Last week I chose my top ten favourite Broadway leading ladies; now it’s the turn of the West End, with my top ten favourite leading ladies here.
As with last week’s list, I’m only listing people who are still regularly active in the West End, or at least were when the theatres shut down, so alas there’s no Julia McKenzie on this list, who for my money is one of the very greatest musical theatre actresses we’ve ever produced in this country, who last week turned 80 and is now retired. McKenzie was, for a long time, our pre-eminent Sondheim performer, from the original London production of Company and the Sondheim revue Side by Side by Sondheim (that she subsequently reprised on Broadway) to the first London productions of Follies and Into the Woods and the National’s celebrated revival of Sweeney Todd.
VIDEO: Julia McKenzie performs The Boys from…, with music by Mark Rodgers and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, from the 1966 off-Broadway revue The Mad Show.
I’m also, alas, not going to list performers who’ve relocated their careers Stateside, like Scarlett Strallen — one of the Strallen clan (she has three sisters, all in musical theatre — Zizi is currently playing a title role she has herself played in Mary Poppins), who until she left Britain was on the fast track to inheriting the mantle of the great Barbara Cook as our leading theatrical soprano, many of whose roles — from Cunegonde in Candide, Amelia Balish in She Loves Me and Marian Paroo in The Music Man — she has herself played (the first two at the Menier Chocolate Factory and the third at Chichester).
VIDEO: Scarlett Strallen performs Glitter and be Gay from Candide at the Royal Albert Hall in 2015 as part of a Prom.
Neither, of course, am I going to list anyone who’s left us, like Julia McKenzie’s Follies co-star Diana Rigg who recently passed away. But among the living, this is an even harder list to confine to just ten entries than last week’s; after the Broadway list, Betty Buckley tweeted suggesting that I rename the series ShenTwens, and list Twenty. I reckon I could easily stretch to ShenThirty for this category and still leave people out. So here are the ShenTens, with apologies to those missed — though at the end of this piece, I list at least some of them.
1. Imelda Staunton
Imelda Staunton has been nominated for 13 Oliviers, and won four of them: for best actress in a musical for the original West End production of Into the Woods (in 1991, in which she played the Baker’s Wife) and revivals of Sweeney Todd (winning in 2013) and Gypsy (2015) that both transferred from Chichester, as well as for supporting actor in 1985, jointly for the original National Theatre production of Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval and The Corn is Green at the Old Vic.
VIDEO: Performing A Little Priest from Sweeney Todd, with Michael Ball in the title role.
She is also nowadays a regular on the big and small screens, getting an Oscar nomination for starring in the title role of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake (for which she also won the BAFTA) in 2004. She was utterly hilarious as Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007); and will next year assume the crown in The Crown, taking over from Olivia Colman as our reigning monarch Elizabeth.
But Staunton is also the reigning monarch of the West End theatrical stage, whether in plays (like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2017), or musicals (most recently Follies at the National in the same year), both of which she was Olivier nominated for. She was due back on the West End stage last year to play the title role in Hello, Dolly!, but that was postponed because of the pandemic and will now have to be rolled forward to 2023, as she will be otherwise occupied next year (see above).
I’ve followed her career closely ever since she first appeared as a HotBox girl in the original company of the National’s Guys and Dolls in 1982, also understudying Julia McKenzie as Miss Adelaide; a role she would formally take over in 1996 when that production was revived at the National.
In 1998, I was instrumental in getting her to be one of the inaugural Divas at the Donmar, the annual cabaret season that I helped initiate that year, after I ran into her in the Covent Garden record store Dress Circle (now, alas, no more) and invited her to be a part of it. As she stated in a programme note, “It all happened because I met a man in a shop.”
The following year she took that cabaret to a New York cabaret club, the Firebird Cafe on west 46th Street (no longer there, either), and I flew over to see her. One afternoon, she, her husband Jim (whom she’d met on Guys and Dolls, when he played Big Jule) and young daughter Bessie who would have been about six years old then, took in a matinee of a musical called You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Bessie is now a formidable actor herself, recently starring in TV’s Bridgerton.
2. Sharon D Clarke
A three-time Olivier Award winner, Sharon D Clarke may well soon add a Tony to her awards shelf if and when she finally reprises her Olivier-winning performance in Caroline, or Change on Broadway, which was due to open there last year but had those plans aborted during previews because of COVID19. It is a truly remarkable performance, a soaring portrait in pride and grief as a maid is diminished by the young son of her employer.
VIDEO: Performing a song from Caroline, or Change at the Olivier Awards in 2019.
