Lucy May Barker – the Lincoln local and ABBA super-fan who rose to the top of the West End

Lucy May Barker as Sophie (centre) with the cast of MAMMA MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Lincoln bred Lucy May Barker is starring in MAMMA MIA! in the West End at the Novello Theatre, after touring with the musical across the globe. A local success story, her credits include not only the famous Sophie Sheridan in MAMMA MIA! but roles in the original London cast of Spring Awakening, The Crucible and Oklahoma! as well as in film, TV and radio.

Lincolnshire Today sat down with Lucy to discuss her experience with theatre while growing up in Lincoln, the importance of the arts, MAMMA MIA! and the advice she would give to any youngsters in the region looking to follow in her footsteps to achieve success in her industry.

 

So Lucy, you grew up in Lincoln itself?

Yes, I’m from Lincoln itself, North Hykeham.

What was your first performance?

It was with Stagecoach in Lincoln and it was a show called The Rainbow Juggler. Then my first kind of professional show came not too long after that – I did Annie at the Theatre Royal, playing Annie herself and went on to do that on tour for a few years.

How old were you when you played Annie?

I was understudying when I was around eight and then playing the role when I was nine, ten and eleven on and off for a few years in a few different tours and places. It was a really great experience and sort of subconsciously taught me a lot of the skills and even just etiquette that I know today!

I know you attended TRSPA Lincoln. What was your overall experience of musical theatre during your school years?

I loved it – I’ve always loved musical theatre. While I’ve done plays and had some roles on telly, musical theatre has always been my first love. I think it’s the most accessible form of that kind of art to kids which is just so brilliant, and I think so many people have their first experience of theatre via a school play or musical – that’s where a lot of passions are born. My experiences with musical theatre were all extremely fun. I did loads of youth theatre in Lincoln when I was a kid. My favourite was New Youth Theatre which still goes on today and is run by Rachel Jerem and Jason Ashworth. They have schools in Lincoln, Newark and in a couple other places as well, but they are brilliant, and they would put on full-scale musicals with kids. So I was playing roles that should be played by fifty-year-old women when I was like twelve. Parents always have a giggle when that happens, so it’s always fun for everyone to watch.

Did you find that there was a lot of support for your career choice in Lincolnshire?

Sophie Matthew as Lisa, Lucy May Barker as Sophie and Melissa Nettleford as Ali in MAMMA MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Definitely! I think the most was from my singing teacher Linda Ward, and my dance teacher, I went to Lyndsey Ellis School of Dance, and I loved New Youth Theatre specifically. I just think everyone, but especially those three taught me so much when I was growing up and I came into the industry with a lot of knowledge already.

At the moment quite a positive turn is being taken for the state of theatre and musical theatre in schools, with a lot of people coming out and saying that the subject needs to stay in schools and we need to make sure its funded.

Totally – I think drama in general opens a door for kids to express themselves in a way you can’t in other lessons. Obviously, maths and science are glorious, but I don’t think they will ever offer the same kind of therapy you can get from just standing at the front of a stage and screaming or crying or laughing or expressing all those emotions.

People are very quick to dismiss the arts, but I think they can end up being more valuable than some of the more mainstream subjects. I’m a massive advocate for drama and arts being a huge part of young people’s lives. I think even if they don’t necessarily go on to do it as a career, accessing those kinds of things when you are younger enhances you as a person, your people skills, empathy, understanding of situations. It is hugely, hugely beneficial.

Let’s focus on where you are now – MAMMA MIA! 

You’ve toured with it before and have now settled in the Novello Theatre for this specific production of the show. How many years have you been playing Sophie?

For around three and a half years. It has been an absolutely crazy journey! I originally just signed up to do year one of the brand-new UK tour that was launched a few years ago and then ended up staying and moving with it and doing it all over the world. Now I’m back with it in the West End, in the theatre that I did my first ever West End job in, so that’s super special. They’re literally going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming when it’s over because I love it so much.

So you’ve come full circle then.

Yes, I have. It’s crazy to be back ten years later. It was just the tenth anniversary of the Spring Awakening opening, the first ever West End show I did, and I was in the theatre doing the show and walked around thinking how ridiculous it would have been to tell myself that I would be in this theatre again having done lots of brilliant shows and MAMMA MIA! especially, a worldwide phenomenon. To be a part of that in such a huge way – I don’t think my ten-year previous self would have believed me at all.

Lucy May Barker as Sophie in MAMMA MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

As you said you’ve been playing Sophie for three and half years. What keeps pulling you back to the show/character?

I think it’s the audiences mainly because the show gives people so much joy. Everybody gets up on their feet and they all have such an absolute ball. To know that you’ve been a part of that, making someone have a fantastic evening, especially in this age when it’s harder to know what to spend your disposable income on. I mean I quite like a deal and a voucher myself, so to know people have gone “I’m really glad I spent my money here tonight,” makes me really happy.

