Actress Sharon D Clarke tells Roz Laws about returning to her theatrical roots.
Actress Sharon D Clarke is experiencing a lengthy bout of deja vu.
She’s about to step on to the Birmingham Rep stage to star in a musical in the same theatre where it all began.
Once On This Island had its European premiere at the Rep in 1994, where it won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical.
Sharon, a Holby City actress and judge on the BBC1 talent competition Last Choir Standing, is back playing Mother Earth in the production.
So perhaps, for her, it ought to be called Once Again On This Island.
“Some of the ushers remembered us,” says Sharon. “It’s lovely to be back. The theatre hasn’t changed much in 15 years, though Birmingham has. I have cousins living in the city so I’ve been up to visit and seen it develop.”
The production is set in the Caribbean and infused with reggae and calypso music. It’s a musical version of the Little Mermaid fairytale.
It tells the story of a beautiful peasant girl who falls in love with a wealthy Creole planter. But she is put to the test as she must prove to the island’s gods that the power of love is stronger than death.
Sharon says: “It’s a very sunny show for all the family. It’s sad too, but it’s a beautiful story with rousing melodies and glorious songs, and I hope the audience will be dancing out in the street by the end.
“This production is different, there’s no point doing it exactly the same again. It was originally set in the 1900s and now it’s present day. The costumes are different and it will have a different feel.
“It’s a second chance for me to improve in the role – I have more experience now.
“I feel the story should be told again today. The way the world is, with the recession and youngsters killing each other, people need to be reminded that love can conquer all.”
Sharon is unusual in that she’s been able to combine several showbiz careers – mastering serious acting in shows like Waking The Dead and Holby City, the pop charts (she reached No 2 with I Wanna Give You Devotion), musicals (she originated the role of Killer Queen in We Will Rock You), pantomimes and TV talent shows.
She recalls: “When I started out in my acting career, I found I was always cast as a nurse. I was finally able to break out of that in Holby City, when I played Dr Lola Griffin and finally had some power. It was boundary-breaking, not casting black actors to push up quotas or push trolleys.”
But if Sharon had to choose just one career, she would be a singer.
“I’d miss acting but I would be heartbroken if I couldn’t sing. That happened to me in 1995, when I had nodules on my vocal chords and had to have an operation to remove them.
“I couldn’t even speak for six weeks and I was terrified I’d never be able to sing again. I feel so sorry for Julie Andrews, who didn’t get her voice back.
“When I was recovering, I was watching daytime TV and saw an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. She had guests on including Melissa Etheridge, who’d all had nodules too. They all spoke about what they’d done to get back into singing and it was such a great message for me.”
Sharon has been unearthing new singing talent on Last Choir Standing and hopes the BBC1 show will return for another series.
“I don’t think we’ve even scraped the surface of the talent pool of UK choirs,” she adds.
“Lots of choirs didn’t apply last time because they weren’t sure how it was going to work out.
“They worried they were going to be humiliated, as can happen on talent shows like The X Factor.
“It should be about the music, not belittling people. There’s no need to do that, there are ways of telling people ‘no’ without being sensationalist. I want to encourage anyone to try singing, it’s so good for your soul.
“I think some fantastic choirs would enter if we did it again. I’d do it in a heartbeat if the BBC agreed, but it’s quite an expensive show for them to put on.”
* Once On This Island is at the Birmingham Rep from Friday to June 20. Tickets from 0121 236 4455 or www.birmingham-rep.co.uk