[Interview] Vicki Manser talks Beautiful, Six and Sharpe Academy

Words by Constance Drugeot
Picture @ Danny Kaan

Vicki Manser is currently the alternate for Carole King in the U.K. tour of Beautiful: the Carole King Musical. Before that, she was Katherine Howard in Six the Musical (Arts Theatre) and used to alternate all the queens. She trained at the Urdang Academy, graduating with a BA Honours Degree in Professional Dance and Musical Theatre in 2014. She was a swing in Bat Out of Hell (Dominion Theatre), u/s Carole King and Genie Klein in Beautiful the Carole King Musical (Aldwych Theatre), and u/s Rasa, Mrs Davies/Marsha, Peggy, Joyce and Gwen in Sunny Afternoon (Harold Pinter Theatre). Vicki is also Artistic Director for Sharpe Academy of Theatre Arts based in North West London.

First of all, congratulations on Beautiful! How excited are you about revisiting the role of Carole King?
I am so excited, I cannot tell you. I remember when I finished the musical in town I said to my agent, my mom, everyone: ‘I’m not done with that show, I’m just not finished!’ And so, to be able to go back into it, it’s just amazing! It’s one of my dream roles. It was in the West End from 2015 to 2017 and it did a tour straight after it closed in town. But then it had a big gap of about a year… So when I learned it was coming back again, I decided to try it again, on the road this time!

Have you been on a tour before?

Never! I’m literally petrified about that, not gonna lie. I’m slightly nervous about the whole tour aspect because I’m such a home person, and I’ve never been away from home for such a long time. But it’s exciting at the same time! I’ll be able to discover more places, and I know my boyfriend is keen to see all the places as well. And it gives me an excuse to see the rest of the UK that I wouldn’t normally see. There’s a lot of exciting things about it!

You will be alternating Carole, while in the west end you used to understudy her, is it that right?

Yes, I was 2nd cover! When I did my contract in town, I was a female swing for the ensemble track. I played Betty and Marilyn, as well as 2nd cover Carole King, and 1st cover Carole’s mom.

How different is it from alternating a role?

Very! When I did my contract in town as second cover, I got to play Carole only once. Whereas now, I’ll get to go on as Carole every week which is so nice! I was there for almost a year, but I had one only show and that was written into my contract. So if I didn’t have that show, I would have never done Carole. I would have learned the whole part and never done it. I would have been devastated. That show was the best show of my life. I have no words to describe it. It was just so great! When I went on as Carole, I had like 70 or 80 guests in and then there were loads of people that I knew who had been told I was on. I think I ended up knowing around 130 -140 people that night which is crazy! How lucky am I? To have all of these people who came to support me and see me do it. And then come out at stage door to this sea of family and friends. That was just the best day ever.

You are currently playing Katherine Howard on Six but you used to be an alternate. How has the transition from alternate to principal been?

The transition has actually been really interesting. When we were in rehearsal with the new cast, there was a lot more information that suddenly came my way with Howard. I worked together with the writers to find a new version of Howard that I had never played. A version that wasn’t anybody else’s either. So we worked together to create this version of Howard we have now, which is very different from the one that I did with my blue costume. All of the sudden I’m in pink, I’m a lot more girly than I used to ever play her, and it’s just been very nice to actually create it again. It was so lovely with the alternate. We had the opportunity to have our own version which is something that ever hardly happens. You have to be a copy of whoever you’re covering so it’s really nice to actually be able to create our own version. But then finding a second version of her now that I’m playing the role… It’s just been really nice to be able to rediscover things and discover new things.

Do you miss playing all the queens?

Yes and no… I feel like I was very lucky to play all 6 queens. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to play 4 of them quite a lot – Boleyn, Cleves, Howard and Parr – and then getting 4 Seymour shows and a couple of Aragon’s towards the end. I feel so lucky I got to achieve what I wanted to achieve by being an alternate. That was the aim! I really wanted to get on for all 6 and I did! And I absolutely adored playing them all! (whispers) I’m always gonna miss Anne Boleyn a little bit, she is my favourite, but don’t tell anyone! But because I got to do them so much I feel like I’m very much happy with the fact that I’ve done it. Which is very much to the opposite of how I feel with Carole. Of course, I’ m going to miss doing them all, but because I got to do them so much, and since I’m still there especially, I’m okay with not doing them.

