Mamma Mia! Here Niamh Perry goes again in top West End musical
Niamh Perry tells Maureen Coleman about her love of the show and how she feels a connection to her feisty young character
I've arranged to meet West End star Niamh Perry in Clements coffee shop in Belfast's Royal Avenue, but when she appears before me, all sun-kissed skin and blonde hair, I'm forced to do a double-take.
The natural brunette is the first to admit her complexion is normally a whiter shade of pale, but this transformation from Irish colleen to beach babe is all down to her current role.
Niamh (24) is starring in the smash hit musical Mamma Mia!, playing Sophie Sheridan, one of the leads. The heart-warming tale of family and friendship takes place on a Greek island, set to the timeless songs of Abba, and centres on bride-to-be Sophie's quest to find her father, after discovering her mother's diary, which reveals the name of three possibilities.
Unbeknown to her mother Donna, Sophie sends wedding invitations to all three, hoping that she'll be able to work out her father's identity.
The show, which has been seen by more than 54 million people in 39 productions worldwide, is coming to Belfast, Londonderry and Dublin this summer as part of its international tour. It's the third time Niamh has stepped into Sophie's shoes, but the first time she'll get to play her at home.
And she says the chance to bring Mamma Mia! to Northern Ireland was a major factor in her signing a third contract with the production company.
"I first did Mamma Mia! in 2009 in the West End when I was just 18 and again then last year," she says. "It was my first big job after doing the BBC1 talent show I'd Do Anything and I was thrilled to get the part. I went on tour with it in 2014 and then when I heard they were bringing it to Ireland, I signed up again.
"I think everyone has one of those jobs that just feels really natural and that you really enjoy. I love the music, I love everything to do with it, so it was a no-brainer when the offer came up.
"It's so funny coming back to it at this age. It's been such a different experience playing Sophie at 24 compared to what it was like when I was 18 or 19. I know a lot more about myself now, I've done a lot more since then. My approach to the job is really different, but for me those first six months were a crash course in the industry. I learned so much from the people I worked with then and it helped set me up for the past six years of work that I've done."
Despite her young age, Niamh's CV is already pretty impressive and she has built up quite an exciting contacts book, too, but more of that later. The Bangor-born actress and singer, who attended Our Lady and St Patrick's College in Belfast, started acting when she was just 13 years of age, starring in Music Theatre for Youth (MT4UTH) productions such as Guys and Dolls. She credits the charity with being her springboard and says she is "incredibly proud" of the work that they do. Just a few days after our interview, however, the charity announced it was facing possible closure due to cuts in arts funding.
The experience she gained through MT4UTH proved invaluable when she auditioned for I'd Do Anything in 2008. The aim of the programme, which was overseen by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was to find an unknown lead to play Nancy in a new West End production of Oliver. Niamh made the live shows, alongside another local lass, Rachel Tucker. While neither bagged the part (it went to Blackpool's Jodie Prenger), it did serve as a significant platform for their musical skills and they both ended up securing West End roles, Niamh in Mamma Mia! and Rachel in We Will Rock You. The two girls remain firm friends.
Growing up in Bangor with her parents and older sister Ciara, Niamh remembers dancing around the kitchen to Abba's big hits. Her mum was a huge fan of the Swedish chart-toppers and when Mamma Mia! first came to Dublin 10 years ago, the Perry family travelled down to see it. Niamh still can't quite believe that she will be starring in that very same show in Dublin this June.
"I was about 14 or 15 when my parents took me and my cousins down to see it," she says. "It's weird to think that I'll be doing it in Dublin. I remember loving the show so much and being overwhelmed by the music, the sheer genius of the songs, the simplicity of the lyrics and the unforgettable melodies.
"But never did I imagine I'd be up there, starring in the show. At that age, doing this as a career wasn't really a possibility. I did do a lot of drama in Belfast, but I just never thought I'd ever do it as a job.
"It's really special to be part of something that appeals to different generations. We finished in Liverpool there to a sold-out theatre and it was such an amazing feeling to see five-year-olds to 85-year-olds singing all the words and dancing along to every song.
"Everyone has their own experience of Mamma Mia! It's such a phenomenon. Sometimes I have to remind myself how many people across the world have seen it."
Her first stint as Sophie ran for six months in the West End. Last year, the international tour kicked off in Blackpool before heading to Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai. This current tour takes in Oman, Jordan, Ireland, Belgium, Israel, Portugal and Italy. Just days after this interview was conducted, Niamh jetted off to South Africa with the rest of the cast.
"We're having a wee bit of time off at the moment, which is great," she says. "I love being home but the funny thing is, I'm already missing doing the show. I'm dying to get back to it."
A couple of years ago, Niamh's 28-year-old sister Ciara, a London-based lawyer, packed a rucksack and headed off travelling. When she returned she advised Niamh to do the same. Niamh was seriously considering it when she was offered her second contract with Mamma Mia!
"About two days after Ciara phoned me and told me I should go travelling, I got offered the international tour," she says. "I love my job, so for me this was perfect, getting to perform and travel at the same time. When Ciara went travelling, she actually went to all those places on the tour, except Hong Kong. But she came out to see me when I was there."
Of all the exotic locations she's visited - or will visit as part of this tour - she says she'll be most excited about performing in Belfast.
"It's hard to put into words but playing this role at home was the real deal-breaker for me. I'll be the most nervous I've ever been, though.
"I got such great support from everyone back home when I was doing I'd Do Anything and I want to make everyone proud. I want to do my best for them.
