Sunday, 29 April 2012
Bristol interview: Elaine C Smith of Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed A Dream
Vivienne Kennedy interviews Elaine C Smith, star of I Dreamed A Dream at Bristol Hippodrome
This May a brand new musical will be visiting Bristol Hippodrome - I Dreamed A Dream, based on the life story of Britain’s Got Talent runner up and global singing sensation Susan Boyle, will open on Tuesday 01 May and run until Saturday 05 May. It is expected, but not guaranteed, that Susan herself will make a guest appearance at some performances.
A few days ago I spoke to Elaine C Smith, co-writer of I Dreamed A Dream who also stars as Susan in the show.
You’ve co-written I Dreamed A Dream; it must be really difficult for writers to come up with new and original material for shows, what made you think that Susan Boyle’s story would make a good musical?
I suppose I didn’t initially. Lots of other people, in the film industry and all that, and in America, thought “oh yes, this is great, rags to riches, a fairy story type of movie” and it was only when Susan was interviewed about that and asked who she would want to play her that she suggested me. We’d never actually met at that point, but she’d obviously seen me in various things over the years, watching me on TV in Scotland and thought that we’re roughly the same age, from similar backgrounds, blah blah blah...and she knew I could sing as well.
So that was the thrust of it and it was sort of said as a joke to Michael Harrison, the producer, when he’d seen some of the press about it. I thought I’d never get the movie, “it’ll be Michelle Pfeiffer with a bad Irish accent in Hollywood” I said, “but once the movie’s out we should do a stage show.”
I was thinking ten years from now, but Michael phoned be back and said we should do it now, I told him not to be so ridiculous, Simon Cowell will never let us do it, but he pursued it.
I do the audio book of Susan’s life, I read her story, so I had an insight into her life story before it was even published and actually there were so many similarities with our own backgrounds; I really enjoyed the book.
Alan McHugh, who’s co-written it, had done a couple of drafts from the book. I said that if you’re ever going to make this into a show it has to be magical, because what surrounded Susan was magic. People keep talking about Britain’s Got Talent and saying “oh, that’s another Susan Boyle moment”, but there will never be another Susan Boyle moment, this is actually popular culture and show biz history.
For me it was also the absolute end of an obsession with celebrity and of judging a book by its cover, she represented something much more. Even on stage in Newcastle (where the show premiered in March) I remembered thinking “what is going on here? This is more than the sum of the parts. This is magical.”
It is a fairy tale, it is a rags to riches story, it’s not even Cinderella getting to the ball, it’s maybe Cinderella’s older sister getting to the ball and she doesn’t get the Prince but she gets a great career.
There’s a lot of magic around her but also I was fascinated from a writing point of view, about who that woman was? Why did she wear that dress? Why did she not get her hair cut? Why was she looking ten years older than her years? And what made her decide to get up that morning and go? That for me is the magic in it.
Having read her story I realised that it’s even better than Cinderella because this was a woman who was born as the youngest of nine children in a big Catholic family, in a mining community, and there were slight learning difficulties, not profound but slight. The doctor said to her mother “don’t expect too much.” You couldn’t write that, that’s the stuff of the gods.
Because of her learning difficulties, and being slightly indulged probably by her family as well, she was bullied a great deal at school, especially at high school. She was never allowed to have that normal transition when developing, she never had boyfriends, her dad was very strict, and she missed out on things. The only thing in her life that made her feel any good was singing.
In her 20s she found the courage one night to walk into a pub when the karaoke was on and just got up to sing. People had always known she could sing, but singing in front of people was absolutely terrifying for her, but she discovered that it was something she could do.
Her peers encouraged her with it, but then sadly her father died, and then her closest sister died very suddenly from an asthma attack, and all those dreams had to be abandoned. She was the one still living at home and, like many women in poverty, well not poverty exactly but certainly not in very affluent situations, became the one left to look after an ageing parent. Her mother died just before Britain’s Got Talent and at that point she’d lost everything.
She said to me that she hadn’t realised how much she’d let herself go until she saw herself on television.
Susan Boyle isn’t a fictional character, she’s real and she’s in the theatre most nights, does that bring an added pressure to you as an actress?
