Following the official opening of The Old Vic's new production of King Lear starring double Academy Award-w...
In Conversation with actress Emma Williams
West End leading lady Emma Williams shot to fame at just 18 when she created the role of Truly Scrumptious in the multi-million pound stage adaptation of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium opposite Michael Ball. Since the she has gone on to create further roles in original musicals such as Zorro and Love Story for which she was nominated for two Olivier Awards. She has become one of the most reliable leading ladies in the West End, and recently received excellent notices for her role as Maureen in the new British musical Mrs Henderson Presents, which has brought with it her third Olivier nomination.
“I don't think I have a hope in hell of winning” Williams laughs, “the nomination is the thing that I think is great...when I think about the fact that it's my third I think...oh, okay. That's crazy! It is sort of ridiculous to me, but I do feel very very lucky and privileged”.
I'm speaking to Ms Williams in her dressing room at the Noel Coward Theatre about an hour before the half of a Friday evening performance. Having come straight from the Olivier Awards' nominee luncheon, she's staring into her light-bulb framed mirror, completing her make up whilst we talk. “I'm the slowest person at getting ready for a show”, she admits. “It's epic. I normally get in at 12 on a two show day, and at 5 for an evening show. I don't actually need all that time any more, but I'm the sort of person who puts on their eyeliner and gets it all over their face and has to start all over again!”
Mrs Henderson Presents has now been open just over a month. Have things settled down since press night, I ask? “We're now starting to find our feet” Emma replies. “It does take you a little while to get into a routine.” Unlike many musicals in the West End, the production benefited from an out of town try-out in Bath last summer. “We only did 25 shows in Bath” Emma explains. “We did actually do six weeks of rehearsals, and it was a tester – it was a try-out, finding out what worked, what didn't and what needed looking at. There was never any guarantees that the show would come to London, or that any of us would come with it. Sometimes you try-out a show and they say we love the show but you? No! That's always the risk when you're trying out new material."
I wonder how much Emma's role, that of the shy and somewhat reclusive tea-lady Maureen has developed since performances in Bath. “Not a massive amount, I'm very fortunate” she replies. “The relationship between Maureen and Eddie has shifted. What we try to do now is develop a proper friendship between them which makes it all the most heartbreaking when you realise he's madly in love with her but she just doesn't feel the same. We've all been there – that unrequited love and it's terrible when it's a person who is a really good friend of yours because it changes all of the parameters. That's been really to explore together and I think it does change because you know each other so much better as performers.”
As a company, I ask, is there quite an easy dialogue in terms of trying new things out even though the show is officially frozen? “Tracie and Ian work in a way that some people would call old school” Emma answers, name-checking her co-stars Tracie Bennett and Ian Bartholomew who are also both nominated for Olivier Awards. “It's also the way I work, where if someone wants to try something you just ask, and we talk about it as actors together and we come up with new options. I love that Barty will knock on the door and say “I was just thinking...could we try something” and I go – “yes, why don't we?” I think people are sometimes a little bit afraid to do that, but you need to be open to that as a performer. We're always playing around and discussing how we can make things better – that didn't work, that did work, that's not landing, we'll analyse and discuss it."
Emma's love and enthusiasm for musical theatre is palpable. A brief look on the walls of her dressing room show she's someone who has deep respect for the genre. “I love musical theatre and it's an amazing thing. I think too many people are afraid of it or think they know what musical theatre is and it's not for them. It's a fluid genre – Hamilton has shown us that. What you think it might be is not always what it actually is. The history of musical theatre and how it's shifted – there's always going to be something that appeals to you. You have to be brave enough to step away from what you think you know and what's right.”
Her credentials as a musical theatre fan are cemented as we're able to discuss New York's current worldwide hit. “I'd have never said going into Hamilton that it was going to be for me, I'm as guilty as anyone” she laughs. “I didn't realise I'd be affected. I sobbed bucket loads – I sobbed at the beauty of it, at the experimentation, at the joy of finding something new, challenging and exciting and the general story. It's so thrilling to see – it's absolutely amazing.”
Tracie Bennett's character of Mrs Henderson doesn't find herself naked on stage, that's left to Emma and the female ensemble of Windmill Girls, who initially strip down to save the theatre but then find their cause is much wider. “What's been particularly lovely is the amount of people who have come to the stage door afterwards and said 'thank for you doing that'. And it's weird – people thanking you for taking your clothes off!”
Did you ever imagine it would be something you'd be doing on a West End stage, I wonder aloud. “Two years ago I'd have said not a chance. When they first offered me the job I'd have said I'm not so comfortable with this. What it was was a process of self acceptance. Learning to understand who I am and about my own body and reclaiming that control because of the fact that we're so frequently surrounded by media images that are critical, telling us to dress a certain way to look the best. No – dress the best way that makes you feel comfortable! Why are you trying to conform to someone else's view?”.
It's clearly a subject that Emma is passionate about, and it's inspiring to hear her talk so strongly about reclaiming control. “You have to understand that some people will not like it – some people won't like my performance, that's fine and that's valid, but it's one person's opinion. What is so wonderful is the amount that people say 'you're so brave', but I say to them no – you can be brave, anyone can do this! You just need to be able to stand in front of a mirror and find a positive.”
Looking ahead to the Olivier Awards I ask Emma how she handles the stress of such a high profile event. “It doesn't stress me out as an actor” she responds. “I think it's very nice to have a ceremony where we all celebrate. At the same time it's that rare opportunity to do a red carpet. If we had more opportunities maybe I'd be more blasé about it but I'm thinking I get to put a pretty frock on!”
Emma will not only be sat nervously in the auditorium at the Royal Opera House, but she has the added pressure of performing live with Tracie Bennett. “I think it's so important that the awards are televised” she says. “It's just amazing what it does for theatre in general. People get to see the shows nationwide. I didn't get to see shows in London growing up because we couldn't afford to. When we did come down we maybe didn't take the 'braver' choices of shows to see, so seeing the performance on TV it's similar thing to the Royal Variety Performance – it gives people a chance to say 'hey – I like this!' and take a chance on a new show.”