The musical theatre star is embracing all things festive and 1950s glamour in White Christmas, which starts its West End run at the Dominion Theatre this month. As she tells Tim Bano, it’s been hard graft and bodysuits most of the way
There was a point in Clare Halse’s career, a few years after she’d left drama school, when she was worried she’d become typecast as short, fat men.
Halse was coming to the end of a run as Tweedledee in Shrek the Musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2012, and heard there were auditions for Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also at Drury Lane, to open the following year.
“I remember standing in the wings in my big fat suit as Tweedledee talking about the auditions. I was going: ‘No way. No way. I don’t want to play another short fat man. I’ve been a Munchkin in Wicked, now I’m playing Tweedledee. No way.’ Then I found myself in the auditions going full beam thinking: ‘Actually, this is quite fun’.”
She did end up playing an Oompa Loompa, but it was her return to Drury Lane in 2017 that marked a high point in her career when she was cast as Peggy Sawyer, the chorine turned ingénue, in the critically acclaimed revival of 42nd Street.
Now Halse is playing Judy Haynes in White Christmas at the Dominion, and she can’t help thinking: “I’ve paid my dues. I’ve just been trying on these beautiful 1950s dresses for White Christmas and I think: ‘I deserve this’.”
Now one of the best triple threats in the business, Halse puts that down to her strong background in dance. From the age of six, it was ballet classes and dance school “four or five times a week”, and “pretty much every weekend” her mother would make costumes, and they would go around the country competing in festivals. “It was very like Gypsy, but my mum was not a Momma Rose. She was a very good momma.”
She continues: “I was never going to be a ballet dancer, I knew that very early on and my teachers were always very honest. You had to have a certain body type. But I was always aware that it was a discipline that’s the basis for everything else, so I did keep my ballet training going.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
As a waitress in a pub. I was quite disastrous at it. I used to drop things.
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Music Man, Chichester Festival Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not to take rejection to heart, and to move on. Keep your confidence.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My past leading ladies: Summer Strallen, Dianne Pilkington, Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver. They taught me how to be a strong leading lady. I’ve taken a bit from all of them.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be as prepared as you can, because when you get in there nerves will take over.
If you hadn’t been a performer, what would you have been?
Dance therapy or something like that – working with older or young people using movement to release stress.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Practical things – having a good shake before the show to calm nerves. I don’t get too superstitious, otherwise I would go down a dark route.
The competitions paid off, and for Halse the moment when all that groundwork seemed to come to fruition was getting cast as Peggy Sawyer in the West End revival of 42nd Street in 2017. “I can’t tell you how much it meant to me. Doing all those competitions, and coming into this industry, I learned to lose and I learned about not being the best. So when someone put their trust in me and said: ‘Now it’s your turn’, I felt like I’d earned it. I’d done 10 years in the industry, and now they’d given me this gift of doing Peggy Sawyer. I tried my best to give it everything I had, from my absolute roots. And I had to accept that, hopefully, that would be enough.”
According to the critics, it was. The Telegraph called her “resplendent”, while The Stage said “[She is] a phenomenal dancer. She moves so fast and with such precision that in some moments her legs are a blur. She has an endearing brew of optimism and bewilderment, with a sharp comic sense.”
Halse hadn’t originally auditioned for Peggy. The auditions, she says, were “more like a mass call for the show”. But early on she was picked out and given some of the Peggy material, having to travel back and forth between Kilworth House in Leicestershire, where she was playing Miss Dolly in Thoroughly Modern Millie, and London for the various audition stages.
“Towards the end I had a scene audition with Stuart Neal, who eventually ended up playing Billy Lawlor in the show, and I remember thinking: ‘Oh, he’s good, and we’re both quite little…’ ” Halse was hoping that the height match would swing it, and she was right.
Her roles in Shrek and Charlie were tiring – “I was learning how to graft eight shows a week, while wearing clown suits. You had to push and fight and keep going even when you’re tired, you have to do your Saturday like you’ve done your Monday” – but they were easy compared to the demands of 42nd Street.
“It was physically exhausting. I did get incredibly fatigued. There’s one bit at the end when I danced around the entire stage and the ensemble was around the edge. It’s a huge stage. Just moving through space fast is amazing, but physically tiring. We were on quite a steep rake, and the stage was quite slippery in tap shoes, so we were trying to cling on and also trying to make it look like it was easy with a big smile.” She adds: “I left that thinking: ‘If I do nothing else, I can be a happy person.’ ”
But for the decade leading up to that, Halse had been working in the industry in some big name musicals. Pretty much straight out of drama school, she attended open auditions for Wicked in the West End and landed an ensemble role. Then there were parts in the first national tour of Hairspray with Michael Ball, playing Amber Von Tussle, and later she took up residence at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in Shrek and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
‘I was a bit of a mouse around Imelda Staunton. Her work ethic is incredible. Everyone upped their game’
“I was having a great time. I was working pretty constantly, doing a lot of ensemble jobs.” One of those jobs was in the Chichester production of Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton. Halse admits it was quite scary working with Staunton. “I was a bit of a mouse around her, to be honest. When you think someone’s that amazing, you just shrink a little bit. Her work ethic is incredible. I didn’t do an awful lot in Gypsy, but the things you did do you had to do with absolute commitment because she was doing it. You could see it every day at work, everyone really upped their game.”
Her first big role was as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain in Paris. “I was just dying to be given a role like that, really. When you’re understudying you do have a fire in your belly. You’re like: ‘I want a go.’ So when Peggy came around it was sort of the right time. I’d watched a lot of amazing women – Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver – and learned a lot from just oogling.”
In a couple of weeks, White Christmas opens at the Dominion for the festive season. Based on the classic Bing Crosby film, with music by Irving Berlin, Nikolai Foster’s production had a run at Leicester Curve last year. The leading men are the same, Danny Mac and Dan Burton, but about half the cast has changed, including Halse and Danielle Hope as sister double act Judy and Betty Haynes.
“Judy is the cheekier, more trickster sister. She’s the younger sister, too, even though I’m five years older than Danielle,” Halse says. Judy organises a meet-up with another double act, Mac’s Bob Wallace (played by Bing Crosby in the film) and Burton’s Phil Davis. They all fall in love and perform together.
“Now I’ve found my way into this Hollywood Golden Age era, I really love it. It’s introduced me to a lot of those films, too. I love trying to capture those elegant styles, and maybe putting a little modern edge on it. They were at the top of their game. Fred and Ginger, it looks like they don’t even have to think. You watch Eleanor Powell and the way she used to spin, and then she just stops. No wobbles, no extra foot.”
Even after all that hard graft, Halse sometimes can’t believe she’s made it. “When I was a kid, I would go to the theatre, get the programme, look at the people in there and think: ‘That could never be me.’ They feel like these kind of idols. And it’s the same now. Even now I think: ‘Look at them up there, it’s so hard. I can’t believe I do this.’ ”
Training: Arts Educational Schools London (2008)
• 42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London (2017)
Agent: Global Artists
White Christmas runs at London’s Dominion Theatre from November 16 to January 4, 2020