Last year she also won the Olivier for Best Actress in a play for starring as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Piccadilly in a production that originated at the Young Vic.
She has toggled between plays and musicals and the stage and television all her career, where other leading roles have included playing the original Killer Queen in We Will Rock You (2002) and the original Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (2011), as well as taking over roles in Guys and Dolls (General Cartwright at the National in 1996), The Lion King (Rafiki, from Josette Bushell-Mingo in 2000) and Chicago (Mama Morton in 2004).
She is one of the finest, fiercest talents we have. As I wrote in my review of Caroline, or Change on its West End transfer to the Playhouse for LondonTheatre.co.uk:
“It is naturally and peerlessly dominated by an extraordinarily fierce and contained performance from Sharon D Clarke in the title role. In musicals from Once on this Island to Guys and Dolls and Porgy and Bess, and plays from The Amen Corner to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she has emerged as one of our very finest stage actors; this production puts a seal on her bid for stardom.”
3. Jenna Russell
One of my absolutely favourite people in theatreland — particularly for her personal warmth and kindness, but also for her immense talent — I’ve followed Jenna Russell for more than 35 years, ever since she was featured in the original cast of Howard Goodall’s musical Girlfriends at Oldham Coliseum in 1986. (Goodall also provided her with one of her most famous, but unheralded, roles as the singer of his theme tune to the series Red Dwarf).
VIDEO: Howard Goodall talks about her contribution here:
She emerged, via stints in Les Miserables and fringe musicals at the wonderful Bridewell Theatre near Blackfriars, to her first starring role in a West End musical in 2005, when she played Sister Sarah Brown opposite Ewan McGregor’s Sky Masterson in Michael Grandage’s revival of Guys and Dolls. She subsequently took over from Anna-Jane Casey (who withdrew because she was pregnant) in the transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Sunday in the Park with George to the West End in 2006, for which she won an Olivier Award, then on to Broadway in 2008, where she was nominated for a Tony (but then got an even bigger reward when she fell pregnant).
In the years since, she’s returned to the Menier twice — for Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along (2012, subsequently transferring to the West End, in which she was heartbreaking in her unrequited love for Franklin Shepherd) and the UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite The Bridges of Madison County (2019), and also starred in the UK premiers of three more Broadway shows, Urinetown (at the St James in 2014, subsequently transferring to the Apollo), Grey Gardens (at Southwark Playhouse in 2016, opposite Sheila Hancock), and Fun Home (at the Young Vic in 2018, again heartbreaking as a young mother married to a gay husband).
VIDEO: Another Winter in a Summer Time, from Grey Gardens
4. Joanna Riding
The phenomenal Joanna Riding came to prominence, via taking over as Sally in the long-running Me and My Girl in the West End, to become a bright new star of musical theatre firmament when she played the leading role of Julie Jordan in Nick Hytner’s stunning 1992 revival of Carousel, for which she won her first Olivier. Shen then returned to the National to star as Sister Sarah Brown in its 1996 revival of its 1982 production of Guys and Dolls. In 2000, she originated the role of Jane Smart in Cameron Mackintosh’s original production of Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey’s musicalisation of The Witches of Eastwick at Drury Lane.
VIDEO: Make Him Mine from The Witches of Eastwick, standing on the left, with Lucie Arnaz (middle) and Maria Friedman (right)
In 2002, she returned to Drury Lane to take over the role of Eliza Doolittle in the National Theatre’s transfer of My Fair Lady, winning her second Olivier. She has since taken over in the West End in the long-running Billy Elliott as Mrs Wilkinson, and had starring roles in a series of flops: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lend Me a Tenor (both 2011), and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward (2013), before starring in The Girls in 2017 (Phoenix Theatre). In 2019, she returned to the National to star in Follies, taking over as Sally Durant Plummer from Imelda Staunton.
5. Rosalie Craig
Rosalie Craig was so wonderful in an otherwise misguided revival of Ragtime at the Open Air Theatre in 2012 that I returned to see it a second time, just to see (and hear) her. She’s also been a regular at the National, in plays as well as musicals — the premieres of London Road (2011), Table in the Shed (a temporary theatre, in 2013), and Tori Amos’s musical The Light Princess (2013, playing the title role), plus new productions of As You Like It (2015) and The Threepenny Opera (2016, playing Polly Peachum, while heavily pregnant!)
