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Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Our Diamond Queen

As we approach The Queen's Jubilee, I cannot help but get swept along with all of the excitement manifested in the displays throughout London; flags, banners, bunting and shop windows. Seeing the red, white and blue everywhere fills me with pride. 

I did my first Jubilee concert yesterday in Catford, decked out in a full length (tasteful) Union Jack patterned dress with diamond accessories. I was relieved to see that the venue had gone to town too, with their own decorations covering the hall right down to the audience, who were sporting their finery with a red, white and blue theme. It was when I began to sing 'There'll Always Be An England' that the audience bowled me over as they leapt to their feet, waving their flags with gusto. There's something about the rousing anthems which we connect to our country - Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory, There'll Always Be An England, Rule Britannia and the like - which have such power to stir the soul. I never fail to get teary eyed when a crowd earnestly gets to its feet to sing our national anthem. Whether you are a monarchist or not, it's difficult to be too cynical about our beautiful diamond Queen, who has lead such an exemplary life and who unites the country in such a positive way. I'm sure this will be evident throughout the UK over the next few days when we see the turn out of the crowds in London, and communities coming together with street parties and events held right across the nation.

Working on The London Showboat for City Cruises has also given me an insight into how special The Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant is going to be this Sunday, 3rd June 2012. They are frantically readying their fleet for all the momentous events they have planned. I was honoured last week when the BBC asked if they could come and film me singing on The London Showboat, followed by an interview where I talked about what it is like to work as a singer on the boats, and daily life on the River Thames. This will be part of a series of short documentaries televised throughout the BBC live broadcast of the Pageant, so keep an eye out for me!

With the current economic situation being as difficult as it is at the moment, I do feel a sense of pride in our country, rallying round for these big celebrations and embracing the festive spirit. Life is for living and it's important to 'always look on the bright side of life'. Don't worry about the things thst are out of your control, go with the flow and focus on the things you can control. So this weekend, get out and enjoy the sunshine wherever possible and relish the celebratory atmosphere that we can muster up as a United Kingdom.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Take A Chance

A chance opportunity last Friday fulfilled the notion 'right place, right time'! 

In a completely non-professional role I went to a photography course at Ray Lowe Studios with my husband, Tom who has been nurturing a certain flare he has for photography. My intention was to pass the time in a cafe reading (a past-time which performers have down to a fine art). However, when Tom entered the studio, the course leader, Ray, announced that regrettably his model had let him down at the last minute and that they would have to improvise with each other. Tom, knowing only too well his wife's extrovert tendencies volunteered my services for the evening. So, 10 minutes after he rang me, (and after an albeit brief makeover in my car), I was standing in the studio being snapped by a group of photographers. I'm not sure what the rest of the group thought of my confidence and willingness to be photographed - they were blissfully unaware of my love of being under a spotlight and experience of having an audience! It gave me a great opportunity to receive some insightful knowledge with regard to a photo shoot from the photographers point of view, and obtain some fun head shots too!

Ray writes his own blog for their company website. Read his take on how the course unfolded here.

Another, slightly less chance meeting, orchestrated by an external force, has me performing in concert tomorrow with a wonderful singer, William Byrne. A mutual contact thought we would sing well together and so booked us as duo for his event... and I am so grateful he did! We met up last week for a rehearsal and it was such a delight to sing with William. He has a gorgeous, rich and powerful voice and a wealth of professional experience. I really relish singing with other people, it gives me an opportunity to learn from them as artists and adds an exciting dynamic to a live performance. Fingers crossed that tomorrow will lead to some future engagements with Mr Byrne.

It's strange how something as brief as just a phone call or an unplanned meeting with some one can change events within your life. Grab every opportunity with both hands - you never know where it could lead. Whilst you are on your journey, remember to treat people how you want to be treated - firstly, you never know what kind of influence they could have in your life and secondly, there's far less likelihood that you'll regret your actions in the future. As Ray said last Friday, "treat the world as a mirror - if you smile into it, it'll smile back at you." And who knows for sure which direction our lives may unfurl?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

What's It All About?

I'm still in holiday mode so I profusely apologise for this weeks blog being a day late! Last week I took a break from blogging because I was holidaying in Cyprus - well, technically my oldest friend and I were visiting our friend who is currently living out there with her family! We had a lovely break away from the April showers and it was the perfect environment for formulating a potential blog...

