Theatre Interview: Jodie Prenger Talks TELL ME ON A SUNDAY

Jodie Prenger in Tell Me On A Sunday

Jodie Prenger in TELL ME ON A SUNDAY. Photo Credit: Watermill Newbury

Ahead of its run at Salford’s The Lowry, Jodie Prenger talks about TELL ME ON A SUNDAY, her role as Emma and what audiences can expect to see from the show

Following her acclaimed performances in the National Theatre’s production of A TASTE OF HONEY, ABIGAIL’S PARTY and CALAMITY JANE, Jodie Prenger makes a welcome return to Salford’s The Lowry in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s classic musical, TELL ME ON A SUNDAY.

Set in the 1980s, TELL ME ON A SUNDAY charts the romantic misadventures of a young English girl in New York as she seeks success and love. The iconic musical features Lloyd Webber’s wonderful score, including the chart-topping TAKE THAT LOOK OFF YOUR FACE, and title track TELL ME ON A SUNDAY.

The award-winning musical will also see actress and singer, Jodie Prenger, best known as the winner of BBC television series I’D DO ANYTHING, reprise her role as Emma, a role she first bought to life in 2016.

Ahead of its run at Salford’s The Lowry next month, Prenger talks to Lizz Brain about the role and what audiences can expect to see from the show.

The last year has really emphasised the importance of the arts. Is it great to be back?

Yes, a thousand percent! Naively we all thought that this would only pause everything for a few weeks, and it has taken out now well over a year of our lives. So having to wait over a year to do what we love and are so passionate about – to step on stage with an audience there, I’m not going to lie, there have been tears! You look at the glimmer off someone’s glasses in the audience, or in a sad song you hear someone get a hanky out and there is just nothing in comparison to live theatre and that connection you have. There is a two-way relationship between everyone involved in the show and the audience. I’m so glad that that relationship is back on! I have felt like a jilted girlfriend, just desperate to go back out with everyone again. The first performance back was emotional, and also strange to see people sat physically in front of me again. However, it was like taking a duck to water and audiences seemed to feel the same way. We were both just really happy to be there. The pandemic ripped away something we all loved and have grown up with, so it’s great to be able to experience these things together again.

TELL ME ON A SUNDAY has had many incarnations since 1979, from a song cycle to the first half of Song and Dance to a self-contained one-act show in itself. What can audiences expect this time?

We thought about doing it as Song and Dance again but the world wasn’t ready for me in head to toe Lycra (laughs). What we do this time is the one-act show, and then have a second act which is me singing at the piano, and then we have a question and answer session. It’s been fantastic, the audiences get really engaged with it.

Jodie Prenger in TELL ME ON A SUNDAY.

Jodie Prenger in TELL ME ON A SUNDAY. Photo Credit: Watermill Newbury

What drew you to the show?

The songs are beautiful, little gems. Years and years ago I had a “best of the musicals” double cassette and it had TAKE THAT LOOK OFF YOUR FACE and TELL ME ON A SUNDAY on it. I loved it and played it over and over. But all the songs together create a journey that every woman has gone through at some point in her life. TELL ME ON A SUNDAY is a song that really affects people – I can hear them sniffing!

So you can empathise with Emma then?

Absolutely. We’ve all gone through what she goes through, bought the t-shirt, got the scars. And I really understand her. It’s so brilliantly written and we’ve gone through the lyrics with a fine toothcomb. They aren’t just lyrics, it’s a script set to music. She’s got the guy who cheats on her, then the man whose pink mansion should have told her something, then the younger man (who I call Brad) that she pins her hopes on but it crumbles, and then the married man (who I call George). It’s all familiar stuff. I’ve been cheated on, lied to, I’ve had horrible things said to me but I think women have a certain strength, a fight in them which makes them get up again and carry on despite the knockbacks. We’re survivors, we’ve all been in relationships that we keep trying to make work even though we know it’s not quite right, and the wonderful thing about Emma is that when she reaches the point where she wants to run back to the safety of her Mum, she finds a new strength. And it’s lovely that it isn’t a happily ever after ending where she runs off into the sunset with a man.

You named your characters Brad and George?

Oh yes, but I’d swap them out for Gerard Butler (laughs).

The early part of your career involved a lot of club gigs and cabaret shows. Now you’re performing solo again, albeit in character. How much pressure does that add?

There’s no-one else, no-one to fill in if you forget a line, of course that’s daunting. But even when I was doing the clubs I was always singing musical theatre songs so I’ve probably always sung in character. There was one song during rehearsals for TELL ME ON A SUNDAY where I just couldn’t get the lyrics right, although fortunately I’ve not got it wrong on stage yet. It is a huge amount of pressure when it’s just you though, you’re incredibly exposed, and it’s physically and emotionally draining. Apart from getting bludgeoned to death as Nancy, I’ve never come off stage so ready to sit down. You have to go through those emotions for real, so you draw on what you’ve been through yourself. Emma’s experiences chip away at her but she is strong and wants to do some good with her life. I find myself willing her on. She deserves a port and some cheese by the end of it!

Jodie Prenger in TELL ME ON A SUNDAY

Jodie Prenger in TELL ME ON A SUNDAY. Photo Credit: Watermill Newbury

The show was written in the late 1970s. Would Emma’s story still be true now, with social media, email and Skype?

There was a production with Denise Van Outen which included speed dating and tried to bring it up to date in that way, but I think there’s a certain old-fashioned romantic element to the way Emma sits down and writes to her Mum and waits for her response. If she was emailing or chatting on Skype it wouldn’t have the same effect. Communication is so instant nowadays, but it was so different for Emma to be out in New York, without a mobile phone, not able to call her Mum for advice as soon as she has a problem. That element of being out there and having to fend for herself really adds a heightened sense of emotion to the piece.

TELL ME ON A SUNDAY is offering some socially distanced performances in some venues going forward. Why do you think this option for audiences is important?

I’m worried this option will be sold out first as you’ll never get a bad seat! If people feel safer coming to those performances, then that is perfect, however I do want everyone to be reassured that all the appropriate precautions are being taken across all performances. Of course, I understand that as we come out of this pandemic many people may feel more cautious about returning to live events, so I hope that having this option gives everyone the chance to come along and enjoy TELL ME ON A SUNDAY in a way that they are comfortable with.

What have you spent the last year and a bit doing to keep yourself busy?

I was very lucky to take part in some online productions over the last year, and I also wrote with a friend of mine Neil Hurst, a rather different edition of Cinderella which was performed at the Turbine Theatre in Battersea. We wrote that and we are in talks of having a tv series optioned, so I’ve been doing lots of writing actually. I was lucky enough to have snippets of what I’ve really missed and just keeping myself going with that, and it all kept me afloat mentally. Being back on stage and performing, and back with audiences in the room has been just incredible.

TELL ME ON A SUNDAY runs at The Lowry, Salford, from 19 to 23 October 2021.