I was actually half way through my interview with Niamh Perry before I suddenly realised that I was talking to a girl who had yet to reach her 20th birthday. Echoes of my mother reminding me that “they do grow up quickly these days” wafted fleetingly through my thoughts but in truth her maturity was quite staggering.
Having first come to light as a young 17 year old on the talent seeking show “I'll Do Anything”, which saw Andrew Lloyd Webber looking for the two young leads in his planned production of Oliver, Niamh proved to be one of the youngest contestants and managed to make it down to the last 5 before losing out in what was a very competitive field.
“I look back on it now and I know it helped further my career. There's no question about it. The TV exposure, the chance to show millions of people as well as a panel of judges and Andrew himself what I could do was a once in a life time experience. However it is also very hard work and I had to move to London for almost 5 months whilst the show was running.
“It meant missing out on school (which was kind of ironic since my parents are both head principals!) and really immersing myself in the project. I am still friends with many of my fellow competitors on the series and it proved excellent preparation for what I am doing now”.
Originating from Bangor , Niamh claims that she always had a desire to perform, although she also admits to being a shy child growing up.
“My family are all academics. My sister recently attained her degree in law with French and my parents both work in education so my career path was a little bit different to everyone else's. Not that they haven't all been supportive. Mum and dad have been behind me every step of the way and they were here on opening night. It means a lot to have them backing me up”.
A point that hadn't been missed by me since one area of her dressing room was covered with pictures of her parents and older sister.
“I was just moving into my teens when I really got serious about musical theatre. In fact I first saw a production of Mamma Mia in Dublin when I was 12 years old and absolutely loved the show. Even though I am part of a generation that missed the whole Abba phenomenon, the music was so inspired and original that thanks to the show and recent film, people who weren't even born when the band were in their prime are now singing along to some of their greatest hits. I suppose, just like The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, some music remains timeless.”
Of course being in the West End is every actor and actress's dream but the demands of a 6 day week with 8 shows means that you really have to be dedicated to your art and want to succeed in it to be able to endure what can often be quite punishing schedules.
“I love this career and feel privileged to have been given the chance to prove myself. There are so many talented people out there who only fail to succeed because they lack a little luck. I don't take any of it for granted and that was why I decided to complete my A Levels after “I'll Do Anything” just to ensure that I had something else to fall back on if things didn't go my way”.
Commissioned to play the role of Sophie Sheridan until the 12th December, Niamh explained to me that the part literally dropped into her lap by accident after another part she had been scheduled to star in fell through at the last minute.
“This business is so unpredictable you just never know what is going to happen next. I was asked to come in for an audition for Mamma Mia on a Tuesday and offered the role the following Friday.”
Having revisited the show myself with the new cast now fully settled in I can honestly say that it is as enjoyable as ever. Energetic, engaging and hugely entertaining, you would be hard pressed to find a better production currently running in the West End this year.
And whilst I found myself singing some of Abba's old classics in the shower that following morning, Niamh assures me that she does not suffer the same guilty pleasure.
“Believe it or not, perhaps because I do perform these songs every day, I never find myself listening or singing them outside of the show. I think that I have conditioned myself to blocking it out. When I am in the theatre I'm Sophie Sheridan but outside of these historic walls, I'm just Niamh who listens to Snow Patrol and likes to sit down for a quiet meal and a nice glass of wine.”
Not your average teenager I thought to myself as we wrapped up the interview but then to take on the lead in one of London 's leading musicals (and prove to be so natural and successful at it) isn't something anyone average was ever likely to be able to achieve.
Mamma Mia is playing at The Prince of Wales Theatre and more details on times, tickets and general information can be found at www.mamma-mia.com
George R Vaughan