Touring with a major musical like Chicago; distance parenting; working behind bars; the rise and rise of women’s football. Oh, and winning X Factor. When you meet Sam Bailey, there is plenty to talk about.
Ms Bailey arrives at the Congress Theatre next week (opening April 11), playing Matron “Mama” Morton to approving reviews and ecstatic audiences. The lady with the sensational voice, who won an avalanche of a million votes winning the 2013 X Factor, is on the road in every sense.
Now, I am fortunate enough to grab a lot of interviews with performers, all fascinating, some learned, some inflated, some occasionally a bit jaded. And then there is Sam Bailey. This one isn’t an interview, it’s just a good old natter. She is a living reminder that there are real, normal grounded people behind the make-up.
Actually, it’s make-up that she is slapping on in front of the dressing room mirror, ahead of a matinee at Manchester’s Opera House. But as proof that actors can walk and chew gum, Sam cheerfully fields my questions anyway. The first one is hard to resist: casting a former prison officer as Mama – coincidence, fate or marketing?
“Oh, that has to be a piece of smart marketing, doesn’t it! I did make a little joke about it when I went into the audition, but I’m sure we were all thinking it would look great on the posters – prison officer plays prison officer. But Mama Morton is such a terrific part and I still absolutely had to prove I was up to it!
“I have a short list – quite long actually – of roles I want to play in musicals: Fantine in Les Mis, Nancy in Oliver, Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, several others, but this part was definitely on the list, and it’s probably the best one for me to start my musical theatre career and I’m truly proud of that.
“It’s going really, really well, and I think there are some people in genuine shock that I can actually act as well as sing. I’m loving every single second of it!” There is a relish and a natural, engaging modesty, and you can tell that Sam means it.
I suggest that, with those million votes, Sam Bailey is already the People’s Champion with no need to prove herself. “Well that’s true, but there might have been a few people who were waiting for me to screw up, or wondering if I can do the American accent. I’m happy if I’m surprising people, if they are going away and I’ve helped to give them a great night out, and then some of them are even booking to come back a second time.”
Has her background helped? “Absolutely yes. I was on the clubs circuit, in a band for nine years, worked as a Bluecoat and on the cruise ships – a twenty-year singing career. And that spell at HM Prison Gartree as well. You have to work to reach your dreams.”
Sam Bailey’s other Theatres of Dreams were football stadiums. Originally from South-East London, she enjoyed a seriously successful professional footballing career that encompassed Millwall Lionesses, West Ham and Crystal Palace. And the passion remains – shared, as it happens, by this theatre reviewer. We jointly reflect on the progress of the women’s game – “it’s been neglected but now it’s on the rise and there is fantastic talent out there” – and the triumphs of Sam’s adopted home city.
“Yes, I have lived in Leicester for sixteen years now, and had a season ticket for fourteen. I’ve kept my nerve this week and been walking proudly around Manchester with my Leicester City top on. And they’ve all been saying – hope you win the league!”
Touring, of course, means being away from home and family. “My husband is an absolute rock and runs the show at home, as long as he gets my instructions of course. I did win Celebrity Mum of the Year this year but I’m going to halve the award with him. I’m on the phone every night or facetiming, checking that their homework is done and the book bags are packed. And last night my son’s tooth fell out so we had to give the tooth fairy a little shout!
“My eldest daughter has been to see the show, but Chicago isn’t really for the younger ones, and my son would rather sit on his iPad playing Minecraft anyway! This week is school holidays, so they’re all coming up to Manchester and we’re taking trips out every day. I shall be either completely shattered by the evenings, or else feeling green from all the lurching rides at the theme parks!
“But you know, that’s what it’s all about. I have been so fortunate, I’m loving my career, my family, my life at the moment. And roll on Eastbourne, next on the tour!” Performer, parent, soccer mom: roll on, Sam Bailey and Chicago