Queen of the South: interview with Samantha Womack
Samantha Womack spent more than three years in EastEnders. Now she’s heading south in the restaging of a classic postwar musical. Lucy Johnston finds the star of South Pacific preparing to sail into Surrey
Ten minutes on the phone is my allocation with Samantha Womack. The former EastEnder and Eurovision singer is hot property, now starring as Nellie Forbush, to great acclaim, in the Rodgers and Hammerstein sensation South Pacific.
“I’ll have to walk and talk!” she giggles.
This huge restaging of the classic musical – which deals with love across the racial divide at a US naval base in WWII – was originally produced on Broadway in 2008 by the lauded American director Bartlett Sher. Seven Tony Awards later, Sher restaged it at London’s Barbican, where it was nominated for three Oliviers before going on a vast UK tour now arriving in Surrey.
“I was approached for the role just as I was leaving EastEnders. I had to audition in front of Bartlett though, just like anyone else – no special treatment just because I’d been on telly!” jokes Samantha.
“I’d been working flat out on TV for three years by then, and was quite exhausted, but stepping into this role gave me a new lease of life.
“My last weeks on EastEnders crossed with first rehearsals, so one day I’d be filming some quite traumatic scenes as emotionally repressed Ronnie, and the next I’d be dashing off to be the cockeyed, optimistic Nellie! It was a great challenge.”
Watching again the 1958 film, it feels quite otherworldly. How does the story translate back to the stage?
“It’s an extraordinary show, but in places it is also quite shocking to us now, definitely. The lives and views of the characters seem so removed, but that’s what makes it such a fascinating snapshot of history.
“The way it combined different races and levels of society was very brave – really ahead of its time when it was first performed in the 1940s.
“This production is true to that original rawness and includes some pretty flawed characters. Much of that was sanitised in the 1958 film, so this is quite an experience for the audience, most of whom have never seen South Pacific on stage.”
And how are people receiving it, after all the press noise and award nominations?
“It gets the most incredible response. There is always such a range of ages in the audience, and near the end people get quite tearful. Especially the older crowd who were kids around that time, and remember what it was like to see the men going off to war.
“It’s so moving. We can see the first few rows of seats while we’re waiting in the wings, and watching the reactions is just wonderful. It gives us a huge sense of responsibility and privilege to be bringing this story back to the stage.
“Even the tiredness from doing eight shows a week can’t get in the way of a feeling like that!”
New Victoria Theatre, Woking, Jul 10-21. Box office: 0844 871 7645