Interview with Melanie LaBarrie Mrs Phelps in Matilda

By | January 14, 2012

Melanie La Barrie“[Matilda the Musical] speaks of fighting the battles that should be fought, caring about others, honing your sense of justice and fairness and knowing when enough is enough.
It is about understanding that our children are far more interesting than just having pretty eyes or a good strong smile. It is about paying attention to the mind, seeing them as the individuals they are, giving them their space to grow but being there to catch them if they stumble.
As a matter of fact, I think we all need that, not just as children, but at any moment along the way, someone to see us, appreciate us and love us, for all we are.”

Melanie La Barrie is a singer and actress from Trinidad where she was a well-known and well-loved calypsonian and radio personality.

She now lives in London and has appeared in numerous musicals, such as Fame, Ragtime, Mary Poppins, Daddy Cool and Les Miserables.

Melanie has a great sense of humour and fantastic stage presence – and on stage is where is has always wanted to be, ever since she was a little girl in Trinidad singing into her hairbrush.

She can currently be seen surrounded by books and children in the new hit musical Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre, where she delights audiences as the kind and lovable librarian Mrs Phelps.

Despite her very busy schedule, Melanie has very kindly answered the following questions about herself, her career and Matilda the Musical. Enjoy this brilliant interview!

You grew up in beautiful Trinidad. How does being a singer/actress in Trinidad compare to life as an entertainer in London?
It’s anonymous in London. In Trinidad, I had been in the public eye since I was 8 years old. Therefore everything I said, did or wore was scrutinised and I was constantly under a microscope. In London it’s different. You can entertain over a thousand people nightly, get cheered mightily at the curtain call, then take the train home with the very audience who appreciated you. You can even eavesdrop while they talk about you, even as you are sitting right there. I’ve heard many interesting things about what people think of me on the train!

As a young girl, you would sing calypso music on stage. Do you still sing calypso songs and do you miss the Carnival?
I have not sung a calypso for 11 years. It is an art form that I still appreciate. It was my very first form of public expression, even though I was not the author of what I was expressing. I had songs written for me by some of my favourite artists in the world. Ask a Trinidadian about David Michael Rudder. I have sung his words and that makes me proud. Being a calypsonian wasn’t easy. I was protected and mentored by some and made to feel like an outsider by others. It is a very competitive art form, like most, I suppose, but more overtly so. You had to have tough skin. I didn’t. But I had good managers and mentors and friends in the older artists who were good to me.

When did you first realise that you wanted to sing and act?
It is so clichéd but I have always known that all I wanted to do was to be on that stage, to perform, to stand under the lights and the gaze. I performed on the table in the living room as soon as I could form words and hold a tune. Our house was not grand but it was the grandest performance hall I had ever known. My imagination was vast, I wish it still was. I sat in front of our picture window in our little house, in our not so well-off neighbourhood and created stories and stories and stories. And I wanted to tell the stories. Everything, the good, bad and indifferent, that happened in my life led towards me being on a stage. I did the thing with the hairbrush and the singing, I did the thing with the tin of hairspray and the Oscar speech, I did the thing where I pretended to be someone else for no reason at all. I did the thing with the one drama class after school and the drama teacher who told me I had no talent for acting. I would scheme and connive to get on that stage. I would even get good grades, for that was the deal struck between my mother and me if I wanted to step an inch of my body onto a stage. I was sensitive in all other areas, didn’t have many friends, had a little sadness I was carrying around inside of me, but I would do anything to get on a stage. It is where I have always felt, and still do feel the safest.

You are currently playing the librarian Mrs Phelps in Matilda the Musical – a role you have originated (you were part of the original Stratford cast last year). Please tell us about your lovely and caring Mrs Phelps. “Who” is she? What makes her tick?
There is nothing I can say about Phelpsy that Roald Dahl hasn’t already said. Matilda reads under her ‘watchful and compassionate eye’, she is ‘filled with wonder and excitement’. Those four attributes are the pillars of my performance. I am there for those children, I am there to show them that they are listened to, that they matter, that they are magnificent and wondrous and that I am a captive audience. Phelpsy is a lover of words. ‘Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.’ she says. Thank you Mr Dahl, thank you.

People who have read your beautiful blog (http://seekingcat.wordpress.com/) know that you don’t seem to agree with the aphorism ‘never work with children’. You describe them as “wondrous beings” who you are “learning from [...] every day”. So you are very much enjoying working with all of the incredibly talented young actresses and actors? Please share a few thoughts with us.
Do you know what children do not do? They do not complain. They get up early, go to school, do all their extra curricular activities, come in for rehearsals, do homework, do the show, all the while smiling and chatting and making jokes. They make me want to be a better person when I’m around them. And when I fail at that, they forgive me wholeheartedly, because their hearts are gold and life is still an adventure and grown ups are funny with their stress and their striving. I salute them.

What are your favourite songs in Matilda?
Oh no, you will not get me to pick just the one, or even a few out of all of them. I love them all, they still, some of them, make me cry. They still make me marvel at the wonder of their cleverness. I shan’t be holding one up as a favourite, making the others feel that they are not as special, not as loved…

It’s ‘When I Grow Up’.

