On a sunny day in the big city Alice Stokoe is sitting outside a café near Covent Garden sipping a peach iced tea and looking all of 16.
It’s distractingly hot and the streets hum with huge generators providing the power for temporary air-conditioning units to deal with a ridiculous on-going power cut.
Restaurants tout their ‘pre-theatre menus’ and from our café chairs we’re a few steps away from the rear of the Novello Theatre.
And there we see Alice’s face shining in the centre of a 20ft billboard giving the call to come see Mamma Mia, one of the West End’s most popular musicals.
The day job, or should it be evening job, sees Alice take centre stage as the pivotal main character Sophie Sheridan. If you’ve seen it or watched the film, you’ll know she is the young woman who sets out to find the identity of her real father. A quest which sets the musical in motion.
“I Have A Dream” is the Abba song that starts the musical. When the curtain rises it is Alice in the spotlight, nowhere to hide in front of many hundreds of theatregoers.
Lump in the throat moment for many in the audience, so how must it feel when that’s your little girl? Read on for Jeff’s version of that.
That spotlight is a big deal. Alice had the dream and now it has come true.
It doesn’t mean she gets a second glance, even in touching distance of the mighty billboard and yards from the stage door.
Cast members dash by and give a wave. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and no matinee. Alice is wearing a white cotton top and as tanned as her role demands of someone living on a fictional Greek island.
“Often I come out of the stage door with a woolly hat on and my jeans and slip out unnoticed,” no-one recognises me, she laughs. Though having said that, she’s always happy to greet her stage door fans, sign autographs and pose for a selfie.
Alice will soon be 24. This is her big limelight show and she’s loved every minute.
But, as any actor will admit, it’s all about the next audition and when she finishes with Mamma Mia in June she will just be the next name at the audition call.
There’s no doubt however, that with a show like this under her belt, the future looks bright.
She’ll be ready for a rest. It’s hard work and regimented. Her days usually end in the early hours and see her stir at 10 in the morning, then the day’s gradual gearing up for an intense and energetic performance, eight times a week. When the performance is on Alice is rarely off stage.
Alice, (the Stokoe is her great grandmother’s maiden name. There was already an Alice Brown on Equity’s books), is also the daughter of Susan Wear, who is well-known as Director of Corporate Affairs at Port of Tyne.
Alice went to school at Newcastle Central High and won a scholarship to the famous Italia Conti drama school in London when she was 18.
Then it was bright lights, big city, loads of auditions and coffee shop jobs whilst waiting for the big yes. It came with Sophie, a role that has given Alice a high profile in the notoriously tough theatre industry.
And though off-stage she even admits to being ‘a bit shy’, it is all about inner confidence.
“The most important thing I think you need is self-belief. It’s such a classic female thing to think ‘I’m not good enough to do this’ or ‘I’m not worthy of this’ – especially in an industry where there’s more female performers and less female roles – but if you don’t think you’re good enough how can you expect anyone else to?”, she said in an interview on International Women’s Day.
There has to be the strength to carry on, audition after audition,
“Hard work, luck and knowing that a knock back in an audition is not about you.
“You have to not take it personally. Give yourself a day to feel rubbish then move on. I’m way too sensitive and probably haven’t built up the thick skin yet!
“It is about balance. You have to have self-belief to do this, otherwise no-one is going to believe in you.
“When I got the part of Sophie they were looking for someone new. I think I look about 14 or 15 so I thought they’d think I was too young, Sophie is meant to be about 20.
“It was mindblowingly surreal to get the part. But it’s a tough regime because it has to be perfect every time.
“You can’t go for a drink or have a meal after a certain time in the day when you’ve got a show.
“This part is a bit different to other musicals; the acting is really important, it is more layered with short scenes that have a lot of information to get across. You have to be an actor rather than acting through song as some musicals are.”
It’s an enormously well-loved show but Alice says it is different every night.
“You get the hen parties, you get the 50th birthday crowds all dressed up, you get the young girls who scream when the boys come on.
“It is so energetic and uplifting, there’s nothing like it. If you’ve had a bad day or a show, you get out there and sing and dance and everyone knows the songs, it’s so much fun.
“Then you skulk off at the back door and get on the bus and sometimes you’re on the way home with people who have been to see the show and you hear them talking about it, that’s surreal.”
The show has its fair share of celebrities in the audience, most recently Paula Radcliffe and daughter Isla.