But two particular stand-outs have been City of Angels (at the Donmar Warehouse in 2014, opposite her husband Hadley Fraser, that they should have reprised in the West End in 2020, but was shut down during previews because of the arrival of COVID19) and the gender-switched Company (2018, in which she played Bobbie, formerly Bobby, the isolated, unmarried 35-year-old wondering whether getting hitched is a good idea or not). That production transferred to Broadway, but without her: she was replaced by Katrina Lenk, a Tony winner for The Band’s Visit, but that production, too, closed during previews because of COVID19, so she didn’t miss out too much.
VIDEO: Performing Being Alive from Company at the Olivier Awards in 2019:
6. Rebecca Trehearn
One of my personal favourites amongst musical theatre actresses in Britain, Rebecca Trehearn was utterly remarkable in two 2014 musicals: the UK premiere of Pasek and Paul’s Dogfight at Southwark Playhouse, and the Donmar’s revival of City of Angels (that was supposed to belatedly transfer to the West End’s Garrick Theatre last year, but was suspended during previews owing the arrival of COVID19). She was also heartbreakingly good as Julie Laverne in Sheffield’s Show Boat that transferred from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre to the West End’s New London Theatre in 2017, winning that year’s Olivier for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
VIDEO: Performing Bill from Show Boat:
Since then, I’ve also seen her give a stunning performance in the title role of Sweet Charity at Nottingham Playhouse in 2018, and as part of a wonderful ensemble at the Old Vic for its 2019 outing, in which her voice could be heard singing from the upper reaches of the theatre.
7. Carrie Hope Fletcher
A performer with a massive social media reach via her personal YouTube channel and Twitter, Carrie Hope Fletcher began her West End theatre career, aged 9, in 2001, when she played Young Eponine in Les Miserables; she subsequently also appeared as Jemima Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2002) and as Jane Banks in Mary Poppins (2004).
She would return to Les Mis as an adult performer, playing Eponine and then Fantine in Les Mis, in the West End production at the Queen’s, and as part of the all-star concert versions that took place during the show’s temporary hiatus from the Queen’s Theatre in 2019 when it had a residency at the Gielgud Theatre next door, and again after the first lockdown but was aborted by the imposition of a new lockdown last December). She’s had starring roles in a UK regional tour of Andrew Lippa’s The Addams Family musical (in 2016) and the UK premiere of off-Broadway’s Heathers at the Other Palace, followed by a transfer to the Haymarket (2018).
But her biggest break yet will undoubtedly be creating the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical Cinderella, which was to have premiered at the Gillian Lynne Theatre earlier this year but has now been twice postponed because of COVID19.
She has, however, already appeared in taster videos of the show.
VIDEO: performing Bad Cinderella (with Andrew Lloyd Webber accompanying her)
8. Rachel Tucker
A semi-finalist on I’d Do Anything — the reality TV casting show that found producer Cameron Mackintosh his Nancy for the 2008 Drury Lane revival of Oliver! — Rachel Tucker lost the round to Samantha Barks (and Barks lost ultimately to Jodie Prenger); here is their sing-off (Rachel is in yellow, Sam in blue):
But she has become a major force in musicals on both sides of the Atlantic nonetheless, first taking over as Meat in We Will Rock You in 2008, and then becoming Elphaba in Wicked, in which she has done two lengthy stints in the West End plus another on Broadway.
In between, she originated a leading role in the short-lived Sting musical The Last Ship, also on Broadway (2014), in which she was truly wonderful.
VIDEO: Singing August Winds, to Sting’s accompaniment on guitar:
In 2019, she was in the original London company of Come from Away, that she was due to reprise in the show’s original Broadway production last year before it was shut down by COVID19.
9. Samantha Barks
Initially coming to prominence for being a contestant in I’d Do Anything, the BBC casting show to find a Nancy for London’s 2008 revival of Oliver!, she came third (behind winner Jodie Prenger and runner-up Jessie Buckley), but went on to star as Eponine in the 2012 film version of Les Miserables, after first playing the role in the show’s 20th anniversary concert at the 02 Arena in 2010.
She also toured in Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Oliver!, both before and after filming Les Mis. In 2015, she was in the pre-Broadway try-out of the new musical version of Amelie, but was replaced for Broadway by Hamilton star Philippa Soo; instead, she followed it with a terrific performance in Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years at the St James Theatre, co-starring with Jonathan Bailey (now a big TV star in Bridgerton).
In 2018, she originated the role of Vivian (the Julia Roberts role) in the Broadway premiere of the musical version of Pretty Woman; and last year was due to headline the UK premiere of Disney’s Frozen as Elsa at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, an opening that has now been pushed back to a date still be announced this year.
VIDEO: Performing Let It Go from Frozen at the 2020 Royal Variety Show.
