Arriving at The Theatre Café, on St Martin’s Lane, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Tonight was billed as the launch of the venue’s new cabaret season, fronted by Natalie McQueen – so good, recently, as Doralee Rhodes in ‘9 to 5’.
McQueen seemed uncertain what to expect, too, as she sweetly urged the packed room to “Please forgive my nerves – and the iPad! It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this”. She was accompanied throughout the evening by Andrew Hilton, on “the campest piano I’ve ever seen!”
For those of you who aren’t fans of musical theatre, Natalie McQueen is 30 years old and has starred in West End productions including ‘Kinky Boots’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘Murder Ballad’, having made her professional theatre debut aged eight, playing Young Eponine in ‘Les Mis’. Having previously studied at CPA School and CPA Studios, alongside Jessie J, Anne Marie and Rochelle Humes, in 2017 she was voted one of ‘What’s on Stage’s 10 Theatre Faces to Look Out For’.
The first song McQueen sang tonight was Queen’s ‘Somebody to Love’, which perfectly showcased her vocal range. She followed that with one of her personal favourites, ‘So Much Better’, from ‘Legally Blonde’, telling us: “I sang this song at college and believed every word, just like every girl back in 2007”.
From there, it was an eclectic blend of pop, rock and show tunes. I particularly enjoyed Natalie’s acoustic version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’: a surprising song choice for this theatrical setting, but one which worked.
She’s such a West End natural that I was surprised to hear that theatre wasn’t McQueen’s first choice of career. “After I left college, I was in a band, having decided that theatre wasn’t for me – then, I went off the rails a bit and there was a rumour going around college that I’d gone to Australia and died! In fact, I was doing a tour of the UK – and not using social media”.
Unsurprisingly, McQueen found herself unable to stay away from theatre for long: “I’ve always had a tradition with my dad that, on my birthday, we go to a show. So, we went to see ‘Wicked’ – and I sobbed uncontrollably throughout it. The very next day, I called the only person I knew who could help me: Michelle Blair, who’d mentored me during my college days, and asked her if she thought I could do this again”.
“We met in, of all places, Romford Starbucks, were Michelle told me that she wanted to start her own agency, and that she would sign me up. At this point, I didn’t even have a headshot! So I tried out for a few things, and then heard ‘Mamma Mia’ was auditioning. Michelle called a friend, who just so happened to be the show’s Musical Director – and told him she had a client who needed a singing lesson!”
The rest, as they say, is history…actually: not really. McQueen didn’t get the part: “I’m still waiting for that call!” Her first “proper” job (after lots of regional/fringe productions) was in ‘Wicked’, where she stayed for three years, eventually taking on the iconic role of Elphaba.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to see McQueen perform in ‘Wicked’ – but I did see her in ‘9 to 5’, just a few months ago, and thought her brilliant. And yet, Natalie confessed tonight, when she was asked to audition for the role she “couldn’t understand why”. Nonetheless, she enjoyed the audition, to the point of “being irritated” when, directly afterwards, she saw a girl busking at her local train station singing ‘Jolene’.
“And then, I thought: maybe it’s a sign”. It certainly was: McQueen got the part and has rightly been lauded by the critics. Tonight, she treated us to a beautiful rendition of ‘Backwoods Barbie’, telling us “I get to sing this every night, and I love it – and I once got to sing it in front of Dolly Parton herself”.
Ms Parton, a long-time heroine of mine, sounds a delight, having taken the trouble to write each of the West End production’s stars a personal letter before the show’s opening night.
Back to pop music and: “Me and my friend Jen used to live together and on the day I was moving out we had a massive row: I sat in the kitchen sobbing, listening to this song on repeat”. The song was ‘Landslide’, and McQueen performed a lovely version, reassuring a worried audience “Jen and I are all good now”.
We were coming to the end of the evening, but McQueen had one more reminiscence she wanted to share. “Ths is one of my favourite pop songs from the early 2000s: I remember being young, and obsessed with this song. I was going through a really bad break up and took myself to Fuerteventura to get over it.”
“I came home, thinking I was over him, got to Elephant & Castle – and burned my diary whilst listening to this song”. Cue Lucie Silvas’s ‘What You’re Made Of’.
Rounding off the evening with ‘The History of Wrong Guys’, from ‘Kinky Boots’, Natalie told us “If I didn’t sing this, some people might be angry with me. Lauren was mine, my part – and I got to perform it eight times a week. Until then, I’d never even dared to dream about it”.
I thoroughly enjoyed this event, and warmed even more towards Natalie McQueen, who will continue to dazzle the West End for decades. The only thing I would have liked more of was the backstage anecdotes of the kind that Marti Webb shared, which brought to life what working in a West End production is really like. Otherwise, full marks to both Natalie McQueen and The Theatre Café, for hosting such a captivating evening.