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Summer-time, and the Acting Is Easy!

Summer-time, and the Acting Is Easy!

Above: Che Walker and Summer Strallen in Intra Muros at Park Theatre. Photo: Edward Johnson

There can’t be many people with at least a vague interest in the world of musical theatre who haven’t heard of the four famous Strallen sisters. With Bonnie Langford as their aunt and parents who both performed in the original London production of Cats, one might be forgiven for thinking there was only one direction in which these girls would be heading.

“Oh, I didn’t want to do it at all!” Summer, the second oldest of the quartet tells me in a rather rebellious tone. “…until I saw my sister at ArtsEd having a wonderful time! I was at a convent school near Twickenham and she was at ArtsEd with all the boys; and I was jealous. So I thought, ‘I want to go there!’”

The sister in question tempting Summer away from a secondary school life with the nuns at St. Catherine’s in Strawberry Hill was the oldest of the bunch, Scarlett, who has gone on to play a plethora of leading roles including Mary Poppins both in London and on Broadway – a part which third Strallen sister, Zizi, has remarkably now claimed for herself and is – as we speak – preparing to move into the West End to play the same title role opposite Charlie Stemp who takes on Dick van Dyke’s Bert, the chimney sweep.

Confused? You may well be, and who could blame you! Especially when I tell you that amazingly all four sisters appeared in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium over fifteen years ago – Scarlett and Summer in the adult company and their kid sisters, Zizi and Saskia (Sasi), both as sewer children in the junior ensemble.

Anyway, back to Strallen no.2, and it turns out that despite not initially intending on entering the profession, Summer Strallen was happily involved in amateur theatre (alongside ALL of the above, but let’s not go there again). “I was at the Twickenham Operatic Society! [TOPS Musical Theatre]” assures Summer. “I won a Swan Award for my depiction of Laurie in Oklahoma! when I was fifteen. I was with Twickenham Operatic for about twenty years, so it was definitely an important part of my journey.”

That journey has taken Summer Strallen to the very top of the musical theatre tree where she followed Connie Fisher into the high-profile role of Maria in The Sound of Music (after first being ‘planted’ into the cast of Channel 4’s Hollyoaks where Andrew Lloyd Webber ‘discovered’ her on-screen persona), Guys and Dolls, The Boy Friend, The Drowsy Chaperone, Love Never Dies (the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera), Top Hat and Young Frankenstein… among others.

However, the long-haired, long-legged theatre performer has recently ditched the musicals for a very dramatic production at north London’s Park Theatre called Intra Muros, written by French playwright, Alexis Michalik. The extraordinary production, set in a prison where Strallen took on the role of a young and naive social worker called Alice, received five stars in my review. “It’s an absolute joy. And I have to say that I am enjoying it a lot more than I do musicals, unfortunately. Ha ha! I really am,” confesses Summer when we speak midway through the run. “Musicals are strenuous in a different way, and with a play like this; it’s so emotional, and it’s lovely to find yourself in that space every night. And that’s the challenge. Having said that, there are equally different challenges in musicals such as a different kind of stamina, and I still love doing them – and certainly wouldn’t turn one down if it came my way.”

I’ve always had a feeling that quite a few musical theatre performers often feel they have something of a point to prove when it comes to being recognised as credible actors. “I just feel like people tend to underestimate the acting ability of people in musicals,” agrees Summer. “Ultimately, I think of myself, first and foremost, as a straight actor who can sing and dance. I don’t think of myself as a musical theatre performer; I don’t think any musical theatre performer thinks of themself as that, because, ultimately, we are acting; we’re being somebody else. So, when I was approached about this project I almost bit their hand off. I want to change the stigma of musical theatre performers being seen as anything other than straight actors. In America they do other things all the time, so why not over here? It’s a bit of an anomaly, but it’s slowly starting to change.”

With Summer’s youngest sister, Saskia, also taking a musical break while touring with the current production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, the thirty-four year old explains further of the need to diversify: “The musical theatre industry isn’t what it was years and years ago. It’s changed a lot in terms of things like celebrity casting… which is positive in many ways, such as it does get more and more people to the theatre. But there are a certain number of people who are unable to progress in musical theatre because many of the roles are being taken by celebrities.”

All four Strallen sisters are complete pros carving themselves successful careers through sheer dedication and hard work, without any television short-cuts. “When I did Hollyoaks, luckily, I’d already been nominated twice. I’d done The Drowsy Chaperone so I was already kind of in that ‘leading lady’ bracket, and then The Sound of Music pushed that even more. But people don’t know me for being on the television; they know me for being in musical theatre,” the four-time Olivier Award nominee tells me before going back to her analysis of the musical theatre industry. “To be honest, the number of new musicals that can be backed the better; that’s what I mean about the business being a different thing. Years and years ago there were only new musicals, and now it seems there are only revivals happening, and that’s when celebrities are getting cast. Some of them are absolutely fantastic, don’t get me wrong. Some celebrities have trained for years, which I have nothing against.”