10. Miriam Teak-Lee
The West End’s newest break-out star, Miriam Teak-Lee trained at ArtsEd (where I taught her in her first year), and soon after her 3rd year show The Life in 2017, in which she played Queen, she secured her first professional engagement, starring as Clair deLoone in On the Town at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, for which she won that year’s Stage Debut Award.
She then went on to join the ensemble of the original company of Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, understudying three leading roles; before in 2019 securing the title role in & Juliet, the Max Martin jukebox show at the Shaftesbury, for which she won this year’s Olivier for best actress in a musical.
VIDEO: Performing the Katy Perry hit Roar from & Juliet, at Pride 2019 in Trafalgar Square:
(SOME OF) THOSE MISSED….
This list was the hardest I’ve yet had to draw up, and there are countless omissions. Most conspicuous, perhaps, is Maria Friedman (pictured below left), whose theatrical career stretched from becoming a favoured interpreter of Sondheim (she was the lead in the London premieres of both Sunday in the Park with George and Passion and directed the Menier revival of Merrily We Roll Along that she’d also starred in the UK professional premiere of at Leicester Haymarket) to the London premiere of Ragtime and the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White (that she subsequently took to Broadway). But though she was back in the West End recently taking over in the Menier transfer of Fiddler on the Roof, she mainly works these days as a director and cabaret/concert performer.
I’m also sad that I didn’t have a spot for Louise Dearman (pictured above middle), another Wicked alumni (and the only actress in the world to have played both Glinda and Elphaba) and possessed of one of the best voices, period, in British musical theatre.
And I’m sorry I left out Janie Dee, who puts the triple into triple threat as a brilliant actor and dancer as well as song stylist, as she demonstrated so exquisitely with her triumphant performance as Phyllis Stone in the National’s Follies in 2017 (pictured above right).
More regrettable omissions include the glorious Linzi Hateley (above left, a star ever since she first emerged, aged 17, to headline the RSC’s notorious fiasco Carrie, but who has gone on to leading roles in the first London Palladium revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opposite Jason Donovan, the original Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins and take-overs in Les Miserables, Chicago, the National’s London Road and Mamma Mia!, among others); the remarkable Clare Burt (above centre, so fantastic in Flowers for Mrs Harris at Sheffield and Chichester); and Beverley Knight (above right, the soul/pop singer who has become a force in musical theatre, after taking over in The Bodyguard and then going on to lead the London transfer of the Broadway hit Memphis and star in a revival of Cats, who will next headline The Drifters Girl in the West End later this year).
Other West End regulars I’m sorry not to have been able to include are Anna-Jane Casey (who made headlines for a different reason during the pandemic for becoming a delivery driver, pictured above, but whose abundant West End career has embraced over a dozen shows from Cats, Starlight Express, Grease and Chicago to Monty Python’s Spamalot and Billy Elliot); Lauren Samuels (a contestant in the 2010 casting show Over the Rainbow, who went on to make her West End debut in Grease, before taking over in We Will Rock You and creating a lead role in Howard Goodall’s Bend it Like Beckham); Lucie Jones (a one-time X-Factor contestant who has starred in the West End in Les Miserables and Waitress, and starred regionally in tours of Legally Blonde and The Wedding Singer); Laura Pitt-Pulford (Olivier-nominated for 7 Brides for 7 Brothers at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and a stalwart of fringe musicals at Southwark Playhouse, the Menier and Arcola) and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (who was just thrilling in A Chorus Line at the Palladium and In the Heights at Southwark Playhouse and King’s Cross).
I must also list a trio of performers who’ve variously played Eva Peron in Evita, whom I also adore: Madelena Alberto, Emma Hatton and Emma Kingston; and the leading ladies who’ve starred as Carole King in the West End transfer of Beautiful — Katie Brayben and Cassidy Janson (the latter of whom recently won an Olivier for a supporting role in & Juliet).
Yet another new generation is also emerging, with performers like Rachel John (a star in Hamilton), Stephanie McKeon (The Commitments, Beautiful and Close to You, and soon to star in the West End premiere of Frozen as Anna opposite Samantha Barks), T’Shan Williams (amazing in The Life at Southwark Playhouse and currently to be seen online in the Curve’s The Color Purple), and Alice Fearn (Wicked and Come from Away) making waves.
NEXT WEEK: We return to Broadway, this time for my ShenTens countdown of my favourite Broadway leading men. To tune in, don’t forget to subscribe on your favourite listening platform. And come back here every Friday for this weekly feature with more background information and commentary on each choice, plus links to clips in which you can watch them in action.
Special thanks to my producer Paul Branch; Howard Goodall, for theme music; and Thomas Mann for the logo design