Once is a once in a lifetime role for Niamh Perry
Set in Dublin, Once is the smash-hit award-winning show that's a celebration of music and love. This summer the musical returns to the city that inspired it. Bangor actress Niamh Perry speaks to Jenny Lee about her delight in landing her dream role
IT WAS while she was in the 'Nancy house' as part of the BBC's I'd Do Anything programme that then 17-year-old contestant Niamh Perry started dreaming of starring in the musical, Once.
"Whenever the film came out, my aunt Miriam, who lives in Dublin, sent me the DVD," says Bangor woman Perry of the original Oscar-wining Irish movie. It starred The Frames singer Glen Hansard and Czech performer Markéta Irglová as two struggling musicians in the capital.
"I remember watching it in the Nancy house as a bit of escapism when I was a bit homesick and I've been in love with it ever since."
Although she didn't win the Beeb's talent show, which searched for an unknown performer to play Nancy in a West End revival of the musical Oliver!, Perry found a mentor in musical mogul Andrew Lloyd Webber and was cast as Sophie in Mamma Mia! the following year.
Lloyd-Webber even created the role of Fleck in The Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies especially for her. She also went on to play the lead role of Mary in the West End production of The Beautiful Game, a Lloyd Weber and Ben Elton musical about growing up in the Troubles.
But it's the lead role of Girl in Once that she Perry, who has just finished a run in new musical Whisper House in London, had her heart set on and she's delighted to be playing it this summer in Dublin.
The winner of eight 2012 Tony Awards including Best Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, the stage musical Once – which is based on John Carney's 2007 movie – tells the story of a Dublin street musician who's about to give up on his dream when a beautiful young Czech woman takes a sudden interest in his haunting love songs. As the chemistry between them grows, his music soars to powerful new heights.
The stage musical opened in New York in 2011 before moving to Broadway, where it ran for three years. It then transferred to the West End, before coming home to Dublin. At the Olympia Theatre, there is even an on-stage bar where the audience can walk on to the set and buy a drink on stage during the interval.
"It's always been a goal of mine. I'm a huge Glenn Hansard fan. I love the film, the music and the play, but have never been old enough to play the part. I guess I've done quite a bit of growing up recently and I'm ready for it," says 27-year-old Perry, who got engaged at the start of this year.
Her fiancé is guitarist Ollie Hannifan, who she met while working on the international tour of Mamma Mia!
"We're getting married next year back home. I'm trying to organise it between rehearsals and the show I'm doing at the minute." Perry giggles.
Despite spending her adult life in London, Perry has fond memories of her early theatrical work at home as a member of Music Theatre for Youth (MT4UTH) and McMaster Stage School, in Bangor, and is delighted to be spending the entire summer working in Ireland.
"Of course I wouldn't say no to taking the show back to Broadway, I'm so excited to be performing it where it's set and with an all-Irish cast. And to be able to spend the summer hanging out with my family in Ireland is perfect," she tells me.
Described as a "love-song to Dublin", the music is performed by a multi-talented cast of actor-musicians, who sing, dance and play live on stage. Between them, the 12 actors play 30 instruments during each performance, giving Once a unique vibe of a play and music gig combined.
An accomplished pianist, who achieved her graded exams as a teenager, Perry has been busy tickling the ivories in preparation for the role.
"I've never done an actor-muso play before, so this is a whole new thing for me, but I'm really enjoying it. It's unleashed a bit more of my love of playing the piano now I've had to sit and learn everything. It's a great thing to be able to perform with a bunch of people who love music as much as you do. We don't have a band to fall back on because we are the band," she enthuses.
To prepare for the role of Girl, Perry, who hasn't lost her Bangor accent, has also been working with a dialect coach to get her Czech intonation perfect.
"My character Girl is at the very heart of the show. She's passionate, full of excitement, love and positivity. There's always an element of yourself you bring to whatever part you play, but I can relate to her excitement with life, However, she's got a seven-year-old child – so it's different for me to playing a mother. Lots of new boxes being ticked, which is great."
Dubliner Brian Gilligan, who played Deco in stage version of The Commitments, will lock lips on stage with Niamh in the role of Guy. She believes the play is more relevant than ever because there is so many foreign nationals living in Ireland.
"That's the beautiful thing about Ireland and Dublin – in the summer it's filled with people from all over the world," Perry says.
With so many classic songs to choose from in the award-winning sound track, Perry struggles to choose her favourite.
"[The Oscar-winning theme song] Falling Slowly is one of the best known songs of our generation. If You Want Me, which I sing with the girls, is amazing and The Hill, which I sing myself, is an awesome song. There is an a cappella version of Gold that the whole company sing at the end that's just a beautiful moment."
While she wouldn't say no to reprising her role in The Beautiful Game, Perry doesn't have any other role on her dream list.
"There's nothing I have my heart set on. It's all about Once now; we will see what happens at the end of summer."
She is still in contact with fellow performers from the I'd Do Anything series including fellow Northern Ireland West End star Rachel Tucker.
"Rachel is a good pal. She doesn't live too far from me in London. I'm still in touch with a number of girls who were involved in that crazy time almost 10 years ago," she says.
Outside musical theatre Perry likes experimenting with her own music and doesn't rule out a "folky-pop album" in the future.
:: Once the Musical runs at Dublin's Olympia Theatre from June 30 to August 26. Olympia.ie