This week the newest sensation to hit London's musical theatre scene, Laura Jane Matthewson was crowned champion of the Talent 2014 competition by Michael Ball. After winning all her heats Laura was thrilled to receive some top notch goodies plus a thousand pounds too. Not a bad haul - but for this young actress, the true spoils of her entering Talent 2014 had been gained some months ago, when heat-judge Danielle Tarento laid eyes on her for the first time and signed her up as leading lady for her London premier production of the off Broadway hit Dogfight.
Dogfight was always going to be a "marmite" musical. Tackling a troubling subject: the mysogynist, sexist and abusive antics of a group of US marines pre their Vietnam deployment, a small handful of critics hated it. But they were just a few. The morning after press night the reaction to the show was "rave" - and in the first time that I can recall for a fringe production, Matthewson was repeatedly singled out for buckets of praise. Libby Purves formerly of The Times and now perhaps the most respected independent critic on the circuit devoted half of her review to Mathewson whilst other notable pundits such as Baz Bamigboye of the Mail and The Stage's Mark Shenton also waxed lyrical. As the ripples of amazement crossed the Atlantic, even The New York Times added their penn'orth in praise of Laura.
So - as Matthewson was only last week preparing for her competition final and as Sunderland FC had just been thrashed 8-0 by Southampton, (though albeit a proud Wearsider, she did confess, in a shrimp-like state of embarrassment, a total ignorance of that humiliating score-line, explaining that "football's not her thing") I grabbed the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
The reviews of Dogfight predominantly described you as a newly-graduated (from the Royal Academy of Music) arrival on the professional scene. Was that an accurate description?
Actually it's a bit far from the truth! Whilst I was certainly new to the London stage, for the last five years (in fact ever since winning The Panto Factor) I have had regular professional roles. My first part was in a Sevenoaks pantomime, opposite former EastEnders star Leslie Grantham (who was an absolute delight to work with) and since then I have done panto every year along with numerous TIE gigs and other out of town productions.
"Dog" is a vile description of a woman. At the core of Dogfight is how a group of young men get their kicks out of debasing women and labelling them as ugly. Putting the show's politics aside, how humanly challenging was it for you to play such a role?
It's never written anywhere that Rose (my character) or that any of the women in the show are ugly. Within the parameters of 1960's America they are required to to be perceived as unconventionally attractive. For Rose, the breakdown said that the role needed somebody a bit overweight and as I have never been a stick-thin leading lady anyway, that's fine. She is somebody "quite plain and reserved but with heart", a phrase that I loved.
Rose almost has a light from within. The more that you get to know and like her, the more that she becomes attractive, which is sort of what happens with everybody in real life. You know when you meet somebody that looks beautiful and then they turn out to be a horrible person and immediately become less attractive? I don't think that the Rose is an ugly girl, she is just not "stick-thin Miss America" and neither am I.
The show stirred up a hornets nest of reactions amongst some critics. Tell me about that.
I completely agree with one of the cast members, Ciaran Joyce who played a marine, one of the marines who said he didn't understand why people were coming to see the show and complaining about the misogyny, suggesting it was like going to see Les Mis and then complaining that it's set in France.
I feel that Rose comes out as triumphant. The show doesn't condone the dogfights - it simply acknowledges that they exist amongst some of the armed forces, and continue today. A serving US serviceman saw Dogfight and commented on its authenticity.
What was it like to read the reviews of Dogfight and find some of the harshest critics in the land raving about your performance.
Before the show I didn't really care that much what people were going to say. I was already in love with the entire project and what Matt Ryan (the director of Dogfight) was doing with the show and I think that even if the reviews had been less favorable, it would have just gone over my head.
To have that praise though was like the cherry on the cake. I was feeling like I'd won the lottery and I'd think that this is just hilarious that they think I'm this good! I would never be naïve enough, because of the five years that I have spent leading up to this, to think "This is going to last forever" or "This is my big break. I have made it now" or "This is", because above all, I know that these moments come but that they can also disappear overnight. When the New York Times mentioned me in an article I thought"This is perfect. Thank you!", but really, as the notices came in I was like, "That's so lovely... I'll share that on my Facebook... My Dad will be dead proud."
And what for the future?
Dogfight has really opened doors for me and in addition to musical theatre parts I am now being considered for film and television work.
This sounds cheesy, and so often what I say sounds like a cliché, but I was thinking this the other day, about the appreciation I have for this job. I was remembering some of the TIE I did, in particular a show about the history of Olympia. We were going around schools, doing three shows a day and setting up the set ourselves and taking it back down. There was one day, when I was with a cast of four people, where we all had to get changed in a Maths cupboard behind the stage. The central heating was on full blast and we were sweating and disgusting, and I was having the biggest laugh ever and I was like, "Guys, how lucky are we that we are being paid to do something that we love? This is just amazing."
I just think that just sums it up. If you can be happy doing that, then everything else is a bonus. Those reviews were like winning the lottery.