…And as if it wasn’t competitive enough, the march of the actor-musicians is already set to be a big part of musical theatre’s future; an issue that Equity Council member, Summer Strallen, has her own thoughts on: “Yes. Obviously it’s a great, great skill to have. But personally, as an activist in the union I feel that there’s a bit of controversy in that it does take away from the fact that you’ve already got this triple threat – so what, we now have to learn four skills? Give me a break! Even though it’s fantastic to learn some new skills – and one can – it’s absolutely doable, but it’s tiring enough kicking your legs and singing a top C without having to play the piano and the guitar at the same time.”

I guess it’ll save theatre producers on paying for an orchestra pit? “Well, that’s the point,” she replies. “And that’s the sadness of it, ultimately. We have to be worthy and worth something without having seventeen skills. It’s quite an immersive experience.”

Summer’s decision to include non-musical theatre into her life has come about through other elements too. “I do feel that it’s not just the actors, but the creative process is also different now,” she explains. “There’s a lot less money involved [in musicals] which means there’s a lot less time to do things properly. I’m a perfectionist and don’t like to rush things. It’s more usual, when doing a play, to spend a lot more time looking at the detail and I’m a firm believer that the God – or Goddess – is in the detail.”

Personal satisfaction is obviously a major factor too. “Well that’s the thing. You have to be happy doing what you’re doing, otherwise what’s the point?” she tells me. “So, I wanted to make sure that I was happy because, if you’re not, you can’t make other people happy – no matter how much of an actress you are. If it’s not coming from a true place then, as a true artist, without your heart and soul in it then you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Summer has actually dabbled on the periphery of a more dramatic career for some time now and, as well as her aforementioned television appearance in Hollyoaks, she also played a part in BBC One’s World War II drama Land Girls ten years ago. But this recent move, and one which Summer is quite exceptional in, feels a little more serious to me. On the press night for Intra Muros, the audience certainly appeared to be completely captivated. “Well, they love it, and we’ve actually had quite a few people in who have worked in prisons,” informs a thrilled Summer. “They’ve told us that it’s an absolutely depiction of life inside. The stories that we tell with Angel and Kevin are definitely what happens. That’s been really nice to hear. I feel very privileged to be doing this play at the moment, where I’m working with some great actors, and learning stuff. I never stop learning.”

Intra Muros will be a powerful title for amateur companies to take on when the time comes. Set in a maximum security prison, the play opens with Richard about to direct a theatre workshop, for those inmates who show up that is… Angel and Kevin are the sole attendees. “Ha, ha! Actually, that’s a fictional thing because the drama workshops are, as it turns out, the most popular thing in prison,” reassures Summer. “So in the play it’s a rather far-fetched plotline. What we’re saying is that regardless of whether people are actors or not, they can feel exactly the same emotions as an actor might do through improvisation, storytelling and imagination. It’s been very interesting and the audiences have really taken to it.”

During this transition, Summer is quick to recall the importance of her training – first at Chiswick’s ArtsEd followed by time at Laine’s Theatre Arts in Epsom as part of her route into the industry. However, she stresses just how essential it is to decide on what it is you’re ultimately looking to achieve. “I think it’s very important. You have to be sure in what you want to do, whether it’s musicals or straight acting,” she instructs. “If you want to do straight acting then you definitely have to go to an appropriate acting college. People will take you more seriously having done drama the whole time. If you want to be a triple threat I personally believe that it makes things a lot easier for you if you start at a very early age; ballet, tap… all the techniques. You don’t learn to be a scientist without studying Biology, Chemistry and Physics. You have to do the basics. We live in a fast-track world and, unfortunately for generations now, it all comes very quickly – and potentially goes very quickly. So you need to do that basic training in the first place, and then you’re set for a lifetime career rather than just a short-lived moment in the limelight.”

After Intro Muros, Summer moves to New York, but intends to pop back and forth a fair bit. “Scarlett now lives in New York [Strallen no.1, keep up!], and I’m actually moving there in May. But we do always come back because this is where we call home. I guess home is where the heart is, but I have a lot of friends here so I’ll be coming back all the time.” She certainly will as there’s more drama around the corner: “I’m potentially doing another play in the autumn which will be on tour with a view to coming into the West End. So I certainly won’t be gone forever.”

And if all else fails, it seems you just can’t stop those dancing legs, which still gave away a strong hint of musical theatre during a certain love scene with Richard in Intra Muros featuring a trademark Strallen high-kick! “Ha, ha, ha! I know. When I did it in rehearsals, Ché [Ché Walker, playing Richard and also the play’s director] said, ‘You’ve got to keep it in!’ I said, ‘Nooooo!’ I’ve been trying to keep my legs to a minimum, but one of them snuck in!”