‘Being on TV was such a blur - but it changed my life’

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Helena Blackman has played to packed houses at the Kings before.

But the first time was nearly 20 years ago when she was just 12 and starring as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Helena Blackman appears as Milly in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Picture: Geraint Lewis

Helena Blackman appears as Milly in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. Picture: Geraint Lewis

Now she’s coming back, playing the lead role of Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a lot has changed in between.

Helena, originally from Locks Heath, came to the wider public’s attention when she appeared in the hit BBC show How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? in 2006, which aimed to find an eponymous star for Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s then-upcoming production of The Sound of Music.

After a tricky run, she eventually made it to the final and finished as the show’s runner-up.

‘I remember very little of that time,’ she says now. ‘It was such a blur.

‘It’s such a different medium of entertainment to what I was working in – musical theatre – and it changed my life a lot.

‘Being in a reality show had never been an option before, it was a completely different skill-set for me.

‘It was certainly a unique experience that I’ll never get to go through again.’

Since then she has kept herself busy, taking leads in high-profile productions of Gypsy and South Pacific, among others, and also finding time to record an album of Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes.

From the start of the year, Helena has been touring the UK in Seven Brides, and on the day she speaks to The News she’s just finished a matinee performance at The Orchard Theatre in Dartford.

The show, set in 1850s Oregon, is packed with 16 timeless classics, including Bless Your Beautiful Hide, A Woman Ought to Know Her Place and Goin’ Courtin’ as well as two new songs never heard before in any UK stage version of the show.

She says: ‘I’ve never been part of a show where everyone loves it so much. This has got everything, it’s blown us all away. We’ve got a great cast and it’s a wonderful production.’

Her co-star in the show is Sam Attwater, who has starred on TV in Hollyoaks and EastEnders as well as winning the 2011 series of ITV’s Dancing on Ice.

He also has an impressive musical pedigree, having recently played Brad Majors in the 40th anniversary tour of The Rocky Horror Show and in Dreamboats and Petticoats in the West End, Tonight’s the Night and 20th Century Boy.

But even as an experienced stage performer, the demands of eight shows a week still tell on Helena.

‘I still find it difficult and it can completely depend on your mood. Take today, the matinee was really nice and straight forward, but last Saturday was really hard.

‘Your body gets tired, but you have to be on it, because there are 2-3,000 people watching who have paid to see the show.

‘It is mentally and physically very demanding, this is our sixth week now without a break, but on those difficult shows you just have to focus a little bit harder.’

While Helena has worked hard to get where she is, she hasn’t forgotten her roots.

‘The Kings was the first professional theatre I worked at, when I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz aged 12. Swanmore school was a phenomenally creative school and the shows were so good they went on at the Kings – we sold out three nights there, that’s how good their reputation was.

‘I’m a big supporter of the Kings and the Mayflower over in Southampton – the Kings is such a piece of history.’

After those years of hard work, she is now reaping the rewards, as she explains: ‘A lot of work does come my way now, but it has taken a good 10 years to build that repertoire and that reputation.

‘I just want to keep working and do more and more and do parts that I think I will get something out of.’

But although producers often have her in mind for a particular role these days, it’s not to say she gets an easy ride.

‘Sometimes it can be a bit of a cattle market, but I’ve had good agents who know what I can do – I’m not a pop or rock singer, I am a classically-trained singer.

‘I just hope that people continue to produce those classic shows.

‘My castability is changing too, from junior leads to older women, and that’s out of your control, but you have to roll with the punches. It is hard, but that’s what you have to do.’

With a career that has so far focussed on musical theatre, a change of direction isn’t something the 31-year-old would rule out.

‘I would love to do some acting, maybe TV or film, but it is all different,’ she says.

‘And there are different networks of directors and producers that I’m not part of. If I was to go down that route, it would almost be like a change of career.’

She’s looking forward to the opportunity to catch up with friends and family while she’s back – while Helena lives in London these days, her family are still in Locks Heath.

‘I’m going to be staying with my mum and dad when we’re playing the Kings – they wouldn’t let me stay anywhere else.’

As to plans after Seven Brides finishes its run in Stoke in a couple of months’ time, Helena says she hasn’t thought that far ahead.

‘It hasn’t even crossed my mind,’ she says.

‘We finish in May, but I would quite like a bit of time off – I’ve worked solidly for two years, but I wouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth if something did come up.’

WHERE AND WHEN

Helena is in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Kings Theatre, Southsea, from March 4 to March 8. Tickets are available online at kings-southsea.com or call the box office on (023) 9282 8282.

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