Sheridan Smith was just a teenager when she appeared as Little Red Riding Hood in John Crowley’s chamber-sized Donmar revival of Into the Woods
in 1998, since which time the barely pubescent star of the West End’s Bugsy Malone
has distinguished herself largely on TV. She was a BBC fixture across six years and seven series of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
(“we’ve grown up together”), has done six episodes of Holby City
and three of The Royle Family
, where she
played Ralf Little’s girlfriend. Smith is currently shooting her second series for BBC1 of Love Soup,
playing the matchmaking good mate to leading lady (and 2007 Olivier Award winner) Tamsin Greig. But the theatre—perhaps specifically the musical theatre—seems to offer a creatively revelatory home for Smith, who, now 25, grew up outside Doncaster one of two children of a U.K. country-and-western act called the Daltons. As Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Little Red, Smith impressed with her firm vocals and a fiery wit, and the lung power is no less impressive in her current stint as the demure, dreamy Audrey in the Menier Chocolate Factory revival of Little Shop of Horrors
, newly revived on the West End. Those who associate the dizzy blonde part forever with its originator Ellen Greene—star, as well, of the 1986 Frank Oz film, with Steve Martin—get something altogether new and fresh with Smith, who plays the lovesick, put upon floral shop assistant as someone both likeable and real. She’s the girl next door who deserves better than she gets at the hands of men, in the first instance, or the omnivorous Audrey II, as the musical proceeds. (Little Shop
is one of several productions—Avenue Q
is another—to be part of a special West End night on Saturday, 31 March at the GAY nightclub in central London’s Soho.) Smith’s theatre work has encompassed non-musical fare as well: acting Shakespeare at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, for instance, last summer, where she met the actor, Gerard Carey, who is now her boyfriend. But musicals—and Smith’s admiration for the bespectacled, beatifically spoken Audrey—were uppermost in her mind one recent evening between Wednesday performances of the show as Smith chatted amiably about her northern upbringing, owning too many dogs (four at the moment—“they’re just the maddest bunch of dogs ever seen”) and settling into the first genuine long run she has so far enjoyed in the theatre.
How does it feel to be in the West End with this production, given the huge success it enjoyed over the winter at the Menier?
It actually really fits well into the space at the Duke of York’s. The stage is a lot narrower than the Chocolate Factory, so it looks more like an alley, and lots of extra things have been added—camped up a bit, really. It’s still worth coming to see it; the show’s definitely changed, and they’ve done the plant differently, too. We all look really tiny next to it, which is really strange. I think maybe it’s a bit better than at the Chocolate Factory
This must be the heftiest commitment you’ve yet made to a theatre run.
Yeah, I’m here till September. I’ve done shows which were, say, four months over Christmas, but I haven’t done a musical for eight years. At 17, there I was this northerner doing Sondheim at the Donmar with a cast where all 12 of us women were in one dressing room—from me, 17!, to Dilys Laye and Sheila Reid. They just taught me so much, and I had an absolute ball, really.
Had you by that point planned a career in musicals?
I wasn’t really sure. I had planned to move back up north after Bugsy Malone when an agent saw me in that and took me on. The thing is, with every job, it’s like I can’t really believe I got this, so I was kind of just thrilled about whatever job came my way. Then the telly came along (after Into the Woods), and I kept singing in the shower and thought that was it.
Sheridan Smith and Paul Keating
in Little Shop of Horrors
Yes. Luckily, I knew this show and had grown up watching the film and said to my boyfriend the week before [the job prospect], I would so love to play Audrey. It’s such a dream part. A week later, my agent called and said the Menier’s doing it, and no way on earth did I think I’d get it. But a friend went through all the music with me. I’m so thrilled they had the faith in me and worked with me.
Was it nerve-wracking?
I had to face my fears doing this show. I’d sung with my parents’ country-and-western act from an early age, but I didn’t know how you did that head voice, and I got away with it in Bugsy Malone doing Tallulah and the one song that Riding Hood has in Into the Woods. But I was like a nervous rabbit in the headlights when we first started, and hopefully I’ve got more confident now that we’re four months in. But the cast is so amazing—they’re all trained singers, and I don’t even read music. I was intimidated at first, but I’m loving it now.
So the West End transfer was a no-brainer?
I’d kind of planned for this one. I thought, oh my God, you can’t afford not to go. I’d grown so fond of the character and the show and the people, both cast and crew. And I’m back in the West End!
How did you handle the lingering spectre of Ellen Greene?
Audrey. She created that part, and her interpretation was just so brilliant. I mean, everyone thinks of her when they talk of the show. But I kind of wanted to do something a little bit different, which is where we came up with the glasses. I bow down to Ellen Greene, but I can’t be Ellen Greene. You have to make it your own.
I love the fact that you play for real someone whom it would be easy to caricature.
The thing is, it’s such a fluffy musical with a talking, man-eating plant, but it’s got real heart. It’s a love story, too, with a woman at its centre who’s been knocked about. People think of it as just a stupid, camp musical, but it tells a really sweet story: the nerd gets the girl—although I think I’m the nerdy one with the glasses. I’m always saying to [co-star] Paul [Keating], “You’re too gorgeous!” I do think this production has real heart.
How did you devise your portrayal of Audrey, the glasses aside?
Sheridan Smith and Paul Keating
in Little Shop of Horrors
The director, Matthew White, did a lot of improvisation to come up with our back stories—we improvised me meeting the dentist or me working the nightclub. At first, I thought, this is so embarrassing, but I kind of found the character just through doing that. And Matthew would rein me in if I went a bit too camp—[Laughs.] though I’m sure at times I do a bit too much.
What did you sing at the audition?
I did “Somewhere That’s Green,” of course and did it like this big showy version, though in fact I just don’t see it as that type of show. You need to feel you’re part of this little world of Skid Row.