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From Am-dram to the West End… and Lockdown

From Am-dram to the West End… and Lockdown

PRETTY WOMAN THE MUSICAL, Danny Mac as ‘Edward Lewis’ and Aimie Atkinson as ‘Vivian Ward’. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Nicky Sweetland charts the meteoric rise from am-dram to theatre stardom of Aimie Atkinson


Pretty Woman (1990) Starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts

Aimie Atkinson has become one of the most well-known names in British musical theatre over the last few years, after originating the role of Katherine Howard in the smash-hit musical SIX and then going on to lead the cast of the West End production of Pretty Woman. But Aimie’s journey to the top is, in many ways, quite an unconventional tale.
Aimie grew up in Stevenage and her first taste of musical theatre came in the form of a gift from her grandmother.

“When I was about thirteen, my Nan got me the DVD of Hey, Mr Producer [a concert celebrating the work of theatrical producer Cameron Macintosh] and I remember watching Lea Salonga and Ruthie Henshall and just being in awe. I remember going to my bedroom and trying to sing On My Own and realising I could actually sing it.” Aimie explains.

Describing herself as a nervous child, the young Aimie wasn’t initially forthcoming in sharing her newfound ability, even with her family.

“I would go down to the bottom of my garden after school when my Mum and Dad were out and just belt out Les Misérables. One day, my next-door neighbours heard me singing and told my Dad. He then booked a recording a studio as a birthday present and I sang On My Own. That was really where it all started, I guess”.

Aimie went on to join her local youth theatre group, after a recommendation from a friend and it really ignited her passion to perform.

“We put shows on in the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage. I think that was the big changing point, because I met people like me, and I gradually got more confident.”

After ensemble roles in musicals including Whistle Down the Wind and The Children of Eden, Aimie was cast as Maria in West Side Story and this became a defining moment in the young performer’s life.

“I felt like I’d worked up to playing it for years. I was obsessed; I’m still obsessed with West Side Story, so getting to play Maria changed my life. It made me realise that a career in performing was something that I wanted to pursue.”

The start of a promising career beckoned and Aimie took classes at a theatre school in Barnet, while earning a bit of money teaching the next generation of theatre kids. But it was a chance meeting in Cardiff that finally gave the aspiring thespian a foot in the door. Aimie’s then boyfriend had entered a talent competition called The Voice of Musical Theatre and she went along to show her support. In a twist of fate, a large number of the potential auditionees were indisposed, so when the panel saw Aimie sitting in the green room, they asked her if she’d like to sing for them.

“I explained that I wasn’t there to audition but they invited me in. It was the first time in my life that people of note had said anything good about me. It was one of those surreal moments. They were saying all of these amazing things and asking me where I’d come from and where I’d trained, so I had to explain that I hadn’t!”

A few weeks later Aimie got a call to tell her that she wasn’t actually eligible for the competition, because it was only open to those that had been in professional employment for over five years. All was not lost however, as the judges were so impressed with her performance that they decided to produce an amateur competition alongside the professional version, with the prize being a place in the regular competition.

“I won the amateur competition and so I was then put into the professional one. It was supposed to be a secret to the other competitors that I was the amateur contender, but it was so obvious because no one knew me, and I was only 18-years-old, so I was so much younger than everyone else.”

Needless to say, Aimie went on to win the professional version of The Voice of Musical Theatre that year too and this further spurred her on. After short spells at both ArtsEd and The Royal Academy of Music, Aimie was able to employ a professional agent. But it wasn’t the kickstart to her …career that she had hoped for.

“Nothing happened for a really long time, I did a small show at the King’s Head Theatre, but I was finding it difficult to get hired because I was really inexperienced. Musical theatre wasn’t happening at all and I got to the point where I wasn’t even being seen for roles, so I decided I was going to have to make work for myself.”

Along with a couple of friends, Aimie launched Goldstone, a corporate events company, which had a vocal trio at its centre.

“It really took off and we had the best time. We travelled the world performing at the most amazing parties.”

For three years, Goldstone became Aimie’s bread and butter along with performing on cruise ships and it was a stable and fulfilling time in her career.

Then, out of the blue, Aimie got a call from up-and-coming theatrical producer, Paul Taylor-Mills. He was producing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights at the Kings Cross Theatre and knowing Aimie’s potential, wanted to cast her in the leading role of Daniella.

