CULTURE: VELMA CELLI
What Velma Celli doesn’t know about musical theatre isn’t worth knowing. An award-winning international cabaret star, she’s appeared in the West End hits Cats, Fame, Chicago and Rent, and even EastEnders. Here she gives us a whistle-stop tour of the country’s finest theatres and what to see in 2019.
Growing up I was a very lucky Yorkshire lad/lass indeed. My parents loved the theatre, especially musicals. Every summer we’d head to “The Smoke” to see the rugby final at Wembley Stadium and then take in a show.
We would catch the train to Kings Cross, check into our hotel, rush across to Wembley, watch the match (as fast as possible) and hurtle back down to theWest End ready for whatever show we were seeing.
I saw the original productions of Cats, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon among others. This was my gateway to becoming an actor in musical theatre. Had I not been exposed to the theatre at such a young age I most definitely wouldn't be where I am today.
The glittering lights of London’s West End are a major draw to our nation’s glorious capital. But with today’s “top drawer” tickets prices, can most of us actually afford this now luxury experience? The fruits of theatre-land seem to have become a treat reserved only for the wealthy and the privileged.
The history of theatre in London is unrivalled across the globe. The architecture of the buildings alone are a feast for the eyes but it’s the stories and stars who inhabit these magnificent theatres that are the real pull. Many believe that exposure to live theatre is a must in a child’s development – and they’d be right!
These days you may well need to spend your life savings to enjoy London’s live theatre, not to mention the increasing national rail ticket prices, astronomical food bills and overpriced accommodation, which also has to be considered for the experience.
But fear not my darlings, you may not need to sell your house and hop on the Megabus to get your theatre fix. Not only does the West End come to you each year with blockbuster shows touring the UK’s major towns and cities, but great work is being created just moments from your door in the many smaller yet renowned regional theatres.
Most people are unaware that many of the big London shows actually originated in theatres outside of the capital. In fact it is the dream of most trained jobbing actors to work in local theatres. That is where the magic happens. Being involved in the grassroots of a production can be the most challenging and exciting time in the creative process.
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The Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester has become one of the most forward-thinking creative theatre spaces in the UK. The standard of work produced not only rivals that of the fringe scene in London, but many of its productions have transferred to the capital and gone on to win awards.
The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, a regional winner of the UK’s Most Welcoming Theatre Awards 2018, has been bringing the magic of theatre to one of the country’s remotest counties since 1999. Located in the stunning Lake District, it’s been hailed by The Independent as "the most beautifully located and friendly theatre in Britain". This April it plays host to new productions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Willy Russell classic, Educating Rita.
Across the Pennines, Grade II listed Manchester Opera House and the Palace Theatre will this year play host to top shows such as Les Miserables and The Book of Mormon and here’s the best bit; not only are the tickets for these vastly cheaper than that of the West End, but the cast are mostly West End regulars and the productions identical to London’s, (give or take a few smaller set pieces).
Let’s not forget that the Palace Theatre has also been home to many Hollywood stars and theatre royalty including the legendary Judy Garland and Noel Coward. Oh and me, on the UK tour of Rent, playing Angel. While Manchester Opera House was the venue hosting the premiere European performance of West Side Story in 1958 and later the regional premiere of The Phantom of the Opera.
Leeds Playhouse (opened in 1990 as the West Yorkshire Playhouse) was rebranded in June 2018 back to its original name. It is one of the country’s finest theatres. Many productions first staged there have transferred to London and toured the UK to huge success. Getting a season there is a bucket list must for most stage actors. Check out their website for a varied programme of diverse and interesting plays and musicals.
You can also rely on The Theatre Royal in York for putting together a great mix of in-house productions and the Grand Opera House in York also hosts some great tours. The Curve Theatre, Leicester is truly remarkable for its diverse and varied programmes. This year they have some fantastic shows including Sing-a-along The Greatest Showman, as well as a night with Jo Brand. Jo is celebrating 30 years on the comedy circuit and will be discussing her career with Geoff Rowe as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival.
Julian Clary’s new show Born to Mince on April 7th will undoubtedly be hysterical and for some antipodean camp musical fun Priscilla, Queen of the Desert pulls up to the curb at The Curve in October. Do check out the programme for the smaller studio theatre space at the Curve too. I played it last year on my tour of A Brief History of Drag and adored the place.
The Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent plays host to a fabulous annual pantomime. I am not only saying this just because of my turn as Dandini in their 2016 production of Cinderella, or my “Best Actor” nomination (bloody Julian Clary beat me that year) but, it is safe to say I fell in love with the place and staff. It’s currently presenting camp classic Kinky Boots (fresh from the West End) and the National Theatre’s War Horse runs from March 27th - April 6th. Multi Award winning hit Motown the Musical arrives May 21st - June 1st.
The stunning Edinburgh Playhouse opened its doors in 1929 as the largest cinema in Scotland. It’s one of my favourites and I loved crawling around the auditorium when I toured there with Cats. My knees, not so much! Fun fact - the building is said to be haunted by a ghost called Albert, a man in a grey coat who appears on level six. This magnificent venue hosts some incredible shows this year. The RSC’s Matilda runs April 2nd - 27th and for something a little different, RuPaul’s Werq The World tour sashays onto this legendary stage on May 6th.
It would be amiss of me to fail to mention The Edinburgh Fringe Festival which kicks off at the end of July. It hosts quite literally thousands of affordable shows from comedy to cabaret and everything in-between. Most of our finest actors have appeared in various shows including Dame Judy Dench and Maggie Smith.
So see, you don’t need to live in London, or break the bank, to enjoy some first-class theatre entertainment. Give some love to your local theatres – and check their websites for what’s on. You might be surprised. And by getting involved and supporting your local theatres, you are contributing to a very special and life-transforming art form and will forever be part of the magic.
Velma’s self-titled debut album is available on iTunes.
Follow Velma on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @velmacelli