Norfolk is Miss Saigon star Ashley Gilmour's Dreamland
PUBLISHED: 12:49 14 June 2018
Miss Saigon star Ashley Gilmour - who plays American GI Chris - looks forward to playing every new venue on the musical's mega tour - but Norfolk will be particularly special: it's the place he calls home.
Every night he travels to Vietnam and America on stage, but when Ashley Gilmour plays Chris in Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon on stage at the Theatre Royal in Norwich, it’ll represent the homecoming leg of his musical tour.
One of the world’s most famous musicals, Miss Saigon is set in the dying days of the Vietnam War when 17-year-old Kim (Sooha Kim) falls in love with Chris an American GI. As Saigon falls, the young lovers are separated and Kim spends three heartbreaking years trying to find Chris, who is unaware he is the father of a son.
Based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, the musical is an epic, tear-jerking rollercoaster of a ride where a misunderstanding between two people reflects the misunderstanding between two countries: if you leave the theatre without having wept buckets, you are made of sterner stuff than I.
Every night, Ashley is swept up in emotion that spans love, desperation, fear and aching loss: no wonder he’ll be happy to spend his four weeks in Norfolk in his own bedroom – life on the road in a succession of musicals means that ‘home’ is still at his parents’ house.
Ashley’s parents live in Feltwell near Thetford having moved to the village three years ago. Born just across the border in Cambridgeshire, it’s Norfolk that Ashley calls home and will be where he is based when the musical juggernaut which is Miss Saigon rolls into Norwich on August 15.
“I enjoy being on tour, but there’s nothing like doing a show and then going home for the night,” said Ashley, “I love Norfolk, and I love being back with my parents. Feltwell is a small village but that’s part of the charm of it – everyone says hello to each other. It’s so different to London, where everyone rushes past you.”
A keen amateur photographer, Ashley has recently tried out his new toy – a drone – in Norfolk where he has captured sunset views of the village’s church and where he hopes to find time to take more photographs when he returns: “I love hiking and nature..animals…just being outdoors, really. I love climbing mountains – probably not in Norfolk! – and I think when you take photos you tend to find the different viewpoints which makes you look at everything in a different way,” he said.
“I am really looking forward to spending some time in Norwich itself. When I was a kid, we’d either go shopping in Cambridge or Norwich and I always loved Norwich best. I do like a city with a river in it and it’s not too big and it’s funky.”
Ashley hopes that while he’s on home turf, the audience at the theatre will be swelled with familiar faces: former teachers, old youth theatre friends from Soham and, of course, his family – and there are lots of them. He has three older brothers and three younger brothers: “The chance of getting them altogether at the same time is fairly low – we only just manage Christmas!”
The first time that Ashley performed professionally was in Norfolk when, while he was still at Arts Education drama school in London, he won a role in the King’s Lynn Corn Exchange’s pantomime as Baron Hardup: “It was a nice first taste of the life that I was going into and it was nice to make money from it for the first time! I thought ‘finally! I’m getting paid to do this!”
After college, Ashley joined the ensemble of Miss Saigon and was part of the 25th anniversary cast in 2014 – he didn’t actually see the show until halfway through his run: “I was quite emotional – the story, the rest of the cast but also because I was in such a beautiful show. I used to sit in the wings and watch Alistair Brammer, who played Chris, and think ‘one day…’”
After a year on Saigon, Ashley left for other roles, including playing Link Larkin in a UK tour of Hairspray – when he returned to the Boublil and Schönberg-penned musical it was as Chris, a role which has required a huge amount of preparation, dedication and practice.
“It’s an intense process but Cameron Mackintosh productions are huge – it’s very much a West End show on the road,” he said.
“I think Chris is the kind of character a lot of men can relate to. He spends a lot of time holding his emotions in and not letting them out because for some stupid reason some people think it’s weak to be emotional. Coming from a family of boys, I can understand it. But then he just loses it and that was the hardest part of the role for me to get my head around.”
Currently on stage in Bristol, Miss Saigon moves to Plymouth and then Norwich and Ashley can’t wait to be on familiar turf bringing a show he is passionate about to East Anglian audiences, even if he does admit he’ll probably leave them tear-soaked.
He said: “It’s lovely that at the end of our two-and-a-half hour show we’ve affected the audience enough that they’re crying – we all want happy endings, but sometimes we’re equally happy to be sad, if that makes sense! I think at the heart of it, Miss Saigon carries a great message about true love – and all of us can relate to that.”
* Norwich Theatre Royal Box Office, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk.
