Waitress star Chelsea Halfpenny jumped at the chance to trade the world of TV soaps for pie-based musicals. But that journey has, as fortune would have it, brought her back to her old Casualty stomping ground in Cardiff Bay. Here she is speaking to Jonathan Kingston about the experience on and off the stage.
How’s the tour going so far?
Chelsea Halfpenny: Really good. It’s already going really fast because of how busy you are. I’m sort of wanting it to slow down, really.
In preparation for you coming to the Wales Millennium Centre in June, first of all, I just wanted to congratulate you on such a fantastic performance on the National Lottery Big Night. I imagine that was incredibly nervewracking.
Sometimes I think when things feel like a big deal, I really just play them down in my head so that I can remain calm. It wasn’t until the response that I’ve had – because obviously, it was on national television – that I sort of realised what happened. But I think it’s good that I didn’t remind myself of that on the day.
I couldn’t imagine being in front of all those people with all those lights. Obviously, the tour is going well as you said… You’ve had such a successful career on both Emmerdale and Casualty. What was it that drew you to the stage and how does that compare to TV?
I’d always wanted to do musicals at some point, but sometimes your career goes in a certain direction and that’s just how it goes. Sometimes it’s hard to be seen for stage things when you’re doing television and vice versa. So I’d always had singing lessons and things, but I just ended up getting seen for more television auditions and I don’t really know how I got an audition for Nine To Five: I don’t know how or why the casting director brought me in for it, but then I did it in the West End. And then I guess once you’ve opened that door, you get seen for more musicals, which is great. Then the Waitress audition came about, and I’ve been obsessed with the show since it opened, so it’s been a dream come true really.
Waitress is a musical written by the incredible Sara Bareilles. She’s been moving audiences since 2016 when it first opened on Broadway, which you know already because you’re a big fan. How do you feel that UK audiences are responding to this show?
I think they’re always really surprised by how funny it is. It really is a rom-com and I feel like, generally speaking, everyone loves a romcom and [Waitress] is just funny from the minute it starts. It’s quite an intimate show in some parts [too]. There are a lot of silences and I can really hear and feel the audience; I can feel their emotion, I hear them sniffing and wiping their tears away. And then in other parts, they’re really laughing their heads off. So I feel like it’s getting a really brilliant response. I’m getting a lot of messages, actually, on social media, which I’ve just never had before. It feels like they’re loving it.
That’s fantastic. You’re on an emotional roller coaster with Jenna and Dawn and Becky, so I imagine it does throw audiences around a little bit, which, being British, we’re probably not comfortable with. But in the theatre, we can be. And speaking of Dawn, Jenna and Becky, which one can you relate to most and why?
I think I do relate to Jenna the most. I feel like I’m definitely someone, for the most part, who might avoid a problem or not talk about one straight away and maybe keep it to myself or try and work through things on my own, as opposed to just sharing a problem with someone else. I actually think I’d always felt like that and that was why I loved the show so much. And just singing those songs is just pretty special.
They’re very good songs. Do you have a favourite one?
There’s a song called A Soft Place To Land and it’s really beautiful. It’s just the three waitresses singing it and singing quite simply, but we’re all in a different harmony line and it’s just really beautiful. The words are so lovely. It’s quite a still moment in the show, but I think that’s my favourite.
I like that one too. So, the musical is set in Indiana. How easy is it for you to flip into an American accent?
I find American accents relatively easy, but doing a Southern American accent is not the most natural thing for me. I’ve never had to do that before, but luckily it’s a really lovely accent to do, and it just suits the script so well, that I think it makes it easier. Had it been set in New York, for example, I would have found that really difficult because I find that [accent] so difficult. But I found it okay here. It’s really nice to do, especially when you’re singing because you don’t want to do an accent that is quite aggressive or anything. And it isn’t, it’s quite rhythmical.
It must be such a challenge having to sing and put an accent to it as well: you’re concentrating on getting the notes, but then you’re having to think, “oh, I’ve got to change the twang of the note as well.”
Yeah. I think accents are a balance. We’ve got to remember that not everybody’s ears tune into accents. There’s a balance when you’re singing: you want to make sure that the audience understands what it is that you’re saying, but also make sure that it’s not in a Geordie accent like mine because that would be a bit crazy.
Following the lyrics from the song, it’s amazing what baking can do. Are you any good at baking?
Not at all, unfortunately. I feel like I used to bake so much with my nana when I was younger, but as an adult, I probably don’t do it because I know that if I had to bake a huge pie, I would just eat the whole thing. And that’s not the best for your inside. Not every day, anyway.
Not when you’re going to put on a costume.
We’ve discussed that the show is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. How do you prepare for all of those ups and downs every day?
Do you know what? Because I’m in the whole show, I don’t really get a break at all. I think I get about three minutes off in the first act, and the show starts off very lighthearted. I don’t feel like I have to prepare at all for once as it gets a bit heavier because I’ve already been on the character’s journey, so I sort of get there and feel emotional anyway. And the script is just so brilliant that it just makes your life so much easier when the words you’re saying are so heartfelt.
Yeah, definitely. You’re living the journey as it’s happening in front of you. So, Waitress comes to Cardiff in June. Have you been to Cardiff before?
Well, Casualty is filmed in Cardiff. I actually lived in Cardiff for three and a half years.
Oh really? Whereabouts?
I lived in the Bay because that’s where Casualty’s filmed but I’ve got loads of mates there and I absolutely love Cardiff. I could genuinely live there so I’m so excited to be coming back.
If Waitress the musical was a pie, what would be the three main ingredients?
It would be love, heart – as in heartfelt – and fun because it’s really funny and I think people don’t expect that.
Thank you for your time and good luck with the tour. I’m sure everyone in Cardiff will be buzzing to see you!
words JONATHAN KINGSTON
Waitress, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Mon 30 May-Sat 4 June. Tickets: £18.50-£49.50. Info: here.
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