacup: Rebecca Storm and Deirdre Reynolds catch up over lunch at Palmerstown House Estate in Kildare, near the singer's home. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Storm and a teacup: Rebecca Storm and Deirdre Reynolds catch up over lunch at Palmerstown House Estate in Kildare, near the singer's home. Photo: Dave Meehan.
Palmerstown House Estate
Stage Star: Rebecca Storm is celebrating 30 years playing Blood Brothers' Mrs Johnstone.
Rebecca Storm - best known as Ireland's queen of musical theatre.
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

Sitting down to discuss their life and career, actors often lament being typecast. As she celebrates 30 years in the same role however, Rebecca Storm has absolutely no complaints.

On Monday night, the West End star will don the apron of Blood Brother's Mrs Johnstone for the fourteenth time in three decades at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin. But she still considers herself lucky to have landed the part in the first place.

"It was a door-opener, no doubt about it," says Rebecca of the musical that turned her into a household name. "It had been on the West End, but it was taken off prematurely.

"I don't think the London people got it, with it being a Liverpool-based play."

"That was a great stroke of luck for me because then they advertised nationwide for a Mrs Johnstone."

Gliding into Palmerstown House Estate in a floor-sweeping black ensemble, today the glamorous actress and singer couldn't look further from the downtrodden Catholic mother of seven.

Despite being hand-picked to resuscitate such emotionally-charged classics as 'Tell Me It's Not True', looking back, the Yorkshire native says she had "absolutely no idea" what she was auditioning for.

"To this day, I've no idea why I went for it," recalls Rebecca over a leisurely lunch at the golfer's paradise, close to where she now lives with her husband, Kenny.

"It was the first audition I'd ever been to for a musical. I just answered the ad in the stage and television newspaper.

"They said they were looking for a woman between 24 and 40, and I was 23, so I thought, 'I'll give it a shot'.

"I travelled to Manchester from Huddersfield, where I was living, queued up with five hundred other girls, and went on and sang my two songs.

"I've no idea why I noticed that little ad because I didn't even used to read that page - it was fate."

Indeed, as far back as the high chair, it seems that Storm was destined for a life on the stage, later inhabiting such iconic roles as Eva Peron in Evita and Florence in Chess.

"Apparently I was a singing baby," laughs Rebecca, whose petite frame belies those roof-lifting lungs of hers. "I used to just sing at the top of my voice.

"Seemingly, I used to make this noise - 'um-ah, um-ah' - and my mother finally discovered I was doing an impression of a rusty swing in the park."

"My mum always wanted to be a singer, but my granddad was very strict," she adds, "so she was thrilled when I said I wanted to be a singer.

"Although, I don't think she was too thrilled when I took off with a rock 'n roll band at eighteen!"

But even the rock 'n' roll lifestyle seemed tame next to belting them out on Broadway, including two gruelling years as Fantine in Les Misérables, according to the star.

"Musical theatre is a lot more hard work than people think," Rebecca says, pouring two cups of tea in the traditional British manner of milk first.

"Les Mis was tough because it was so long - you'd only just finished one show when you were back on again.

"It's great fun for a while, but after two years, I had to get out.

"The thing is, you get offered these parts, as I did, and I was so lucky that one just led on to another to another.

"You're not going to say no - I mean, I wasn't in a position to say no - so if I was offered a great part, I took it.

"I did twelve years of bang, bang, bang, y'know, before I took a break."

Today, Ireland's honorary queen of musical theatre says she's managed to strike the right note between work and play.

Moving to the Kildare countryside with her second husband, Kenny Shearer, a musical director, and scaling back her workload was key, explains Rebecca: "Sometimes if you're both in the same business, then you can both be taken in all manner of different directions."

"I was getting to a stage where I didn't want to do that.

"I'd done loads of musicals and travelling, and I was kind of ready for a more settled life."

"We bought the house here in 1999," continues the mum-of-one, "and I just decided I wasn't going to do long shows again - not in the same way.