I love the pink!

Oh, thank you! The pink is a hit actually! I never wore pink ever in my life before! It’s never been in my wardrobe, my makeup, or anything, and now, I’m a fan!

Now that you’ve been lucky enough to have two costumes, which one is your favourite?

Do you know what? The blue was amazing because I know that, in the world of Six, I was the first person to have that colour, ever. That’s always gonna be so special to me. Our designer Gabby [Gabriella Slad]), is phenomenal and when she created the alternate costumes, she created them based on me, Grace [Mouat], and Courtney [Stapleton]. So to have that costume made with me in mind, it will always be really special! But it’s nice to be in the pink because it brings a new version of the character, and I’ve discovered that I don’t hate pink as much as I thought I did, so that’s a positive!

As an alternate/understudy, what are the challenges of playing so many characters?

It’s the challenges that I love! This is why I love being a cover or a swing or an alternate… I love the fact that you get to play different roles and learn so many different parts! It keeps me on my toes. I love that side of it and even though it’s a challenge, this is why I love it. It’s just so nice being able to play more than one part. Especially with Six, all six of them are incredible and each has an amazing song and a different story to tell. I got to play all six and I think that’s really cool! I’m chuffed with that! And to be up there with Grace [Mouat] and Courtney [Stapleton] who also did all six, and now Collette [Guitart]… It’s just incredible that we got to do that! It’s a big achievement but obviously, it doesn’t come without its difficulties. Every night before going to sleep I used to run the show from the top with all the lines of every single queen, and then I would eventually fall asleep but I just could never switch off from it. I was always constantly going over things because you never know what’s gonna happen. I can wake up one day and think I’m going for Cleves but half an hour before the show it can change. So I never switch off from it. Having one role now, it actually feels quite relaxing. I can come to work and chill (laughs). It’s nice!

How rewarding is it?

Oh, it’s so rewarding! Especially when you go on at the last minute and people aren’t expecting it. It’s all rushed but you go on and the audience will never know that 10 minutes before you had no makeup on and your hair wasn’t done… And you can be proud of that and tell yourself: “Yeah, I did that!” “If I hadn’t jumped in today there wouldn’t have been a show!” So I just want to say: “Well done covers!” They have a tough job! I take my hats off to all covers and swings out there because they’re the backbone of the show! I loved being a cover and a swing all my career and I’m still am going into Beautiful – I will cover Carole but her mom as well. It’s great because I won’t get bored (as if I would get bored, I never get bored). It just changes things up, keeps me on my toes. Yes, big up for covers!

I take my hats off to all covers and swings out there because they’re the backbone of the show!

Six is incredible when it comes to supporting their covers!

Oh yes, the support is unbelievable! I’ve never known anything like it before for covers! They’re very good at putting it out there: it’s on the board and people come to see all the different queens and all the different combinations. It’s as if you’re going to see a different show every time. Everyone has their own version. I think that’s just magical and so great that there are so many different combinations of this show that still haven’t been explored. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think a lot of shows could learn from how Six. They could learn from the way they promote their alternates and their covers.

Do you think it’s changing in the industry?

I really do hope it’s changing because I’m so grateful to them for allowing me to have this platform. I think that ultimately if Six hadn’t treated their alternates and covers the way that they did, then maybe the fanbase wouldn’t have necessarily treated them the way they do as well. You learn from what you’re given so, we have a lot to thank them for! I hope that shows do the same! Because swings and covers are holding the show together: they’re the glue!

Are you enjoying being Katherine Howard all the time now?

I love it! I absolutely love it! I can’t believe how quick it’s going! I’ve only got a month left and that’s not long enough! I’m having a blast! It’s really nice and it’s also great to just be one part for a little bit. Don’t get me wrong I love, love, covering. I love being an alternate, but like I said it’s a nice little breath. I’ve got one thing to think about and I’m really enjoying having one thing to think about! A nice little chill!

What is your favourite thing about playing Katherine Howard?