To a certain extent yes. When she first saw me in the wig and the dress, she found that really funny, the Britain’s Got Talent stuff. But actually I tell the story as Susan now, so the wig that I wear is her hair now and that freaked her out more than anything, she said “Oh my God, that’s really scary.” We don’t look very much like each other really, but we do on stage.
All I really wanted to do was to honour her and her family, not in a sugary sweet way, it’s not sing-a-long-a-Susan, it’s treating her life and what happened to her in a serious way that gives people a good night out and entertains as well as giving them a bit of popular cultural history if you like.
I said to her that I would feel I’d done my job if the audience were on their feet before she came on, and they are. She wasn’t on stage last night, she’d had to go back to Scotland, but the audience were on their feet anyway and that’s when I think “yes, we’ve done this, this show works.”
Has Susan been enjoying the experience on the nights she is there?
Yes, she came off stage in Liverpool (where the show has been playing from 17 to 21 April) and said “My God, the atmosphere out there was electric.”
When she does appear it is a bit like a religious experience you know; the audience have had this wonderful tale about her life, they get more information and understand just how difficult it has been for her to overcome everything and to get there, and about how she was treated after Britain’s Got Talent, by the press particularly, and yet she’s still here and has gone onto great success, that’s very uplifting. Then she walks on and sings I Dreamed A Dream, so you can imagine the reaction.
She has been really enjoying it I think, and enjoyed being part of a theatre company for the first time really as well, getting the experience that she’s never been able to get. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but it’s all brand new to Susan.
One of your recent stage appearances as been in Calendar Girls; is it a relief to be keeping your clothes on this time?
Ha ha ha, yeah. I never found it upsetting to do it actually. Calendar Girls is very similar to this show in lots of ways; it’s an incredibly uplifting story about ordinary women and doing something extraordinary. Ironically the worst time appearing with my clothes off was in the rehearsal room and we all were more nervous in front of each other that first time than when we were actually taking them off in front of 2,000 people. Within the context of the play it was great and I think the women in the audience were more worried for us than we were by the end. It was quite liberating as well.
You’re going to be in Bristol for a few days, from 01 to 05 May, what are you looking forward to seeing or doing while you’re in the city?
I came down not long ago to see Sian Phillips, who was also in Calendar Girls, in the first show she did of Juliet and her Romeo at the Old Vic in Bristol (March 2010); I was there for a couple of days and just loved it, I’ve been a few times actually.
I’ll be looking out for my friend Julia Hills, another member of the Calendar Girls cast; she’s doing The Cherry Orchard at the Tobacco Factory so I’ll definitely be trying to fit a matinee of that in.
I love walking all along the river and there’s great shopping; I won’t be stuck for things to do.
The current tour finishes in Manchester towards the end of June, what happens next, does the dream keep going?
Well we’ve had Lloyd Webber on the phone and Cameron Mackintosh. We’re certainly going to be touring again because we’ve only done Aberdeen and Inverness in Scotland and so we’re going to be doing The King’s, Glasgow, which is just about sold out for two weeks, and Edinburgh, just after the festival. There are lots of discussions about where it will go, we’ll just have to wait and see.
We’ve been a bit overwhelmed by the response actually, from audiences and from reviewers. It’s been really amazing.
Thank you very much for taking time out to talk to me today, I just have one final question for you – last year you appeared on Celebrity Mastermind, coming second in your episode; if you could take part in one other celebrity show would you learn ballroom dancing, ice skating or how to cook?
Probably ballroom dancing. I’ve got to do a bit of it in this show but also because my father, who died just a few weeks before we started, ballroom danced four nights a week and one of the things that kept him going when he was in the hospice was watching Strictly. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of it but I know that it kept him going and it was a big thing for him, so that would be the main reason and not because I think I’m Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.
Certainly not ice skating; that would be too terrifying!
I Dreamed A Dream opens at Bristol Hippodrome on Tuesday 01 May and runs until Saturday 05 May. There will be performances at 7.30PM each evening and matinees at 2.30PM on Wednesday and Saturday. Tickets are priced from £19.50 to £39.00.
Source: Guide 2 Bristol