"I'm already nervous, to be honest. I'm getting messages from people saying they can't wait. And I can't wait to show the cast around Belfast."
Sophie Sheridan, the young woman on a quest to track down her real dad in Mamma Mia!, is played by Niamh as a feisty but rather naive 20-year-old.
"She is young and innocent but is also strong-willed," she says. "I'm a strong-willed person too, so I think that's why I feel so comfortable playing her.
"And we have such an amazing cast. We're very close, well you get to be when you're on tour. And I think this production is very truthful and honest."
Joining Niamh on stage will be Sara Poyzer as Sophie's mum Donna, former Coronation Street actress Shobna Gulati as Donna's friend Tanya and Sara's real life husband, Richard Standing, as Sam Carmichael, one of Sophie's potential three dads. And while the stage show mightn't boast an A-list line-up of names like the big screen Mamma Mia! (it starred Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Amanda Seyfried), Niamh says it has its own unique charm.
"The movie version has great stars and was such a huge hit but what's so special about the musical is that it's very real," she says. "The singing and the action is live, right in front of you.
"Both the film and musical are equally brilliant but I find the musical more exciting to be in. You get that instant audience reaction.
"Of course the popularity of the film made the musical more available to people. We get five-year-old girls who have never seen the film but come to the show and have the best night of their lives. And I have to admit, I feel like a Disney princess when a child like that comes to meet Sophie at the stage door. It's like winning the lottery."
Her physical change for the role has confused a few people, particularly back home in Northern Ireland.
"I have to look like I live on a Greek island," she says. "My character isn't Greek, but she has to have that sun-kissed look from living there. I'm probably the palest person alive and I have very dark hair, so I have to wear fake tan and have my hair dyed.
"It's funny, a few people at home didn't recognise me at all and everyone has an opinion on the blonde hair. But it helps me to get into character. I'm lucky because we have a great team of hair and make-up people who look after us. They have the crazy job of not only transforming my hair, but making sure it stays healthy, too. It's good to have people like that looking after me so I can put all my focus and energy into the show."
One of her closest friends, Daniella Bowen, is also in the show with her, which is another perk. Daniella plays Ali, a best mate of Sophie's. The pair previously worked together on The Beautiful Game, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton about a group of teenagers growing up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The role also marked the first time Niamh acted in her own accent.
Friendship is important to Niamh. She remains in close contact with many of the girls she met on I'd Do Anything, including Les Miserables actress Samantha Barks, who came to see her in Mamma Mia! recently. Samantha, who attended Rachel Tucker's wedding in Belfast along with Niamh, made the move from musicals to movies when she was snapped up to play Eponine in Les Miserables opposite Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Eddie Redmayne.
Would she like to follow Samantha into film?
"I'm open to any opportunity," she replies. "I'm really excited about exploring whatever avenues are open to me. At the minute I'm very content with what I'm doing. I love singing live and I'm also doing my own music.
"Les Miserables was an amazing film and, of course, I'd be crazy not to aim for that. But at the moment I'm very happy.
"It's difficult to plan ahead as well when you're in one specific job, but who knows what next year will bring."
Niamh is godmother to two children, her friend Louisa's three-year-old daughter Paloma, whom she describes as "the love of my life", and Molly Lloyd Webber, grand-daughter of the Lord himself. Niamh is a good friend of the music maestro's son Nick, and starred in his musical adaptation of The Little Prince at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Niamh's talents are appreciated by both father and son. While Nick cast her for The Little Prince, Andrew wrote the part of Fleck in Love Never Dies specifically for her. It's fair to say he's been her mentor since she first caught his eye in I'd Do Anything.
"I have a good relationship with Andrew," she says. "Love Never Dies was a huge chapter in my short career. To have a part written for you is pretty special and I'm so grateful for that. I'm lucky to have him as a mentor. He is a wonderful talent and even if I never get to work with him again, at least I've had that opportunity."
She would love to settle down in the future and have a family herself, though is coy about her personal life.
"Things are good," she says. "But in the past I've always been open about stuff like that and my New Year's resolution was to hold something back for myself."
In the meantime she has her Mamma Mia! tour to concentrate on and is writing her own material - "folky pop" - which she plans to showcase at a gig in Belfast on June 21.
"Everything's going very well at the moment," she says. "I'm doing my dream job and I can't wait to bring Mamma Mia! back home. It will be the highlight of the tour for me, I'm sure, and I've told all the cast to expect the best welcome ever."
- Mamma Mia! runs at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, from June 16-20, including two matinees on June 17 and 20, and at the Millennium Forum, Londonderry from July 7-11, including two matinees on July 9 and 11. For details, vistit www.odysseyarena.com and www.millenniumforum.com
How this winner has taken it all
- Mamma Mia! is a musical based on the songs of Abba. It was the brainchild of producer Judy Craymer who met Abba songwriters Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson in 1983 to moot the idea. The musical originally opened in London at the Prince Edward Theatre on April 6, 1999. Since then it has been seen by 54 million people worldwide in 37 productions in 14 different languages
- From West End to global phenomenon, the London production of Mamma Mia! has now been seen by more than one in 10 of the entire UK population. It is one of only five musicals to have run for more than 10 years both on Broadway and in the West End. It is also the first Western musical ever to be staged in Chinese in the People's Republic of China
- Songs performed include Thank You for the Music, Dancing Queen, Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Winner Takes It All and of course, the eponymous Mamma Mia!
- The film version of the musical was released in 2008, starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. Although it met with mixed reviews from critics, it went on to become the biggest grossing musical worldwide of all time