Sitting in the adventure playground that is my best friend's Cypriot garden, watching her beautiful two year old daughter fearlessly whizz around on her tricycle, chatting with the ants, birds and cats alike, I felt very close to having a little piece of heaven! The childhood innocence and joy of discovering new things every day was so humbling and heart warming. Her sheer delight at the sound of the ice cream man's van approaching was one of those moments which you couldn't put a price on! I'm so proud of my friend, raising such a confident and intelligent child, despite being away from the stereotypical network of family and friends. She completely confirms my belief that anything is possible if you really put your mind to it. 

During a day trip to one of Cyprus' many golden beaches, relaxing with two of the very best women I know, I couldn't help but question how there could be any other reason for us being on this earth other than to share our precious time with the people we love. 

It's all too easy to get swept up in the drama of every day life and wonder "what's it all about?", overlooking the very simple things which make a person glow from the inside. The laughter of friends, a smile meant just for you, a hug, a compliment, a coffee and catch up. It's moments like these that help to counterbalance any negatives that may occur in our lives, putting things into perspective. I think we live in a society quick to criticise and jump on our failures, but we all have the power to make somebody else feel special and important... if exercised on a regular basis, then you're bound to feel the love coming right back at you!

So with this in mind, I feel a renewed sense of purpose and resolve, ready to share the spotlight on London as the eyes of the world turn towards us for the Queen's Jubilee and the Olympic Games.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Take Action

I have been taking matters into my own hands this week! I have decided to produce my own show, starring... myself! I know, this may seem rather self-obsessed but I promise this is not the angle I am coming from. I refuse to let my destiny be decided upon other peoples opinions, and if I am not going to get that break from anybody else, then I will give myself the break. 'Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you' (Ralph Waldo Emerson). 

The show will contain songs I enjoy listening to and which I think an audience would enjoy too! Recently, I've not worked on the kind of material I think I am naturally inclined to perform. So, I've decided to do something different and follow my heart, working on music which is absolutely floating my boat at this moment in time.

Speaking of boats... It's my experience over the last year singing on board The London Showboat which is giving me a new-found freedom and confidence in myself. I completely and unabashedly love to perform and have developed a new kind of satisfaction in the reaction of an audience. My previous work has always been within a set piece, where an audience reaction has little impact upon what is actually happening on stage. Obviously all performances rely upon how an audience reacts but there is something about performing in cabaret which enables you to be more intimate with an audience, building a rapport, judging what they are reacting to. Working alone, gives me the freedom to make on-the-spot decisions on what pieces to perform next,  depending on their reaction. I thoroughly enjoy being able to create the banter! After the shows, I do have to question whether I should really be having this much fun, but that's what being a performer is all about. It's not the kind of job you can do half heartedly, you've got to do it because you love it! I think the beautiful setting, cruising along The River Thames does help to bewitch the evening, making the whole experience feel like something very special.

So, it's with this addiction to the enjoyment of an audience and noting what really goes down well on the Showboat that my one-woman show began to take shape. With the help of an equally enthusiastic and creative musician, we are pulling together some really interesting pieces. With our motive being to create something entertaining, uplifting and contemporary, we have been re-working the iconic music of singers such as Adele, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Kylie, as well as legends like Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey. It feels really exciting to be working on something different which I hope will showcase the performer I have been developing into whilst hosting my own shows. For more information please visit my website, which also contains details on how you can wine, dine and dance the night away with City Cruises.

So much of the entertainment industry relies upon who you know and not what you know, and sometimes when you think you are making head way you realise that other people have a hidden agenda. Therefore, I suggest making your own agenda. With this being such a competitive environment, you need to be sure of who you are. Don't let anyone lead you to believe you're not good enough, your belief determines your action, your action determines your results, but first you have to believe.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Pie in the Sky

The highlight of my week (or maybe my year) was getting to see Jonathan Kent's production of Sweeney Todd at The Adelphi theatre. Oh my goodness! 

Sweeney Todd is right up there as one of my favourite musicals of all time. I have seen numerous versions live and recorded, including John Doyle's 2004 revival at The Ambassadors, where the 10 strong cast also played the score themselves on instruments incorporated in the staging! I was sceptical about Michael Ball playing the demon barber; my impression of him is the loveable cheeky chappy, but he was absolutely mind blowing. I was bowled over by the power and strength with which he sang the role... I now realise I'd never fully heard Sweeney Todd's agonising laments until last week. And he was so butch! I had high expectations of Imelda Staunton, being a huge admirer of her as an actress, yet she still overwhelmed me with how skilfully she made Mrs Lovett her own, delivering Sondheim's human pie witticisms during 'A Little Priest' as if it were the first time I'd heard them. I thought the whole production had real grit to it, bringing out the the disturbingly dark themes like no other version I'd previously seen. I think it's exciting when musical theatre successfully branches out from it's stereotypical 'razzle dazzle' and delivers instead a poignant, dark piece of intelligent theatre with fortitude. Stephen Sondheim is the master! It was with delight (and a touch of envy) that I sat in the gods as the chorus raised its voice for 'The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd'. What I wouldn't give to have the opportunity to sing such powerful music on a West End stage... 

