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Centre Stage to Shelf-Stacking (Life in Lockdown)

Centre Stage to Shelf-Stacking (Life in Lockdown)

By Paul Johnson

Rhiannon Chesterman is a musical theatre performer who is making a name for herself playing opposite stars like Strictly winner, Kevin Clifton, in The Wedding Singer.
In addition, she also featured in the West End transfer of musical, Mrs Henderson Presents, in 2016.
However, when lockdown came in, and every theatre in the country closed, Rhiannon took a job working the night-shift in Sainsbury’s.
Sardines spoke with her in July to pick up the story…

“Ha ha! Well, you’ve got to roll with the punches!” laughs Rhiannon. “Adapt, carry on, life changes all the time. It’s just a bit of a plot twist, that’s all. There’s really no point in trying to keep it a secret, were all trying to adapt and deal with the situation while paying the bills really.”

As we chat at the end of July, this talented performer is still on the books in Sydenham’s superstore: “I am. I won’t lie, in the beginning it was a lot of fun and we all had a lovely time just getting on with it. But it’s hard work now.”

Apparently, one of Sainsbury’s managers is a big musical theatre fan. “When I first took the job there were loads of theatre people joining with me,” recalls Rhiannon. “At least thirty. We were very lucky because one of the managers at Sainsbury’s in Sydenham sent out a tweet as soon as she realised all the theatres were closing. Lots of people working in the industry live in south-east London, so we all got a job at once. Everyone who works there is lovely and I think we’ve certainly injected something. We’re all quite loud and there’s definitely been some dancing in the aisles.”

Born in Northern Ireland, Rhiannon, whose father is English, went to school in Belfast before spending a year in Edinburgh and moving to London twelve years ago. “I’ve probably got a Celtic twang,” she tells me after I detect a hard-to-place accent.

We first met Rhiannon five years ago at Richmond Theatre’s panto launch for Cinderella (guess who took the title role!). 2015 seems a long time ago. “I know,” agrees the actor. “Although I’d actually been out of drama school for three years at that time having graduated in 2012. I had had a few jobs before that including Mrs Henderson Presents in Bath which was before it went into the West End. I’d also done the UK tour of Hairspray by then, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Hairspray holds a place dear to Rhiannon’s heart – a show that also starred one of her Cinderella co-stars, Ugly Sister, Matt Rixon (son of Matthew Kelly, the other Ugly Sister five years ago).
Matt Rixon has played Edna Turnblad in a couple of tours of Hairspray but not on the same production I was on,” remembers Rhiannon. “My Edna was played by Mark Benton. I really hope the new production of Hairspray with Michael Ball goes ahead next year, I can’t wait to see it. It’s such a feel-good show and was definitely one of my favourites to do. Right now it definitely provides the kind of joy that everyone needs. When I was on tour with it in 2013 every night we would get a standing ovation at the end without fail; it was amazing!”

Rhiannon is crossing her fingers that a panto miracle might still occur this year: “I’m hoping I’ll still be in panto this year, although I’m not lined up for anything yet,” hopes the singer. “I did have an audition for a panto actually, back in March, but when lockdown happened it was obviously cancelled. I don’t think any pantos have been cast yet and until they decide what’s happening I don’t think a lot of casting will go ahead. So yes, I’m still hoping for a panto. In a regular year they would have cast all of the big names long ago but, this time, I haven’t heard any announcements yet.”

Rhiannon Chesterman is becoming well known enough (in theatre) to avoid auditioning, sometimes, as was the case at the start of the year with The Wedding Singer in which she played Julia Sullivan opposite Kevin Clifton’s Robbie Hart.

“Yes, I was very fortunate with The Wedding Singer where I didn’t have to audition at all,” she tells me modestly. “I must admit that was very nice. I did audition originally for the tour but that was three or four years ago; this time I was offered the role without auditioning. While it’s flattering, it’s also very rare for that to happen. Usually, I have to audition alongside everybody else; even if you’ve done a million jobs you normally still have to go back and audition – unless you’re Judi Dench perhaps.”

As luck would have it, that show played its full run just prior to lockdown. “We had just finished – on 1 March, so it wasn’t cut short and I didn’t miss out on any work… at the start anyway. Hopefully I would have been given another job by now, ha ha!”

Rhiannon points out that at the end of August, the same venue is going to reopen with social distancing. “Where we did The Wedding Singer at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, they’re doing the new musical Sleepless in August – with social distancing. That venue is so big, when we were there it rarely filled to maximum capacity so, in theory, you probably could spread people out more. There’s so much room that social distancing could totally work there. We shall just have to wait and see.”

Indeed we will. Despite the conversation focusing briefly on the current troubles I’m struck by Rhiannon’s refreshing positivity: “Well I have been trying to stay positive, but I’m a positive person anyway,” she discloses. “It’ll certainly make a good story if we ever write down our memoirs. It can be hard to stay positive sometimes; every day somebody has an opinion on something, or this is going to happen, or they’ve heard something is going on. You just have to take everything with a pinch of salt these days… and hope for the best.”

The thirty-year-old performer (who ‘celebrated’ her birthday in lockdown) is also quite philosophical. “It’s funny because actors – and the whole profession come to think about – are used to rejection, so this aspect we’re going through at the moment could be seen as part and parcel… albeit a slightly bigger knockback than normal.”

Working around her new shalf-stacking hours, Rhiannon is also working with Luke Walsh who she met on the Rock of Ages UK tour. “You will have seen him for the Wimbledon run where he played Drew, the lead part,” she informs. “He’s got the most incredible voice. When we were touring we taught a few workshops and he’s a wonderful teacher. We did ‘Acting through Song’ in Edinburgh and Stoke, and now of course everybody is doing online workshops. We thought we may as well join in, but instead of doing it just throughout lockdown we want to expand it and keep going after things get back to normal. We’ve been running these Chesterman-Walsh workshops online and despite the market being a little saturated at the moment we’ve still had a lovely response from everyone who’s joined us. The next one we’re doing is ‘Audition Prep’ for anyone who is auditioning for drama school, or a professional wanting to try out a new song.”

Burning the candle at both ends isn’t ever a good idea, and probably not sustainable in the long run. Fortunately, the musical theatre star agrees with me. “Yes, I don’t know for how much longer I can do it actually; I’m in a constant state of jetlag. That’s what it feels like anyway.” Equally fortunate is the fact that the manager who first recruited half of the industry is also very understanding. “I’m only actually contracted for two nights a week which was just temporary back in March, plus I can work some overtime whenever I need it… for instance, when we have a workshop planned I’ll try not to work the night before. It’s just a case of juggling everything really.”

I have to admire Rhiannon’s working spirit. She also gives a new definition to the term ‘jobbing actor’. To go from The Wedding Singer, Peter Pan, Rock of Ages, Grease, Cinderella, Mrs Henderson Presents and Hairspray to a supermarket night-shift may seem like a climbdown, but it only takes a little perspective really.

Hollywood may be filled with an industry of actors who are waiting tables in their spare time. While over here, it’s nice to know that, as long as there are people who really understand theatre – working in influential positions where they can give a helping hand when needed – perhaps things will work out after all… if only the Government had one or two theatrelovers!