Hands down it’s got to be the fact that she loses the audience in the full sense of comedy. They’re all laughing with her and she brings them in and everything a big joke, but then, at the end, she’s like “BAM!” It’s the emotional: “this is what happened to me.” The audience literally go from laughing to being like “what the hell have I just laughed at?” You can feel that. There have been occasions where the clap doesn’t come or you’re waiting for it. And I think it’s because the audiences are processing what just happened! “Where did that turn come from? We literally just took a turn to the dark side!” That’s my favourite thing about her! I think that her story is so so important to tell – her story is horrific – and the way that the writers have been able to show it with the comedy aspect… Everyone’s laughing (“what a silly little girl”) until the end where we hit them with all that emotion. I love doing that every day. That’s my favourite thing about Howard!

She’s a smart girl just very unlucky. At the end of the day, unfortunately, she got to where she was by doing what she was taught It wasn’t just her being like “oh well, let’s find another man”. This is how she was taught. People told her to behave like this in order to survive so she keeps on going and it links back with all this abuse purely because she’s doing what she’s been told to do. This is just so sad! This is heartbreaking!

I also do enjoy Howard’s monologue and I’ve particularly enjoyed finding a new version of it.

Your last show is coming quickly… What are you gonna miss the most?

There are a lot of things I’m going to miss. I’m going to miss being in such a badass show. I adore this show so much, I think the writing is so clever. Everything about it is so clever, so forward-thinking and to be a part of that – as Howard but even just as an alternate – I feel so lucky, so privileged. It is so revolutionary! It’s a new way of musical theatre, of fanbasing, of so many things and I’m gonna miss being a part of that. I have new exciting things coming up but yes I will miss being a queen! I’ll also obviously miss the girls! They’re all amazing, they are a joy to work with, to be around on and off stage, they’re all so talented and lovely… I’m gonna miss them! Everyone that works there. I’ll also miss seeing everyone I see when I come out at stage door. I’ve never known anything like what we experience at the Arts Theatre! I can’t get my head around the fact that people want a picture with me or want me to sign their programmes. I’m just like “wow”. I’ll miss everything at stage door… Hopefully, people are going to come to Beautiful! I really hope so, it would be lovely! I’m so nervous about tour and it’ll be really nice to be able to share my tour experience with everyone that followed me on my Six journey!

Everything about it is so clever, so forward-thinking and to be a part of that – as Howard but even just as an alternate – I feel so lucky, so privileged.

I’m sure they will! And you have a lot of fans all around the world now!

Yes, that’s so true! When I do my Q&As on Instagram, I have so many messages about people being in different countries and places! They are people all over the world who have followed me because of Six and that’s very exciting! Six is growing! it’s taking over the world! I think it’s amazing!

What is one thing that you’ve learned from Six?

Oh, that’s a really hard question! I’ve learned quite a lot from Six! I think I’ve learned to – and I’m still trying to learn – trust that what I do is enough. I learned to trust the fact that people enjoy what we do and sometimes little things happen, and even though I’m never gonna be happy with that because I’m such a perfectionist, it’s just getting easier. There are shows where I can’t catch my breath and in my head, I’ll always think: “oh, people are gonna notice”… But no, do you know what, I come out at stage door and everybody is so lovely and they say that it’s the best show they’ve ever seen and all… So it’s just trusting the fact that regardless of how I feel, we’ve done a good job! We always do a good job. It’s always going to be brilliant! You can’t please everyone, that’s inevitable. I just need to start trusting the fact that what I do is good! And it’s a good life lesson for every aspect of your life! I do get very nervous about things that people may not necessarily realize. When I was on for Boleyn sometimes, I did get very nervous and it’s just about taking a minute to go: “hold on a minute, look at what you’ve done, look at what you’ve achieved, they are here to watch you so just chill, you’ve got this!” When I go to auditions, sometimes I get myself so worked up but now I’m like: “no stop! You’ve been a part of that (Six) of something big and everybody is so supportive, so just remember that!

Do you still get nervous about going on stage?