Although, maybe not this week. 

My blog is to be dictated a little by the frustrating week I've had in general!

Finally, with better weather and lighter evenings comes a more regular London Showboat. I sing onboard the Showboat a few times a week as the main entertainment on a three hour evening dinner cruise along The River Thames. I'd been looking forward to a busy week of shows for the Easter break, only to be struck down by laryngitis and rendered completely incapable of singing. This has never happened to me before (I am generally one of those annoying people who is rarely effected by illness) and I have to say, I was really perturbed! I couldn't make a squeak let alone belt out a rendition of 'All That Jazz'. Losing my voice made me realise that I completely, 100%, rely on being able to sing to earn my living, and there is nothing else that comes close to being a secondary career option. I did have to accept that I needed someone to cover the shows - another first for me. It was a weird feeling having someone act as 'understudy' - at first I felt extremely grateful that I didn't have to worry about what would happen with the show, but then came the anxiety of having someone else doing my show and acknowledging that I am replaceable!

Being replaceable is obviously not the greatest of feelings, but the realisation of it does make me feel grateful for the work that I have got and the opportunities that people have given to me in the past, when they might have chosen somebody else. This weeks debilitation has also inspired me to come back fighting. Singing is what I love, it's my life and I most definitely can't imagine myself doing anything else for a living at this moment in time. Sometimes I lose sight of this amongst the constant CV mail-outs, casting submissions and rejections, but as the saying goes, I will not let them grind me down. I've worked so hard and I know that I have what it takes to perform in a show (like Sweeney Todd) on a West End stage... I have to be in the right place at the right time at some point in my career!

It's hard to take the knock-backs time and time again, but focus on the things you are achieving and keep striving to be better - don't let anyone convince you that your dreams are pie-in-the-sky (particularly not Mrs Lovett's!). You may be replaceable in certain areas of your life, but by being the best that you can be, you can make it difficult for anyone to find a the right replacement!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Winds of Change

On the winds of change floats the promise of spring. April: a time for cleaning out the closets, folding away the winter woolies and sweeping away the cobwebs. A time to feel reborn, re-motivated, filled with purpose... or so I am telling myself as I fold away my heavy dark coloured apparel of the last few months, into the storage box, out of which I'd unpacked the fresh, pastel, floral ensembles for the Summer. A quarter of the way through the year already!

2012 is set to be an important year for Great Britain, as we keep being told. Living close to Stratford over the last nine years, it has been exciting watching the Olympic Park spring up from what was merely derelict-looking industrial buildings. So I was thrilled to be part of it's first public event, hosted last Sunday. The test event was organised by the Gold Challenge, a charity challenge where you are encouraged to take on Olympic sports and Paralympic sports to raise money for your charity of choice. Schools and organisations from across Great Britain participated in the charity races along with sporting legends such as Austin Healey, Gareth Thomas, Mike Catt, Dame Mary Peters and I think I even heard Fatima Whitbread's name mentioned too! Combine this with entertainment from Dionne Bromfield, Paul Potts, Spellbound and, interestingly, a talented upcoming group called The Boxettes, who use only their voices to create their songs - no instruments and no effects - and you'll get a picture of what a memorable day it was. Sitting with my husband inside the stadium alongside all the other families, I was emotionally ambushed with an overwhelming sense of pride and love for the children involved, some as young as four, able bodied and disabled, each relishing this opportunity to compete in front of thousands of people inside this huge stadium. Kids whose only other experience of racing was during a school sports day infront of their mums and dads, rising to the challenge. Their excitement and joy was infectious and I found myself being swept up by the fervour of the London 2012 Olympic Games. The commentator announcing that, "Dreams will be made here this Summer".
Watching the endless stream of schools during the parade, I became a little nostalgic... It's now ten years since I was in my final year of school. Savouring the Easter holidays before the onslaught of 'A' Level exams. Although, at that time, the pressure had been eased for me as I had just received my letter of acceptance from The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, offering me a full scholarship... my dreams were being made!
As I reflect upon my school days, I think I knew even at the time that they were special days, shared with the very best of friends in a setting straight out of a fictional novel. Standing sentinel on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Leek is Westwood High School, a converted 19th century manor house, originally home to a famous Stoke-on-Trent potter family, The Davenports, who are said to have built over an existing house belonging to one of Henry VIII's favourite Knights. The historical prowess of the school and it's grounds radiates from the very foundations. I definitely feel privileged to have been a part of its alumni and being educated by such a passionate and inspiring teaching faculty. The most valuable lesson I learned there, however, was to be myself, and although sometimes other people can make this difficult, I think fundamentally my actions are based on being true to myself and true to my morals. 
I am by no means morose as I look back at this period in my life. To the contrary, it's with comfort that I remember the optimism and excitement which I felt as an 18 year old about the next stage of life's journey. I have not achieved all that I hoped I would in the last decade, but I know that the achievements I have made are no small feat. To be true to myself, I will continue to achieve for as long as I have the dreams to fulfil. Looking at those inspiring kids on Sunday, bursting with life, ambition and the joys of spring reminds me that we all have our own dreams, be they great or small, all just as important in their own way. For a man without dreams is like a bird without wings. So, with this change of the wind, breathe in the scent of possibility and turn your dreams into reality. All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them (Walt Disney).