Q and A WITH ASHLEY GILMOUR
1) What was the first musical you saw?
AG: I saw Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly – I saw it quite a lot, actually! Kelly was a bit of a hero of mine, he had such amazing style. I loved him. I went to see Billy Elliott in the West End with my Mum when I was about the same age as Billy on stage, about 11 or 12. I thought it was such an amazing show. I turned to my Mum and told her: “I don’t want to be sat in the audience, I want to be on stage.”
2) What’s your favourite treat?
AG: I have to watch what I eat for six days a week, so on Sunday I treat myself. I have got a massive sweet tooth, so it has to be cheesecake. I love cheesecake!
3) Why do you think audiences love Miss Saigon so much?
AG: The themes are ones that we see all the time – love, loss, survival, motherhood, war. And then you have the actual production itself – incredible music, lyrics, an amazing set and lighting, the cast, the beauty of it. This is a Broadway/West End show that’s available to a regional audience.
4) What are your dream roles?
AG: I have thought about this A LOT! I’d love to be Elder Price in The Book of Mormon and of course it’d be amazing to be Don Lockwood in Singin’ in the Rain although I’d need to sharpen up my tap dancing!
5) Have any of your six brothers followed you on to the stage?
AG: When we were young, a few of my younger brothers saw what I was doing and they did a bit of drama because they thought it looked like fun. I’m hoping to be able to have a meal at The Cock Inn in Little Thurlow where one of my younger brothers, Rory, is head chef and landlord. I’m not sure if he’ll have time to get a night off to go to the theatre!
6) Do you ever wish you knew more about the Miss Saigon story?
AG: I do wonder what the whole story of Saigon is – what happens straight after the Americans leave. I think that he would have done everything he possibly could to get to Kim – that’s what I have to believe.
7) Which are your favourite songs in the show?
AG: I love ‘Last Night of the World’. It’s a gorgeous song which builds and builds and builds as I try to tell Kim that we have to live in the moment after our wedding and then reassure her that everything will be fine. Which of course, it isn’t! I also love watching Red Conception (The Engineer) singing American Dream – the man is a legend!
8) Tell us something we don’t know about the show?
AG: For me, Miss Saigon is like therapy. I have to work through so many emotions on stage that it means anything that’s bothering me off-stage is let out there, it’s a place to channel it. It means that I can walk away from it all when I leave the theatre, just put on my normal clothes and become Ashley again. When theatre is as emotional as Miss Saigon, you can’t take it home with you.
10 Facts about MISS SAIGON
1) The Miss Saigon touring company includes 38 adult cast members, from 10 nationalities including British, Filipino, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, Singaporian, Swedish, Dutch and Malaysian and there are more than 100 production and local crew involved in putting the show into a venue.
2)It takes almost a full day to remove the show from a venue and another three days for it to be installed in a new venue with crews working 24-hour days.
3) The American GI’s flak jackets and helmets have all seen active service in Vietnam while the women’s bikinis in the American Dream sequence each have more than a kilo of beads on them. Ashley Gilmour’s flak jacket sports several genuine bullet holes.
4) There are 15 members of the orchestra and instruments vary from Asian flutes to skull drums, ankle bells, singing bowls, Thai chap cymbals and kabuki blocks. There are 77 different percussion instruments alone.
5) The original Broadway production of Miss Saigon opened on April 11, 1991 with what was the largest advance sale in Broadway history ($37 million).
6) Miss Saigon has won over 40 awards including two Olivier Awards, three Tony Awards, and four Drama Desk Awards and been seen by over 35 million people worldwide.
7) It takes 16 different smoke machines and 12 fans to create the atmosphere in the show, six of which come through tiny holes in the show floor to allow haze to appear in the right places.
8) This tour has more lighting elements than the Broadway and London versions of the show.
9) There are more than 600 props used in the show - each has to be accounted for before each performance. A print-out reminds all cast members to ‘LEAVE YOUR GUNS AND DRUGS ONSTAGE’ - Zoe Doano (who plays Ellen), recalls: “I have gone home with a fake bag of cocaine in my pocket! In Dreamland [at the start of the show] I double up as ensemble so I play a barmaid, and I keep the drugs in my bra. I got home, found them and thought ‘Oh dear God, what if I get stopped!?”
10) Kim’s dressing room has words scrawled on the mirror which say ‘I am Beautiful’ in Thai, a phrase the set designer’s mother told her to say to herself every time she looked in the mirror. Every single piece of set and costume from any Cameron Mackintosh production is stored for future productions in the legendary producer’s garden.