How do you keep your performance fresh after playing Sophie for so long?

It’s super easy with the cast, they’re so brilliant. Everybody is full of energy and life, and I’ve been lucky enough to see lots of people play all the different roles as people have changed and moved on from the job and other people have come in – so that helps to keep it fresh. Often there’s an understudy on or there will be new people playing a different role. That’s then a completely new experience. So its super exciting, just getting to tell the story over and over, again and again. I’m lucky too as Sophie has so much to do, so you can focus on different points. In different shows you can go “maybe I haven’t thought about that bit for a while, so I’ll think about that again,” and really take it back to basics and kind of key into the story again and the character.

After touring with MAMMA MIA! and being in this single theatre with it, have you found how you prepare yourself for shows different when in one theatre versus when touring?

For sure. Touring is hard, but amazing. Any actor umming and ahing about whether they want to do a world tour, the answer is one million percent yes go and do it. It’s the opportunity and experience of a lifetime. But there are things that you wouldn’t necessarily think about. Like in some places on the international tour it was so hard to find food you’re used to, and you have to be strict with your diet as a performer. I mean, I’ve definitely made the mistake of going and having a pizza between shows and then feeling super stodgy and kind of waddling around the stage for that evening, so you have to be careful about how you fuel yourself, and in some international places we just couldn’t find any vegetables, everything would be deep fried. So touring just takes a bit of extra preparation. There are things that you just kind of take for granted, like being able to just go to Tesco and buy your broccoli and some pasta.

The heat as well internationally – the change in climate can really play havoc with your voice. Some of the super humid places were brilliant – humidity is great for the voice because it’s like constant moisture. But then in some of the other places, where there was a real dry heat everyone gets a sore throat and is coughing and feeling dehydrated even though they have knocked back three two litre bottles of water. So it’s just kind of getting used to that and trying to make sure you keep yourself healthy with all the varying variables. So it’s super nice to now be at home and in the one place and to have unpacked all my stuff into the dressing room and not have to move it every two weeks.

Do you find there is a difference to audiences in the West End and elsewhere in UK and around the world?

Definitely. Audiences differ all the time. One of the things I love about UK touring is that each city, each place has their own personality. Some places like Oxford have been super reserved and quite quiet, and then Manchester are just super rowdy and brilliant and shout. Each place enjoys it just as much, it’s just how they choose to show it. In some of the international venues as well we would have, since they wouldn’t be English speaking countries, surtitles, which are like subtitles but at the top of the stage or towards the side, and sometimes you would say a line that would usually get a laugh but because of the slight delay, because of the surtitles, the audience would laugh a few seconds later. So there are funny little quirks like that, but I do have to say that the London audiences are some of the best ever. I think that’s because the West End is so vibrant and the people there are so excited and used to that theatrical environment, and the Novello is a perfect theatre. It’s not too big, not too tiny. It’s the perfect environment to create that intimate but hearty style evening out.

Lucy May Barker as Sophie and Neil Moors as Harry Bright in MAMMA MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

What do you love about MAMMA MIA!?

I think it’s the music for sure. I’m a massive ABBA fan. I one hundred percent listen to ABBA in my spare time even though I’m constantly singing and listening to it at work, but the story as well is so timeless. There’s a reason it’s been running for over twenty years. It’s super relatable for people and easy to watch in that people can literally just sit back, relax and enjoy, have a drink and not have to concentrate super super hard. Though I think there’s totally and utterly a place for that, in this day and age with all the horrendous dramas going on in the world I think to have something that’s a solid night of entertainment where you can relax, laugh, cry is a really fantastic thing to be a part of.

I’m sure you answer this all the time but what’s your favourite song in the show to sing and listen to?

It changes all the time and that’s the joy of a show like MAMMA MIA! It’s literally hit after hit after hit, so you don’t have to kind of clutch at straws and pick one of the couple of good ones – they’re literally all good so it’s great. But Mazz Murray, who plays Donna, absolutely nails The Winner Takes It All night after night. I don’t know how she does it. She’s a powerhouse in every single way, on stage and off, and listening to her sing that every single night is epic. It’s like being backstage at a rock star’s concert, so that’s my favourite at the minute.

I love singing all of them but what I’m really enjoying is the opening number Honey, Honey which I sing with Melissa Nettleford and Sophie Matthew who are my Ali and Lisa. We have so much fun in that number and have to deliver lots of information as well. We will sing a verse then we have lots of lines. It’s kind of a key point. We have to strap in and give the audience this information or they won’t be able to follow the rest of the show. So it’s a responsibility, but it’s one we’re able to have a lot of fun with at the same time.

