x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Making it big: Leanne Jones, star of Hairspray

Philippa Kennedy learns about the years of patient career-building behind 'overnight' stardom as Tracy Turnblad.

Leanne Jones, star of the musical <i>Hairspray</i>y, with children at Ductac at the Mall of the Emirates. She is joined by other members of the original London cast.
Leanne Jones, star of the musical Hairsprayy, with children at Ductac at the Mall of the Emirates. She is joined by other members of the original London cast.

People often talk about the classic showbusiness fairytale that plucked young Leanne Jones from obscurity to play the plum role of Tracy Turnblad in the London production of the musical Hairspray and made her a star almost overnight. She doesn't quite see it like that. In fact, the whole process took more than three years and there were so many stops and starts that when the call came to say she had got the part she could scarcely believe it.

Like many aspiring actresses waiting for their big break, she was "temping" at the time, and that particular afternoon she was working in the call centre of a bank where mobile phones were banned. "On the day the decision was made I was sitting at my desk with my phone switched to vibrate tucked down my front, because we weren't allowed to have our phones in the call centre. "All day my friends were texting me to find out what was happening and eventually my agent called to tell me I had got the job. I reacted just like those people on X Factor. I fell on the floor and then was promptly sick," she laughs.

Jones, who won the prestigious Olivier Award for best actress in a musical in 2008, has just flown in to Dubai where she is reprising the role at Ductac for a five-night run at the Centrepoint Theatre starting on Tuesday. She is joined by fellow original London cast member Terel Nugent who plays Seaweed J Stubbs, Stephen McGlyn, who plays Wilbur Turnblad, and Antony Stuart-Hicks, who plays Edna Turnblad, the role made famous by John Travolta in the movie.

Auditions were held in May to find 70 local amateur performers to make up the cast of the show, produced and directed by Julian Chenery, who has brought his acclaimed Shakespeare4 Kidz shows to Dubai for the past four years. Five years ago Jones, 25, was at drama school when a friend came rushing into a classroom waving a copy of the theatre newspaper The Stage and shouting excitedly to her that she had to audition for the role of the "pleasantly plump" teenager who lives in Baltimore with her unconventional mother Edna.

The musical is set in 1962 where, despite her size,Tracy dreams of becoming a regular on the Corny Collins Dance Show. When she finally achieves her dream she starts using her fame to speak out for causes such as racial integration. In doing so, she elicits the wrath of the show's former star, Amber von Tussle, and Amber's manipulative, pro-segregation mother. " I had never heard of the show and hadn't seen the movie. My friend and I Googled it and my mouth just dropped open when I saw the pictures. I just thought, 'that's me'.

"We weren't actually allowed to go to auditions but the principal was away so I called in sick and snuck off. Of course, when I got a recall I had to own up. It was really funny going into a room and finding about 20 people who all looked like me but it went really well. Then it all got postponed so I went back to college and forgot about it." The next flurry of auditions came when the US producers were casting the Hairspray movie in 2006. A call came from the London casting director, David Grindrod, asking her to show up the following day dressed as Tracy and ready to sing.

"After graduation I signed up with a temping agency and did various jobs. I was at a conference when I got a call from the director who said they wanted to see me for the movie. I didn't get the job and never even heard from them," Jones says. Finally in May the following year she was asked to audition for Jack O'Brien, the show's American director, for the London production. "I just thought, 'here we go again,' and didn't know whether to get excited or not."

Her rendering of the song Good Morning Baltimore moved O'Brien to tears and he said of her: "We finally saw Leanne, and I said it would be irresponsible of us not to cast that girl - she's a star." Jones still had to wait nervously for confirmation that she had won the role. "After four or five auditions I realised I was in the running. At the time I was working at the Halifax call centre in Moorgate, where I would take calls all day from angry brokers demanding to speak to an underwriter. When my agent told me I had got the part he was just as emotional as I was."

Apart from two minor productions, including Karaoke Wedding at the Union Theatre and Enchanted: The Rock Opera at Valley Gardens, Pontefract, it was her first professional role, hence the "overnight sensation" tag. The Hairspray stage show depends largely on the vitality and energy of its leading lady and Jones was a natural. She says she came to terms with her size very early in her career. She's a generous size 16 and jokes that she's the only Tracy Turnblad who has never needed artificial padding.

