ELLIE BAMBER is the rising star who plays the role of 14-year-old Dinah Lord in Maria Friedman’s effervescent revival of Cole Porter’s High Society at The Old Vic (opening tonight, Thursday 14 May). Ellie made her screen debut at the age of 15 alongside Martin Clunes in the ITV drama A Mother’s Son, having earlier appeared on stage in Trevor Nunn’s 2010 parlour production of Aspects of Love at the Menier Chocolate Factory. And, ticking off the holy trinity of stage, TV and movies (other credits include the film The Falling and BBC1’s The Musketeers), she’s soon to be seen in the big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mash-up based on the best-selling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith (written with a little help from Jane Austen). In it, she plays Lydia Bennet, the teenage sister of the film’s heroine, Elizabeth.
Common to all of Ellie’s roles is the fact that she’s yet to play someone of her own age or older, thanks largely to her gamine figure and baby face. She also has a child-like playfulness that makes her perfectly suited to the part of Dinah, the meddling teenager desperate to right the wrongs of the Lord family.
Musical Theatre Review’s CRAIG GLENDAY caught up with Ellie at the Old Vic in the afternoon following High Society’s first preview.
How are you enjoying the experience of being part of High Society so far?
Ellie: It’s been going really well, thanks. We had our first preview last night, so that was really, really exciting – it was a great night. I’m having an absolute ball on this show.
It’s been a while since you’ve been on stage…
Yes, it was quite a few years ago now, in Aspects of Love – Trevor Nunn’s production at the Menier Chocolate Factory. I really enjoyed it, and was so lucky to be cast.
You’ve now worked on stage, and on film and TV – do you have a preference?
No, I love all of them, and particularly stage and theatre – and TV! [laughs] It’s the diversity that I love. They’re all so different and you use different skills for each of them.
How is it working with Maria Friedman?
Maria is amazing. She’s so great. It helps that she’s an actress and singer as well, so she knows where we’re coming from when we need help. She really does understand what it means to be an actor. And she’s a lot of fun!
Did you audition for the part of Dinah?
Yeah, I was attracted to the role because she’s quite cheeky and good fun. She runs around trying to make the right thing happen. And I had an amazing audition – I remember having so much fun in the room and getting on with everyone so well. When you get a feeling like that in an audition, you kind of know it’s gone okay. I sang ‘I Love Paris’ and ‘Throwing a Ball Tonight’, so songs from the show itself. I’d seen the films High Society and The Philadelphia Story, and I loved the role of Dinah, so it’s amazing to now be playing her!
And you get to sing Cole Porter every night…
I know! I get to sing ‘I Love Paris’, which is one of Dinah’s big numbers, where she dresses up in ballerina clothes and pretends to be French. What’s interesting about this production is that a lot of the material has changed. [Book writer] Arthur Kopit – who is amazing – has completely reinvented the show. He said that he’d given up on ever seeing it so well done, but he says that this production has fulfilled his hopes and dreams. He was really happy with the cast, and the singing and acting.
So I also get to sing with Rupert [Young, playing Dexter Haven] in ‘Little One’ – another song that’s been reinvented – and given a dance break. It’s such great fun.
It makes it refreshing – a whole new experience. Audiences might come expecting to see the version from Regent’s Park [where it was produced in 2003 before transferring to the Shaftesbury Theatre], or a stage version of the movie, but they’re sitting here at the Old Vic saying: “Wow, this is really different – it’s fresh, it’s new.”
It’s a great new way of tackling the text. There are new characters – the amazing Joe Stilgoe plays a new character, for example – and there are new songs, new lyrics, new scenes that haven’t been done before, so it really is a fresh approach. And if the audience doesn’t know the storyline, a lot of them at least know the songs. I think audiences will love it.
And it’s staged in the round. What challenges does this present?
Obviously, you have the audience all around you and you have to be careful not to block people for too long, things like that. But I think it’s also good because it makes for a more natural approach – you don’t have to worry when your back is to the audience because you’re always going to be facing someone. It really helps the production because there are so many scenes that are enhanced by the staging in the round. And the set is incredible – I really love that the furniture rises up from the ground!
Do you have an on-stage band?
The staging means that the band are in the boxes on opposite sides of the round, which come out a bit further. The band is amazing – really, really talented. We’d been practising in the rehearsal room with a piano but then we did the Sitzprobe before we got on to the stage, and as soon as you heard the band, it was completely different. It’s got an amazing jazz sound.
How is it working with MD Theo Jamieson?
He’s incredible. And just 23 – so young and so talented. He’s really helped me through the production with my singing. He puts a lot of detail into his work – we spend quite a lot of time on very specific things, and I love how detailed he is in that way.
Have you had formal vocal training?
I did up to grade eight Musical Theatre and ABRSM grade six, so I’ve had quite a bit of vocal training. I’m not brilliant at sight-reading, to be honest, but thanks to Theo I’m getting there.
Are you a fan of musicals?
Yeah, I do like musicals a lot. I loved Aspects when I was doing that. When you’re on a show, you find new things that you love about it each day, which makes it interesting. High Society has been a challenge for me because I’ve not done musical theatre for so long, but every day I find something new that I love. I’ve got a High Society playlist on my iPhone now and I go home every day listening to it, so the songs are always stuck in my head. So yes, I really do love musicals.
Do you have a favourite show?
That’s so hard! Let me think. I really do love Sweeney Todd, and The Book of Mormon was so funny. I was taken by my school to see it and it was great, I loved it. When it started, all of us were shocked, but after a while the teachers got used to it! What else do I love? The classics, really: Phantom, Les Mis…
Have you got your eye on any particular role for the future?
There are a lot of musical theatre roles I’ve love to do but I’m just kind of keeping my options open. If Aspects of Love was to ever be done again in London, I’d love to play the older version of young Jenny, the role I played at the Menier. I think it would be really interesting to have done both.
You’re becoming something of a celebrity, and you’ve got Pride and Prejudice and Zombies coming out soon. How are you coping with all the attention?
It’s really exciting. I can’t wait for the movie to be out. It’s released on 19 February 2016 and I think it’s going to really work for a young audience. It’s taking Jane Austen’s text but adding a contemporary approach. It’s so clever.
In the film you’re playing yet another character younger than you actually are. And you’re meant to be 14 in High Society. What’s it like always playing the child?
It’s great – I get to stay young, I get to be cheeky, so I’m really enjoying it. It’s something I can easily remember back to, so I always have experiences to draw on. I’d love to play an older role but I really don’t mind playing it young. I do have a baby face. I’m going to play it by ear, as I’ve still got time to take on older roles. It means for now that I get to have a lot of fun on stage.
So, one last question: why should we come and see High Society?
It’s a universal story that everyone can relate to. It’s about people who shouldn’t be judged on first impressions. Socially, they’re quite upper-class, but they’re just normal people just trying to find love. They all want one thing, and in the beginning, it’s so hard to achieve but in the end they all achieve it. And it’s got great tunes!
* High Society opens tonight (14 May) and continues at The Old Vic until 22 August.
Readers may also be interested in:
High Society at the Old Vic – full casting revealed – Review