“In The Heights got me back into musicals. I’d always loved the show and I’d always wanted to be in it. It was a different type of role for me too; I’d always played the ingénue or the love interest previously, so this was something different and I loved the comedy side of it.”

Aimie saw out the final run of the show at the Kings Cross Theatre and thought it was finally going to be the start of a successful career in musical theatre.

“I thought after In The Heights people might start seeing me again and I’d get some auditions, but it just didn’t happen. It was just as hard as before and I couldn’t get in. It was a nightmare.”

She threw herself back into working with her Goldstone group, who competed in the Song for Europe competition and went on to win the Kazakhstan version of the show.

“I then got a call about this show called SIX. They needed people who had gig experience, that were good with audiences. They told me it was about the wives of Henry VIII and I was obsessed with the Tudors when I was at school, so I thought, although it sounded a bit weird, I’d give it a go.”

Following a two-week rehearsal period Aimie and the other Queens performed just eight shows at the Arts Theatre in London. Reviews were positive, but they were yet to create any sort of stir within the West End community or with a wider theatregoing audience. That all changed however, when the studio album was released.

“Everything went crazy. We performed in Norwich and Cambridge and then when we went to Edinburgh, it went mad. The fans went crazy, and it sold out every night.”

That was the beginning of an exciting and hectic time in Aimie’s career. The show became an overnight success with sold-out houses, both on tour and when it returned to the West End. It became the hottest ticket in town, with the studio album to date having had over two million streams worldwide. It hit at the right time, with its strong female cast and the message of empowerment really connecting with audiences.

“I think SIX is just really relatable; it’s just very accessible,” says Aimie. “The people who they cast are different. You could be any sexuality, any shape or size or colour and I think that people not only relate to the part you’re playing, but also the person who you are. That blew my mind.”

After two hugely successful years in the show, which culminated in an Olivier Award nomination, Aimie took the difficult decision to move on.
“I was really scared to leave SIX for so many reasons. I was scared I would never work again, because it had never been easy.”

In another twist of fate, the renowned Broadway producer and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, who had brought shows including Kinky Boots, Legally Blonde and Pretty Woman to the stage, had become a huge fan of SIX and in particular of Aimie’s portrayal of Katherine Howard.

Aimie explained: “I’d always looked up to Jerry Mitchell and I’d always wanted to work with him. I knew Pretty Woman was coming to the West End, but I couldn’t get an audition. Then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see me. I went for my audition the day after I left SIX. I didn’t think I’d get past the first round. Little did I know how excited Jerry Mitchell was about me being there and I got the job.”
Aimie was cast in the leading role as Vivian (who Julia Roberts played in the 1990 film) and the show opened at the Piccadilly Theatre on 13th February 2020.

Things, yet again, were destined to not go according to plan however, and just a month later, theatres closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For the first week I was in shock, I really was. I was so confused because it was a massive thing for me to get a leading role in a West End show after seventeen years of trying. I couldn’t believe it. I did four weeks and then the pandemic happened. I was livid! I felt like every time I got to a certain point in my life it all went wrong. Nothing’s ever been easy, so I just kicked straight back into the Aimie I was before SIX.”

With the prospect of no work or income for the foreseeable future, the resourceful performer picked herself up and launched back into survival mode once again. She was one of the first to offer virtual dance classes, which became incredibly successful with her legions of fans. She has also performed in and produced a number of online concerts with her original SIX cast mates and they enjoyed working with each other again so much that they formed a new pop girl group called Seven.

…As with most of the theatre world, the next year is still somewhat unknown territory, but Aimie is hoping to return to some normality by the summer.

“I’m hoping I’ll be back in Pretty Woman for the next year or so and I’m hoping that theatre comes back and that it comes back stronger than it was before. I want it to thrive.”

Aimie’s journey to becoming a successful West End leading lady has had many bumps and turns along the way, but she believes it has made her a stronger and more resilient performer because of it. When asked what advice she has for aspiring performers during this difficult time she says: “You have to bang down every door. You need to find your own showcase, so whether that’s doing concerts or smaller projects, you need to make your own work. When the industry wouldn’t give me work, I created my own and it eventually brought me back to the industry.”