And it gave Alice a mega-star moment of her own. West End Live was performed in Trafalgar Square, giving visitors a taste of London’s show.
Alice performed in front of a 10,000-strong crowd.
“I sang I Have A Dream. It was so terrifying, I felt like a popstar, people were clamouring for my autograph!”
Alice is in Mamma Mia at The Novello Theatre until mid-June. You can see a video of her in action at mammamia.com
With thanks to Grand Central Trains grandcentralrail.com
View from the stalls
Jeff Brown relives the ‘curtain up’ moment
So there I was, in the darkened stalls of the Novello Theatre, holding my wife’s hand as the overture played. Susan leaned across and whispered, matter-of-factly: “She’s just behind the curtain, you know?”
And when that curtain rose, there she was indeed. Alice, making her West End debut in the central role of daughter Sophie in “Mamma Mia”, the mother of ALL musicals (especially if you were a teenager in the ‘70s). Not only was Alice on stage, she was the ONLY one on stage. And as she sang the opening solo – “I Have a Dream” – her dad could just about make her out through the tears…
Was it always her dream? Not for a short time in her mid-teens, when she decided she’d had enough of the weekly sessions at St Mary’s church hall in Heworth at the Reavley Theatre School, where we’d religiously taken her since she was four.
But after a few months away from the stage, she hit us with a bombshell, early in 2007. Auditions were being held for the National Youth Musical Theatre, who were putting on a production of “Little Me” at the Bloomsbury Theatre in Euston. The Newcastle call had already been and gone, but there was one in Liverpool the following Sunday. Could she go?
Bemused – because we presumed she’d lost the bug – we nevertheless did what good parents do: the three of us traipsing over the M62 one miserable January morning, for what I imagined would be a wasted afternoon. Instead, it proved to be the light bulb moment. Not only did Alice catch the creative team’s eye – she also found the focus for which she’d been searching.
I’d been lucky enough, at the age of about 14, to know precisely where I wanted to end up: in the press boxes of the nation’s football and cricket grounds, as a sports reporter. Maybe lots of youngsters harboured a similar ambition, but with mum and dad driving me on (and driving me TO lots of events) it became a tangible target.
Once Alice found the same spark and discovered her passion, we couldn’t have been happier. Even if that profession is one of the cruellest and most demanding around.
She chose Dance and Drama as two of her A levels. A big decision, when the urge was for us to insist on “proper” qualifications. She argued her case convincingly, got top grades, and won a scholarship to the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in 2009.
Not long after turning 18, the car was packed for the trip to London, where Alice would begin a three-year course in musical theatre. Leaving her in her single-room digs in Barbican was traumatic. We’d barely turned the corner before we began mulling over a move to the capital ourselves.
Instead, we fought the urge to camp on her doorstep, and left her to forge new friendships and fight her way to the front of the stage.
Graduating in the summer of 2012, having taken top honours for acting, Alice’s starring role in a Conti production of “Into the Woods” brought her an invitation from a leading London agent. We sat back and waited for the offers to roll in. And waited.
Some parts did materialise, notably in the pantomime at the Customs House in South Shields. Three winters working with the wonderful, and wonderfully unpredictable, comedy duo of Ray Spencer and Bob Stott taught her a lot about stagecraft.
A couple of NatWest TV ads helped pay the rent, while a stint with the Northern Stage production “Moving Family” gave her a taste of the Edinburgh Festival. All the while, the musical theatre auditions were piling up – but so were the rejections. Reluctantly, I asked her not to tell me about up-coming auditions. The waiting was just too painful.
It was a promise she broke as she approached the final hurdle in the “Mamma Mia” stakes. The conversation had been miserable, so she slipped in the fact she was in the frame. It cheered me up for all of 10 seconds, until the realisation struck that I’d now be watching the mobile and waiting for her name to appear again.
When it did, it caught me off guard. The happy gasps and sobs from her end of the phone were just what I’d been waiting to hear.
It culminated, one wonderful day last June, in almost 50 friends and family descending on the Novello Theatre in Aldwych for a night we will, truly, never forget. A show so good, we’ve been to see it another eight times (and counting).
“You must be proud of her?” people ask. And we are. Not so much because she’s sung and danced her heart out six days a week for the past 12 months, or because her face is on all the posters.
It’s as much because, for more than five years, she’s lived away from the comforts of home, resisted much of the London lifestyle, and remained dedicated to the profession. No matter where she goes from here, it’s already been one heck of a journey.