ROSEMARY NEILL meets TAMSIN CARROLL Actor, Dusty diva
HE whore, the hussy, the nun and the bisexual pop diva. If nothing else, the trajectory of Tamsin Carroll’s career has confirmed her extraordinary versatility. Says the theatre performer with a cool poise that soon thaws into warm humour: ‘‘ I don’t ever want to be typecast.’’
There is little danger of that. In 2003, Carroll scored Helpmann, Mo and Green Room awards for her portrayal of the tragic yet good- hearted prostitute Nancy in the musical Oliver!. She has also played Rizzo, the token 1950s- style slut in Grease , and Isabella, the insistently chaste nun from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.
Now 28, Carroll is probably best known for her panda- eyed, beehived turn last year as Dusty Springfield in the home- grown jukebox musical Dusty: The Original Pop Diva . Flashing a winning smile, the Sydney- based actor says: ‘‘ It’s always a challenge when you’re playing someone who existed. The fans want you to get it right and if you don’t you’ll be lynched.’’
It seems Carroll, a self- taught singer and actor, didn’t set a platform shoe wrong as Dusty. The critics weren’t keen on the musical’s book or cliched campness ( one scene depicted Springfield in a lesbian orgy). But there was unanimous praise for Carroll, who won another Helpmann for a performance that tracked Springfield’s tumultuous career from her teens to her 50s.
For every performance, Carroll endured 33 costume and 14 wig changes.
‘‘ It was just pandemonium backstage,’’ she laughs, adding that the chaos — involving separate costume and wig dressers and lots of Velcro — was well choreographed.
Carroll will soon slip into an entirely different musical register when she takes on a key role in a revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical Company.
In this production, which opens in Sydney in July, she will play a hip Manhattanite with a commitment- shy boyfriend. ( The show will be directed by Gale Edwards, who has directed musicals throughout Australia and on the West End and Broadway.)
Carroll’s character, Marta, is one of three girlfriends being strung along by the charming
Tanti- hero Bobby ( it explains a lot that Company was first staged in 1970). Carroll agrees Marta is a casualty of Bobby’s relationship phobia, ‘‘ but she wouldn’t let him know that. She’s out there. She’s a bit of a free spirit and a bit wacky. She’s quite expressive and taking New York to its fullest limits.’’
Company, which won six Tony awards in its first Broadway outing, has been described as one of the first concept musicals: the love affairs it portrays are revealed through non- linear vignettes. By turns irreverent and melancholy, this meditation on the nature of commitment, love and marriage eschews the up- beat ending that characterises more conventional musicals. Reviewing a Broadway revival last December, New Yorker critic John Lahr concluded that Company was ‘‘ full of lucid doubt’’ and ‘‘ opened up a whole Pandora’s box of ambivalence’’.
Over a coffee — Carroll forgoes hers because she already has reached her daily caffeine quota — the actor says the musical looks at the ‘‘ beautiful and the good and the bad in relationships. Even if someone is boring you to tears, there is still that beauty in needing to care and be cared for, and having that permanence in our lives.’’
Company is one of the first Sondheim works in which the lyrics comment on the characters rather than simply advancing the story. Carroll says this makes the songs ‘‘ great acting pieces for singers and, technically, some of the harder stuff you’ll come across’’.
Company is being staged by Peter Cousens’s Kookaburra company, dedicated to reviving the local musicals scene, which was flagging until recently. Asked if she has weathered lean times in the theatre business, Carroll replies: ‘‘ Oh absolutely! In the year before Dusty , I was in a black hole a bit. Waitressing and ushering.’’ The ‘‘ scary times’’ were those when months would slide by without a single audition.
However, she takes heart that Dusty toured nationally to packed houses. With sudden ferocity, Carroll says this ‘‘ massive box- office success’’ makes liars of those who insist ‘‘ there is not much of a place for the arts in our culture any more. That is absolute bollocks. People would come to see it six, seven times.’’
She believes the denuded theatre industry is starting to throw out new shoots as writers, directors and actors increasingly produce their own work. ‘‘ I don’t think you can silence the theatre industry, no matter how much governments try through lack of funding,’’ she says.
With her fighting spirit and talent, it’s unsurprising to learn she is the daughter of veteran actor Peter Carroll. She gave her first professional stage performance at seven in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
‘‘ I sort of grew up in the dressing- room, watching,’’ she says. However, her parents were wary of turning her into a child actor. ‘‘ I sensed it was what I wanted to do as an adult, so there was no rush.’’
Asked to name her favourite actor, she wonders aloud whether it’s too cheesy to nominate her dad. ‘‘ I’ll get a bottle of wine out of this,’’ she jokes.
While she feels lucky to have landed big roles in a string of musicals, she says earnestly that ‘‘ I consider myself an actor first’’. She says playing Isabella for the Bell Shakespeare Company in 2005 was her career highlight: ‘‘ It was a case of having a dream to do something and ending up doing it.’’
Although she didn’t train formally as a singer or actor, she admits that belting out a parade of ’ 60s hits in Dusty for 10 months taught her that singing ‘‘ is the kind of skill that needs [ professional] maintenance’’.
Late last year she went overseas to travel and try her luck in London before she turns 30 and is unable to work under British visa rules. She quickly realised the quality of life in the British capital can be grim unless you have buckets of money. Far from home, ‘‘ I saw the great things about Australia, as you sometimes do when you are travelling’’.
She confesses, a little sheepishly, that she returned sooner than she had intended. Still, despite the scarcity of domestic theatre roles, she soon found herself at home, back in the rehearsal room. Company opens at Sydney’s Theatre Royal on July 5.