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Star Quality

Reality TV talent shows are dominating our Saturday evening screens once again. Fortunately, Saturday night is gig night so I am rarely subjected to this manufactured 'talent' search. However, I must admit to being swept up a little by the promos for The Voice, so I decided to catch it on iPlayer. The show's concept is interesting from a singer's point of view, with the main emphasis being on the voice. I also think the panel has been well selected, each qualified, within their own right, to pass musical judgement on others.

My overall opinion on the show is divided. I had hoped that there would be less of the 'sob story' element to the contestants in comparison to similar shows. While I can relate to the singers' desperation to succeed I find it frustrating to watch endless cliches linked with clumsy dumbed-down narrative intended to heighten the drama. Unexpectedly, the most heart warming contestant for me was Samuel Buttery, singing 'Set Fire To The Rain'. He had such a positive attitude and a warmth which radiated through his own rendition of Adele's hit. I can sympathise with his motivation behind entering The Voice, wanting to be judged fairly on his talent without being seen. But at the same time he wasn't apologising for being a big guy, the confidence exuded from him. Despite such big personalities on the panel of judges I thought they struck a good balance between promoting themselves as mentors whilst being entertaining, but not making the show all about them (as often occurs on other such talent shows). The comments were relevant and backed up by informed technical knowledge, unlike the offensive and snide remarks often made on some shows.

Everyone has the right to shine, so I am not against talent shows - they have formed the basis of television entertainment for the past 50 years, with shows such as Opportunity Knocks and New Faces discovering the likes of Les Dawson, Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson and Victoria Wood. It's the relentless exposure to mediocrity, manipulated to seem something more and the flippancy with which the term 'star' is bandied about, losing any real sense of what it does take to be a star performer.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's star searches have more integrity, cutting down on the footage of early auditions to leave the people worthy of air time for general public viewing. Having watched all four of the previous programmes I think it has been a great platform for some wonderful performers who wouldn't necessarily have had the opportunity to share their talent in front of such influential people. Also, the BBC star search has helped elevate the profile of musical theatre, making it more accessible to a whole new television audience at a time when public spending cuts could have impacted upon theatre and ticket sales. However, there is now an increased expectation to see 'the star' of a show and greater disappointment often felt when that star is replaced by an understudy (which is quite common practice, particularly if the performer has not had the extensive training or experience of enduring eight shows a week). Though usually the understudy is just as good, maybe even better because they have more to prove! It is also this culture of having a celebrity name in a show which contributes to the high price of theatre tickets; a celebrity name expects to be paid a celebrity wage! We are a society driven by celebrity culture and I do speak from experience when I say that standards are often lower if you have a name which can guarantee to bring in the crowds.

I am eagerly anticipating the forthcoming ITV search for Jesus Christ Superstar. It was one of my favourite musicals growing up and I feel certain that, based on his track record, Andrew Lloyd Webber will direct the auditions with candor, hopefully introducing us to some exciting rock tenors.

Watching The Voice did, for a split second, make me consider applying for the show next time. But unfortunately, I still believe that fundamentally the producers are making a TV show in which the majority of contestants are mere pawns. To be a great singer you have to be prepared to bare your soul through your music - this should be enough without having to share the intimacies of your life with millions of strangers for the sake of entertainment. What I think would be really refreshing is if we could bring back a show like Sunday Night at The London Palladium. A show where we just get to see the performance without all the back story, featuring artists who are already masters of their craft delivering top quality performances and re-defining what it is to have star quality!