"All of a sudden, I felt like I had a normal life, although every now and then it goes a little bit abnormal!"

It was Blood Brothers that first brought Storm and bass player Shearer together at Dublin's Olympia Theatre in 1996.

Since then, the copreneurial couple have combined their talents to pack out venues such as the Point Depot (back when it was still called that), as well as producing a number of CDs together.

"Sometimes it can get stressful working together," admits Rebecca, who shares a recording studio with her husband at home.

"Earlier this year, we did a big concert in the Bord Gais [Energy Theatre], and recorded it for a CD.

"The tension in the house was pretty palpable that week," she laughs at the memory, "people wouldn't want to come and visit!

"It's not the easiest of businesses to keep a healthy relationship going, especially when you're touring.

"But Kenny and I actually aim to work together as much as possible, and it works."

Although she's given up on the idea of bringing Mrs Johnstone to life on the big screen, a part she says would probably be given to "a young American girl" if the much-mooted movie version ever does get made, Storm still has her heart set on a number of other stage roles.

"There's a few parts that I think I might be able to tackle," muses the star, "like Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

"If it was a regional production or something, I would probably be high on the list; if it was a great big West End opening though, I would probably be three-quarters way down the list."

"If they phoned me up and said, 'We'd really like to see you for 'blah de blah de blah', then I'd go over and sing for whoever.

"But I don't go fighting for them anymore because I'm just a bit too happy."

With reality TV shows like Over the Rainbow underscoring just how cut-throat following the yellow brick road can be however, Rebecca confesses she'd hate to be starting out all over again: "That would be a scary thought.

"The competition is quite fierce - you only have to look at the queues of people for this X Factor malarkey.

"The stage schools are churning out an awful lot of people, and they're all going into the West End, so there's sixty girls waiting to jump into your shoes."

"I think you have to have a certain amount of ... not ruthlessness, because that would be too harsh... but commitment.

"They're not paying anywhere as much as they used to pay when I was in the West End."

Now on "the wrong side of fifty", minding her voice has become more and more important to the songstress.

Away from the spotlight, Storm says that she leads a quiet life, pottering about in the garden or walking her Cavalier King Charles, Charlie Bear.

"When I was in my twenties and thirties, I wouldn't really give it a second thought," she tells.

"We used to be able to go out on Saturday night after two shows and sleep all day Sunday; those days are gone.

"If there's a big show coming up, I wouldn't be out socialising because there's too many chances of catching a straightforward cold.

"It's a worry, especially as you get older."

Later this year, the popular performer is set to initiate 'Plan B' by opening her own singing school at home in Kildare.

"I've been asked countless times do I do lessons, and I haven't because I haven't had the time," reveals Rebecca.

"I did [RTE Young People's programme] JAM the Musical for two years on the trot, mentoring four students, and really enjoyed it.

"I still have a few years left [on stage], and I'll still do a few things," she promises fans. "But teaching is something maybe that I can do as I'm getting older."

For now though, Blood Brothers veteran Storm is looking forward to getting reacquainted with her old pal Mrs Johnstone next week.

"The great thing about Mrs Johnstone is that you don't have to be glamorous," jokes Rebecca. "You're just wearing pinnys and coats and slippers."

"It's a great role, and they've been really kind that I've been associated with it for so long.

"[British actress and singer] Petula Clark was still doing it when she was 76," she adds, "so I've got over twenty years to go.

"I'm looking forward to celebrating forty years of Mrs J!"

Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, starring Rebecca Storm, runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from Monday, September 29 to Saturday, October 11. See www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie.

A life in brief

Name: Rebecca Storm.

Age: 54.

From: Yorkshire, but lives in Naas, Co Kildare.

Family: Musician husband Kenny Shearer and daughter Rebecca Roberts, a singer-songwriter.

Best known as: Ireland's queen of musical theatre.

Likes: Walking her dog, Charlie Bear.

Dislikes: When her Sky+ TV box freezes.

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