I am obsessed with the film Elf. Every year, without fail, I snuggle under a blanket with a glass of mulled wine and pop it on my telly box. I’m a Christmas nut and, for me, it officially marks the start of the festive season. To Housemate’s dismay, I’ll watch it several more times throughout December as I wrap Christmas presents.
But this year I get to commence my Elf mania a little earlier than usual as I head to Hamleys at Manchester’s intu Trafford Centre for the launch of Elf: The Musical, which begins its seven-week run at Salford’s Lowry theatre in November.
Based on the 2003 New Line Cinema hit starring funny man Will Ferrell, Elf tells the tale of Buddy, a young orphan child who crawls into Santa’s bag and heads to the North Pole. Of course, as he gets older – and taller – Buddy realises that he’s not like all the other elves and, with Santa’s permission, journeys to New York to find his birth father, discover who he really is and help the busy people of the city remember the true meaning of Christmas.
So, what could be better than beginning Christmas early? How about getting to chat to the cast of the show about all things yuletide in a ridiculously festive room festooned with decorations and beautiful Christmas trees? All I need now is a slice of Christmas pud and I’m in heaven.
Ben Forster – Buddy the Elf
Ben Forster is no stranger to the stage. After winning the 2012 TV show Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for new talent to play the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar, Forster went on to achieve remarkable success in a host of West End shows.
The first actor to take on Buddy the Elf outside of the US, Forster reprises the role which he originated in the UK premiere in 2014 in Plymouth, and continued to perform throughout the record-breaking Christmas run in London’s West End in 2015.
So, what was his initial impression of the role? “What I really first thought was that I’m going to be standing there singing something like Let It Go from Frozen,” he reveals. “But then I was sent the script, and the music, and I realised that it was an incredible show. The score is unbelievable. It’s a 16-piece orchestra in the theatre.”
Was he anxious about taking on such a well-loved character? “For some reason, I was like ‘oh my god, I’ve got to try and give a version of what everyone loves about Will Ferrell’, and the pressure to make 2,000 people laugh, and to deliver all those one-liners that are so famous, that everyone’s already laughed at 100 times, to try and make everyone laugh is quite a difficult thing.
“But as soon as we got in front of the audience I knew that it was going to be fine. It’s a brilliant show and people love it. [Initially] it did fill me with dread, and now that pressure to perform and be funny is one of the things that I like about the show.”
“None,” replies Forster. “It’s really important for me not to be doing an impression of Will Ferrell. If you’re watching the show and thinking, ‘he’s doing a good impression’ then it’s not as fun or heart-warming.”
As for the narrative of the musical, it bears a strong resemblance to the film. Forster explains: “It’s spot-on apart from Papa Elf from the movie is Santa Claus in the show. There’s a few tiny differences, but the story is the same – the moral, the message – it’s all there, and it will still make you laugh, and it will still make you cry at the end because you’ll feel Christmas spirit and it reminds you what Christmas is about.
“For most people, Christmas is about being with your family and travelling wherever it might be. People travel back home to have that one special night with people they love to give them a present, to feel love, to give love, and that’s what the musical is about.”
Originally from the North East, I expect that Forster is looking forward to spending time close to home. “The last time I was in Manchester was when I did Jesus Christ Superstar at the Manchester Arena. I love Manchester. I’m from the North and it is different [up here]. Southerners are different. I’m excited to be surrounded by my folk at Christmas.”
Liz McClarnon – Jovie
Well-known for being one third of British girl group, Atomic Kitten, Liz McClarnon has also starred in an array of theatre productions including Legally Blonde, War of the Worlds and, most recently, the musical SHOUT.
“I was always obsessed with musical theatre,” McClarnon tells me. “And then I fell into a band and my main thing became songwriting. But whenever a new show came out in London, I’d ask my agent if they’d put me up for roles. For me, musical theatre is easier to sing than anything else, apart from country music, of course.” McClarnon is set to release a country album. “It’s a particular style that never changes.”
It’s McClarnon’s first show as Jovie and she couldn’t be happier to have landed the part. “I am obsessed with Christmas. So, to be close to home for Christmas and doing this amazing production is the best thing that could happen. I didn’t get to see [the show in London], so when I got sent the script, I got the song through and the one that they wanted me to sing was just perfect for me and you know when something just clicks and you think, ‘I want this, I really want this’. I went feeling excited. So, I’ve been told little bits but I’m just waiting for rehearsals in mid-October.”
She adds: “I’ve got my script marked and ready. But I haven’t gone through it. I don’t want to ruin my own surprise.”
We’ve been promised many wonderful moments in the show. Has McClarnon seen any of them yet? “There is one particular moment at the end where you think, ‘how much have you spent on that?’ and it’s just so Christmassy. You’re overwhelmed by Christmas when you come out. It’s just so lovely without being panto. It’s musical theatre and professional with belting songs.”
McClaron acknowledges that this musical will be a change for her. “This will be quite different as most characters I’ve played before are quite similar to me. They’re a bit excitable, a bit overly happy, possibly a little annoying, but always comedy characters. I love a comedy character. I get a little jealous sometimes when someone’s got a really good joke. Jovey is comedy, but she’s a different kind of comedy, she’s more grown-up, more serious, had a harder life than most characters I’ve done before.”
Is she nervous about following in the footsteps of her predecessors like Kimberley Walsh? “You have to do your own thing,” she says. “I wouldn’t have got the part if I hadn’t have made it my own.”
After the interviews, we’re treated to some fun workshops by the Hamleys’ staff – making Christmas decorations and marvelling at fake snow – before Forster (in full elf costume) belts out a rendition of World’s Greatest Dad, one of Buddy’s songs from the hit-show, and it’s brilliant. Then comes the Q&A session where producer, Michael Rose, reveals why he decided to bring Elf from Broadway to Manchester.
“I went to see it in America,” says Rose, a theatre producer who specialises in Broadway, West End, national, and international touring productions. “And we decided we wanted to start from scratch with a British team. So, we’ve got a whole team of British directors and designers and choreographers. This is really directly from London’s West End to Salford Quays which is really exciting because it’s great to bring it to the North West.”
“The set is quite complicated. It’s done by an Olivier award-winning designer, Timothy Goodchild, and he’s done a fantastic job. The show starts in the North Pole. And then we’re transported down to New York City, and it’s just the way it all segways from scene-to-scene, and gives a great sense of energy throughout the show. The score is just brilliant, and the humour uplifts you. You cannot help but leave the theatre on a cloud of happiness. It’s a joy to produce. I think that we’ve got the best company ever here and I think that it’s going to be a very exciting time.”
“Have you seen it?” McClarnon says, also decked out in Jovie’s elf costume. “It’s a beautiful theatre and I’ve been there several times. It’s gorgeous.”
Rose adds: “Not only is it a large theatre so you have a great sense of party when you have full houses, but it also has a fantastic relationship between the stage and the audience, so no matter where you sit in the auditorium, there’s a great sense of intimacy which for storytelling is really important.”
“I think what’s exciting is that in today’s world Buddy’s got a really good message for us all. Especially here, in Greater Manchester, because I think he encapsulates what Christmas is all about, but also brings out the best in humanity. And if ever there was a time to have that message going out into the world, I think this is it.”
(Main image: Liz McClarnon and Ben Forster by Nathan Cox)
Elf the Musical is at The Lowry in Salford from November 24, 2017 until January 14, 2018. For more information, click here.