Yeah, I do! I am such a perfectionist! I literally give 100% every single time and if I feel like I’ve given less than that, I’m mad at myself… I get nervous in the sense that I have to be on top of my game. That’s why I beat myself up so I’m learning not to do that. But I do get nervous! I get nervous when I know somebody in the audience or if It’s a part I haven’t done for a long time… But I do think that getting nervous is good! You need it and nerves mean that you care! that’s how I see it if you don’t get it, there’s no willingness to give the best performance! Nerves are really good! You want to do a good job, a good show, it just means that you care! There’s always the usual nerves in a good way! But you need to turn it into positivity and don’t let it overwhelm you. You need the balance spot on! I’ve been to auditions where the nerves have just gotten the better of me and I haven’t been able to catch my breath. I would come out and think: “well that was your own fault!” You never want to come out of situations knowing that you didn’t do your best. People want the best of you so take that pressure away! Just enjoy it and give the best that you can!

What is your best memory of Six?

My funniest memory will always be when the curtain fell down at the beginning of the show. It was hilarious! That’s the best memory for all the wrong reasons to be honest (laughs). But West End Live! Walking out and seeing all these people singing along to the songs and screaming, I literally felt like I was at the O2 and that was just the best moment of my life! It was incredible! I’ve done it before in previous years, with Bat Out Of Hell and felt the same way. I didn’t think it could get to another level and with Six, it somehow did… It was just crazy! I love West End Live! I’m very grateful as well that I got to do it! Because as an alternate I didn’t think I would and that’s what is so great about Six! Getting a chance to do it, to pave the way, and I’m so grateful! I feel very lucky!

We never know, the show is probably going to run for a while, so there’s a chance you might be back?

This is true! Hopefully, there might be an opportunity somewhere to be able to go back to it.

Would you like it?

Like it? Oh god yes, this show is brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! I’d come back in a heartbeat!

I know that you’re also involved with Sharpe Academy. You’re a teacher and the artistic director, what does it consist of?

Sharpe Academy has been running for nearly12 years with part-time schools on the weekends and a theatre company, which is what I was a part of from the age of 16 to 18. We’d put on full-scale shows and I absolutely loved it! When I left the company, Dan (Daniel Sharpe), the lovely principal, asked me to be a choreographer for the company so I ended up choreographing for the Sharpe Academy theatre group. Ever since I know Dan, since I was 16, he said he would love to open a college and teach at a professional level because a lot of the teachers from Sharpe have worked and gone on to train professionally… So he was like, “you know, if we had a college, we wouldn’t have to send them anywhere else, so let’s do it.” After 10 years, the plan finally came into actions! We opened in September, and he asked me to be the Artistic Director for the college. Sharpe Academy has now a college where you get 3 Year Diploma in Professional Musical Theatre & Acting. We have an agency as well so you can be represented in our books. Our first years are such a lovely group of people and they basically work from Monday to Friday, from 8:30am until 6;30pm, sometimes 7pm doing literally every aspect of dance, singing, drama, acting, gymnastics…It is a really good training! It’s absolutely fantastic! And it makes me so excited! I love seeing people learning and improving…We had our first years since September and I went to watch one of their acrobatic classes the other day and some of them are flipping! I was just like “oh wow! They couldn’t do that before they came to us!” Seeing the progression in such a short amount of time, it makes me so incredibly excited to see where they’re gonna be after 3 years! Helping them on their journeys, it’s just so great! I feel very lucky to do that!

What do you love about being a teacher?

Just being able to share my knowledge and guide people because, ultimately, you can’t tell people what to do or how to do it. You can guide them and it’s up to that person as an individual to take that information and grow on this journey. So just be alongside them on their journey, it’s really nice. Being with people every step of the way and sharing my knowledge, even though I don’t have all the answers, I can at least tell my experience and hopefully help out in that way! But I also love creating! I’m a very creative person. I always loved choreographing! One of my favourite things is to see how choreography come together. When I hear a piece of music, I can see what I want this piece to look like. There’s a vision but it’s not clear and being about to get that out of my head and bringing it to life, it’s such an exciting process. Sometimes, it might take a while but when I get there at the end, I’m like “yes that’s what I saw, that’s the vision I saw in my head!” I love that!

How do you manage your time between that and show?

