Soul superstar-turned musical theatre leading lady Beverley Knight is returning to her Midlands roots for her first stint on the panto stage at the Birmingham Hippodrome. She chats to Amy Norbury ahead of the show about turning Fairy Godmother and coming home for the festive season
The Wolverhampton twang may have softened ever so slightly over the years but Beverley Knight’s Midlands roots are still evident in her voice, even after more than two decades of international stardom and mixing with the music industry’s elite. Until she starts singing, that is. Then, well, the vocals are pure soul powerhouse.
The soul diva – although in person she’s charming, down-to-earth and about as far away from diva-like as you can get – has spent the past 20-odd years thrilling audiences with her sublime voice, seling more than a million albums and singing with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince and Chaka Khan – she was even flown over to Prince’s Oscars party to perform in front of Hollywood’s elite. Not bad for a girl from Wolverhampton.
And not content with being a superstar singer and songwriter, Beverley has, in recent years, embarked on something of a second career in musical theatre, taking on several iconic roles in the West End.
So while she’s completely at home on the stage, the latest addition to Beverley’s immense CV is something of an unknown quantity. Until the end of January, Beverley is starring as Fairy Godmother in Birmingham Hippodrome’s panto spectacular Cinderella, alongside pop star Suzanne Shaw in the title role, soap actor and Strictly Come Dancing finalist Danny Mac as Prince Charming and Birmingham panto favourite Matt Slack as Buttons.
“I’ve never done panto before and it’s not something I ever thought I’d be doing – I’ve always gone to panto but never imagined I’d be in one so it’s something very different for me,” says Beverley.
“Everyone’s said just to be prepared for what’s flung at you. So in a way I don’t know what to expect and I don’t know what’s going to be coming in my direction. But it’ll be a good laugh, that I do know.
“Panto is so much fun; the last show I went to was Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyric in Hammersmith about four years ago, and it was just so lovely. Often it’s the first experience of theatre for kids so it’s so nice to see then having a fantastic time.”
With just an intense two-week rehearsal period before the show, the pressure’s on, but consummate professional Beverley is taking it all in her stride.
“I know Suzanne Shaw and I met the other cast members when we did the launch at the Villa – never thought I’d be at the Villa,” laughs Beverley, a proud Wolverhampton Wanderers supporter.
“The claret and blue aren’t for me, I’m more of a black and gold girl myself!
“I just thought they were really great fun; Matt Slack seems like a right laugh and I’m really looking forward to just hanging out with them.”
Birmingham was the perfect place for Beverley’s first foray into panto; living in London and touring all over the world means that time at home in the Midlands is a precious commodity.
“It’s my first panto, I’ve never done it before and I wanted to be with my family over the Christmas period so what better way than to be able to do that than by doing panto?” she says.
“It just all made sense. It means I get to be home for Christmas; I don’t get to be home much so you just grab the opportunity when it comes, I’m so chuffed.”
And Birmingham’s epic production isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill pantomime – the budget stands at a cool £5 million, the sets are magnificent, the costumes lavish and production values world class, so Beverley’s started right at the top of the panto heap.
The songstress has recently finished a UK tour to showcase her critically-acclaimed 2016 album, Soulsville. The I Love Soulsville tour was originally planned to take place over summer 2017, but a diagnosis of uterine fibroids in May resulted in surgery to remove them as well as a hysterectomy that meant Beverley had to reluctantly move all dates to October. After a lengthy recovery, she was back to what she does best.
“I’ve been up and down the country with the tour so it’ll be nice to be settled in one place for a while, and what a home to come back to,” she says. “
This will be the first time in four years I’ve had Christmas in my neck of the woods as opposed to being in London, or trying to get home and back because I’m on stage, so this is going to be lovely for me.”
Music is in Beverley’s blood; as a child she would sing at her local church where her mother would often lead the congregation in song, and the songs of soul legends such as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin were the soundtrack to her childhood. She performed in amateur theatre productions at school and with Wolverhampton Youth Theatre until she left to embark on her singing career. So it’s no surprise that she would one day return to the theatre stage.
Beverley’s interest was first piqued when the script for Memphis: the Musical landed in her lap and it seemed like fate was leading her down a new career route.
“It was Sir Lenny Henry and his partner Lisa Makin who were involved in the early days of Memphis, and Lisa got in touch because she thought I’d be great as the lead role of Felicia, so that’s what got me thinking about going back to theatre in the first place,” she says.
“It was way ahead of the show’s actual production – they didn’t even have a theatre sorted. But then I saw that The Bodyguard was on in London and they were doing a complete cast change, which is unusual, and I thought that I know those songs and I’ve had lots of years of theatre experience in am-dram so something just triggered and I thought it would be nice to go back.”
Despite having no professional musical theatre experience at all, Beverley suitably impressed and West End impresario Michael Harrison cast her in the lead role of Rachel Marron, following in the footsteps of Whitney Houston’s iconic film turn.
“It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” says Beverley. “I’m not going to lie, it was pretty nerve-wracking, and there were all these critics there ready to say how crap I was so I had a lot to show the theatre community, to prove that I could do it.
“The dress run was more nerve-wracking than the actual first show because that makes the whole thing feel real. After that, I was like put the audience in now, I’m ready.”
Beverley – and the musical theatre community at large – needn’t have worried. Her stellar performances in The Bodyguard led to a nomination for Best Takeover of a Role at the Whatsonstage Awards, and when Memphis the Musical finally hit the stage in the West End in October 2014 Beverley stunned in the lead role of Felicia Farrell, earning an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical in the process.
A bona fide theatre star was born. Further West End roles came calling; in 2015 Beverley took on the role of Grizabella in the revival of Cats at the London Palladium, and when The Bodyguard returned to London for a limited six-month run it was Beverley who again took on the starring role.
But while Beverley is clearly excelling in her new theatre fame, singing is where she truly comes into her own.
“I love the camaraderie of being with everyone in a theatre show, having a crew around me, which is a lot of fun, but I’m absolutely a musician, a singer, a songwriter and arranger, that’s what I am at my core so it’s extremely natural and just so comfortable for me,” she says.
“Being in theatre is a lot of work; you’re sharing the stage with a lot of people which is beautiful, but you’re doing shows six days a week and sometimes twice in a day, which is tough.
“When I’m on stage doing my own thing I’m just feeling it; in the theatre production I’m always thinking about what’s next, what I need to be doing. It’s wonderful though; it’s really good to do things which challenge you.”
As if 2017 hadn’t been hectic enough for the Wolverhampton lass, in November she teamed up with British singer Cassidy Janson and American actress Amber Riley to form a musical theatre supergroup, known collectively as the Leading Ladies. Their debut album, Songs from the Stage, features covers songs from Cats, Beautiful and Rent among others.
“We’ll see how that goes; maybe we’ll get to tour the album, which will be fantastic if we do,” Beverley says.
“But after that, who knows? I’ve given up saying I can’t predict what I’m doing anymore; a show could come along, a play could come along and I’ve got to write another album, that’s for sure!
“But I’m sure whatever I end up doing, it’ll be a great experience!”
Beverley Knight is starring as Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday, January 28. For more information and to book tickets call the box office on 0844 338 5000 or visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com.