Do you think a few years down the line you might return as Donna?

I would love to do that yes! I am hoping and praying that the show is still running by the time I’m old enough to come back and play Donna. What an amazing role and what an amazing show. I’m sure it’s still going to be running. I’ll be banging on the doors to audition.

Has anything funny or embarrassing happened on stage?

Mazz Murray as Donna and Lucy May Barker as Sophie in MAMMA-MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Always, all of the time. The most recent one was when me and Mazz were singing Slipping Through My Fingers, where there’s a moment that we come and sing together and it’s the first time we’ve sung together in the show and it’s a beautiful, emotional, highly gorgeous moment. There was a fly on stage just flying round our heads and I was trying to dodge it. Me and Mazz were trying not to laugh. They call it corpsing when you laugh on stage and I’m so easily corpsed, anything will make me laugh. This fly was literally flying around and buzzing and coming too close and you could hear it – it was awful trying to swat this fly away in the most beautiful, emotional moment of the whole show. So that wasn’t ideal, but it was very funny.

What is your biggest audience pet peeve? For instance mobile phones ringing.

You know what, it’s not even a mobile going off but when people literally sit on their phones and their face is bright flashing white. People don’t realise how brightly lit their faces are. It’s super distracting and annoying especially when there’s an announcement right at the start of the show that says turn your phones off and don’t use them.

What is your favourite project that you’ve done outside of MAMMA MIA!?

What I had so much fun doing was a TV show called Scoop. It was a CBBC kids show. I did an episode of that quite a few years ago and that was such a brilliant experience – with its heightened characters and puppet dog. I’m essentially a kid – I like lots of colour and lots of noise and movement. I would love to do more stuff like that.

What role would you like to play next and what is your dream role?

There are so many amazing roles. I’ve always wanted to play Glinda in Wicked. Gosh what else…I feel like I’m starting to go into a slightly different age bracket as well so there are roles like Éponine in Les Mis that I would have loved to have played when I was slightly younger, but I think my Éponine ship might have sailed now, but even Fantine in Les Mis, what a gorgeous role, but mostly lots of things that probably haven’t even been written yet. I love being able to create a role and put my own stamp on it. But it has to be Glinda in Wicked, or Anna in Frozen – all of these amazing, spunky, exciting, funny female roles.

Melissa Nettleford as Ali, Lucy May Barker as Sophie and Sophie Matthew as Lisa, with the cast of MAMMA MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg

So obviously as can be seen with MAMMA MIA! and many others, people love to turn plays and musicals into films and of course films into musicals and plays as well. If you could turn any musical or perhaps play into a film and any film into a musical or play, what would it be?

This is fun. What I loved recently and needs to be a stage musical is Wreck it Ralph – let’s get some songs written. There would be amazing costumes, amazing set. All those Pixar classics would be amazing musicals. Then there was a play recently on the West End called Emilia. It’s all about women and the history of females and it’s just epic. I wish it was still going on in the West End. I feel like it’s something every single woman and man on the planet should see. So I think that would be a brilliant film – though to be fair one of the things about it that was most special was the theatrical experience. But if I had to choose a play to become a film, just so the masses could see it, I think it would be that for sure.

If someone in Lincolnshire was to come up to you today and say, “I want to be in musical theatre but I’m just not sure how to get there” what advice would you give them?

I would say definitely go join New Youth Theatre. It’s brilliant. It gives you the exact experience of being in a show – obviously not in the same way, like you’ve got a twelve-year-old boy playing a seventy-year-old man, but the setup is the same. You have your rehearsals and then you get into costume and you do like a technical rehearsal, you do a dress rehearsal and then the show itself, and it’s the full show, and that for me was an amazing experience. So New Youth Theatre for sure – go speak to Rachel and Jason and join that, and just make sure you are enjoying it at all times.

Also try to be yourself. That sounds so cliched but when I stopped trying to be other people was when I became most successful and I was just true to myself and my personality. The little things that make you, you are the things that are going to set you aside from everyone else because the only person that can play you the best is you.

If you’re not having fun, step away from it for a bit. Find the love again, see what you’re passionate about and find it again. Get as much experience as possible, try to see as many shows as possible, read as many books as possible. The more things that you can read and watch and listen to, especially in this day and age, there’s so much stuff about everything online and in person. Just fill yourself full of knowledge and love for it, and if you can join a brilliant theatre school like New Youth Theatre or get some singing lessons and go to dance lessons, do. Just fill your life full of it like I did and hopefully you can blag it like I have and still am doing!

Lucy May Barker as Sophie and Cameron Burt as Sky in MAMMA MIA! Credit Brinkhoff Mögenburg