That’s a good question (laughs)! I have no time! I try to give myself one day off. My day off from Six is also my day off from Sharpe and everything else. I teach every day, sometimes for half a day, and then the other times I do stuff from home: either social media or contacting people to teach workshops. There’s a lot of things that need to get done which I can do when I want to do it which is nice. But I find it very hard to switch off. So I’m constantly doing things. If I’m not doing something, I feel like I should be doing something! I’m terrible, I’m a workaholic! I’m strict with myself to try to not work for a day, just chill!

I know you have a YouTube channel and you record covers of songs. Would you ever make an album?

Oh, I’d love to! I have no idea how to make that happens so if anybody knows, hit me up! I’d absolutely love to! I’d love to record an album with my sister. She’s insane! What I’m going to do is I’m going to take my guitar with me on tour and try to get some covers done. I’m not at home so I have no cleaning to do, no teaching to do so once everything is done, it’s cover time! Let’s do it! One song for each place, that might be pushing it but I’ll try! It’d give me something to focus on.

What made you first fall in love with theatre?

I danced from a really young age! My mom used to take me every day after school to some activities: tap, jazz-modern, theatre group, literally everything! I always loved dancing. Dancing was my passion, my love! But I broke my leg twice, in the same place, and the second time it fell when we were doing our dance show. So, obviously, I couldn’t dance and my dance teacher said: “why don’t you sing a song instead?” I did and I loved it so she gave me an acting part and it just opened all these doors that I wasn’t really concentrated on! My broken leg is the reason – well actually, my amazing dance teacher who I love dearly – why I got into theatre! She gave me the opportunity and from then I discovered that I love it all! Let’s do it all! I love musical theatre, I always did so this is great! I didn’t really enjoy school very much but I loved dancing, drama, music, my guitar lessons and that was it! So I just went on to do that and got to where I am now!

Carole King is one of your dream roles. But do you have others?

Oh gosh, there’s a lot I would love to do! When I was training, I always loved Fame and Carmen’s song is one of my all-time favourites! I love it! Obviously, I don’t kook Spanish, which might be a problem, but Carmen in Fame is definitely one! Elphaba obviously, it would be brilliant! Elsa, she’s my girl! She’s great and she’s a queen! Keep the theme! Oh, there’s loads!

Maybe something new?

Yes obviously! You never know what’s around the corner!

What’s your favourite musical of all time?

Sunny Afternoon! It was brilliant! I don’t even think I’m biased, it was just such a brilliant musical! I remember watching it during rehearsals, and I loved it! It was like a gig, you felt like you were at a concert! Everything was brilliant and everyone who came to see it loved it! It’s my favourite show, hands down!

Who’s the biggest inspiration in your life?

My parents are a massive inspiration to me! They worked so hard and did everything for me, I love them! I know I talk about her all the time but my sister. Every time she opens her mouth, my jaw drops to the floor and I just think “You are just insane!” She inspires me all the time! My family is my biggest inspiration, always. I love them!

Do you have any advice for aspiring performers?

My advice would be that it’s a hard industry, very rewarding but very hard so you’ve got to want it with every single bit of your being! You need to be prepared for it. If you do, get ready for a bumpy ride because it’s not easy, but if you want it enough and you work hard, and you put everything into it, you will get there. No matter how long it takes, whether it takes a year, six months or five years, if you want it, you’ll get there. You need to keep on going and never ever give up! If you give up it doesn’t happen. So just never give up! And be yourself. Because, at the end of the day, no one can be you and you have something to offer. Just trust in that fact. If you go to an audition and hear someone singing before you and think “they’re so good, what am I even doing here?” No, don’t do that! You have something to offer that this person doesn’t have and vice versa. So go in there and be yourself and enjoy it! Believe in you! You have to believe in yourself!

No matter how long it takes, whether it takes a year, six months or five years, if you want it, you’ll get there.

Learn from your mistakes and know what to take from it. Everything is a step in stone and use it to take another step and another step. It’s a step towards your goal. Having that determination to get to the top of that ladder! With stamina and passion, you’ll get there!

Do you have any last words to conclude?

Follow me on my journey! I would really love it if people continue their amazing support on my new adventures!

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