A lot of people have read Matilda the Novel or have seen Matilda the Film. Why should they go and see Matilda the Musical?
They should go see it if they choose to see it. They should see it for the remarkable script that Dennis Kelly has produced, following closely the ideas that Roald Dahl so neatly expressed in his book and extending seamlessly from that. They should see it for the cleverness, anarchy, tenderness and charm of Tim Minchin’s music. They should see it for the beauty of Rob Howell’s design, for the exquisite detail of Matthew Warchus’ direction. They should see it for the carefully formed and lovingly delivered performances of all the cast. They should see it for the magic and wonder of children. They should see it because everyone deserves to remember what it was like to fly on a swing.

In your opinion, what is the message behind Matilda the Musical that people – young and old –should come away with?
I wish I was as good with words as Tim and Dennis. ‘Naughty’ is my theme tune. The show speaks of fighting the battles that should be fought, caring about others, honing your sense of justice and fairness and knowing when enough is enough. It is about understanding that our children are far more interesting than just having pretty eyes or a good strong smile. It is about paying attention to the mind, seeing them as the individuals they are, giving them their space to grow but being there to catch them if they stumble. As a matter of fact, I think we all need that, not just as children, but at any moment along the way, someone to see us, appreciate us and love us, for all we are.

Apart from the role of Mrs Phelps, you also originated the West End roles of Mrs Corry in Mary Poppins and Pearl in Daddy Cool. Is this the best thing that can happen to an actor, being able to originate a role?
Do you know, I had not thought about it until now? It is a lovely thing to do because you are not held to any previous knowledge of how the part should be done. The person you create is intrinsically you, tied up in your movement, breath, voice. It is joyous to create a whole new person from nothing but thought. Everything becomes important, because you know it is being done for the first time. It is like watching a baby learn to walk. Each tentative step is exhilarating because you know pretty soon you’ll be running and who knows where you will go. And the creation never stops for as long as you are playing that part. You find, even months in, new ways of being, new ways of saying things, new levels of tone and colour. It just occurred to me that all three roles I played in my own accent as well. I have been very fortunate to have worked with very brave directors who decided to give me a chance.

Of course you can’t always be the first actress to play a role. You appeared as Madame Thénardier in Les Miserables in 2007/2008 – a character that has been played by a lot of brilliant actresses. How did you manage to make the role your own?
Again, good fortune smiled on me. Working with the director, Mariano Dietry, we went straight back to the source material, and sat for many hours scouring Victor Hugo’s tome for clues on what she was like. I was given the opportunity to create so much of my own Mme T., and with the help of a brilliant Monsieur, Chris Vincent, we managed to create a partnership that was exciting to us, filled with new detail that we had gleaned from the text. It was a joyous experience. Except for all the props!

So it is true that you are not too fond of props!
Hey, excellent segue. I hate them! With a passion! I drop things, break things, lose things, send them flying out into the audience. I’m rubbish with them, rubbish! I worry so much about it that I lose all faculty for simple things like walking.

What is something embarrassing or unexpected that has happened to you on stage?
Because I am likely to do something stupid at any given moment, I tend not to embarrass that easily. I fall over, have lost my costume (cue skirt falling to my ankles on the button of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’), have walked out of my shoes, barged in on scenes that weren’t mine, forgotten my lines and adlibbed my way for minutes until finding my way back into the scene. So, no, not much embarrassing or unexpected ever happens to me on stage…

What other roles would you love to play and why (in any musical/play)?
I wish I could play Shylock or Mercutio, they would be tremendous fun. I wish I could wedge myself into anything that August Wilson has ever written. I wish I could be Mama Rose. It’s funny, growing up in Trinidad, it never occurred to me that there were shows that I could not be in or roles that I could not do, for one reason or another. I have now learned that lesson. But as I’ve said, I have always worked with brave directors so who knows what I will get a chance to play in my lifetime.

If you could go and see any West End musical or play tonight, which one would it be and why?
I would turn everyone out of the theatre and have a private performance of Jerusalem, for all the obvious reasons. I would also turn back the hands of time and go see Frankenstein, again for reasons so glaringly obvious that I won’t bother expanding. And then I would jet over to the States and go see Book of Mormon because I feel that death by laughing would be a good way to go.

You have also appeared in TV programmes (Casualty, EastEnders). Would you like to do more TV work?
Wouldn’t we all!

Is there anyone you would really like to work with?
I would love to work with Danny Boyle and Rupert Goold. I wish I could work with my friend Julia Sutton again, because you do not know craft and love until you have been in her presence.

What have been your career highlights to date?
Every opportunity that I get to do what I do is a career highlight. Acting is a fickle master; who knows how long he will love me for.

What are your long-term ambitions?
To breathe, to learn, to create and to love. Not necessarily in that order.

Many thanks for this brilliant interview, Melanie and all the very best for ‘Phelpsy’ and any future projects!

Photo courtesy of Martin Phillips

Interview by Sandra Palme (Twitter: LondonTheatre2)

Follow Melanie on Twitter: @melabarrie

Updated 11th October 2014

 

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