"I'm also the tallest. One of the problems is that with all the dancing you tend to lose weight but that didn't happen to me either, although they would have liked me to lose a little for health reasons. I heard so many stories about previous Tracys losing weight and people sending them donuts. That never happened to me." At Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in north London where she studied for three years from the age of 18, her tutors raised the matter delicately right from the start.

"I was the only big girl there so I got all the character roles. I always played the mum, never the lead which was always played by the pretty size 10 blondes. "I've always been big. In ballet classes I could never do a pas de deux, as the guys couldn't lift me. "Right from the start my tutors asked me if I was aware of who and what I was and told me that the industry was a tough place. They needed to know that I knew that I would always be labelled and pigeonholed. I could either lose weight or stay as I was and they would support me either way.

"They also warned me that there were fewer roles for big girls but I reckoned that there were probably fewer people going for them too. I think it's actually more difficult for girls who are sort of middling size 12 or 14. That's life, that's the way it is and you have to understand that. I decided when I was 18 that's what I was going to do," she says cheerfully. The immensely likeable Jones says she always knew she had two things that would help her get to where she wanted to be: a great big voice and lots of energy. "I'm physically very strong which is just as well because I played eight shows a week for 21 weeks in Hairspray," she says.

Born in Stoke on Trent in the British Midlands, she moved with her family to St Ives in Cambridgeshire where she starred in end of term concerts at school. "Neither of my parents were theatrical and neither of them could sing in tune although my brother Simon [21] is an aspiring actor." Her mother, Valerie, encouraged her daughter's dreams of becoming a star of musical theatre and drove her to after-school dance, singing and drama classes almost every afternoon.

" I started going to classes when I was nine or 10 because I could sing really well. I was always up in my bedroom singing into my hairbrush and entered talent competitions which I never won. "When I was about 11 someone gave me the video of the anniversary concert of Les Miserables and I was just blown away by it and thought how fantastic to be able to dress up and sing on stage for a living. My favourite song was On My Own from Les Mis which I sang at my end of term school concert."

The song has special poignancy for Jones and when her mother died of breast cancer in 2000, she sang it at her funeral. "I don't know how I did it now because it's a complete blur but I remember looking over at my teacher who was playing the piano for me and seeing tears streaming down her face. I just thought I was doing one last performance for my mother. "We knew she was dying for about six months. I always say I did Hairspray for her. She used to drive me everywhere, all my classes every afternoon. She really encouraged me without being pushy about it."

Jones says she was thrilled to be asked to reprise the role of Tracy Turnblad in Dubai. She starred in the hit West End show for 21 months with Michael Ball playing Edna and Ben James-Ellis as Link Larkin. "At the end of the run I was really exhausted in body, mind and spirit. Tracy is never offstage so it's a big role to carry. Ben and Michael Ball and I were a trio so when Michael said he was leaving my agent asked me what I wanted to do. I decided to leave while the show was still considered to be a big hit.

"It was a fantastic time and a bit of a roller coaster. We had days when it was just like going to work in a normal job, you come in, say hello to everyone, do your warm-ups and the show and then off you go home. "Occasionally something would happen on stage, somebody would fall over or forget their lines or a piece of scenery wouldn't move when it should and we would just collapse with laughter. It would really wake you up and you'd feel really alive.

"On one occasion something happened with the sound and the orchestra stopped playing but I carried on until I saw the director waving frantically in the wings for me to come off," she says. The sell-out show set her up financially and she was able to buy her own two-bedroom flat overlooking the canal in Hackney, East London. Since then she has appeared in pantomime in Bradford and a show called Tick Tick Boom written by Jonathan Larsson, the author of Rent.

As she walks out on to the stage of the Centrepoint Theatre for the first time, excited cheering breaks out from the stalls where the local performers are waiting to meet her. Even without the Tracy Turnblad wigs and make-up she's got that indefinable thing called star quality. "It's a real thrill to be doing Hairspray again. I just hope they like me," she says. There is absolutely no doubt that they will.

Performances of Hairspray run from Tuesday, July 13 until Saturday, July 17 at the Centrepoint Theatre, Ductac, Mall of the Emirates.