From Playgrounds to Pastry Chefs: 20 Years of Friendship and Performing
Introducing Kelly Johnston and Rachel Thomson: These two have been best friends since they were only seven years old, but it’s been over ten years since they were paired together as a double act on stage! We’re just glad that they broke that streak for ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’, and they’re here to tell us all about why...
So, first things first - who are your characters in The Drowsy Chaperone?
Kelly: Well, we’re playing the roles of The Pastry Chefs...
Rachel: Who are really, secretly gangsters in disguise, trying to stop a wedding, so that a leading lady doesn’t quit, so that their boss doesn’t lose money.
Kelly: Oh, and we’re also women, playing the role of women, who are playing the role of men… Did you follow that?
Rachel: Traditionally the roles are played by men, but tradition is boring!
Wow, sounds complicated! What have you most enjoyed about the process so far?
Kelly: Both of us really love working with GMT, and one of the main reasons is that some of our very best friends are part of this company. It’s great having an excuse to see each other all the time, and getting to spend so much time together doing something that we’re all so passionate about.
Rachel: There are quite a few faces back for this show that we haven’t seen in a while, and it’s so nice getting to work with everyone again, as well as meeting some new cast members too who have all been amazing to work with.
Kelly: Oh, and the show is HILARIOUS of course!
What makes this show different from others you’ve done?
Kelly: Apart from the obvious: playing men?
Rachel: Well, I have actually done that before… (In GMT’s A Threepenny Opera, 2012)
Kelly: Oh yeah, of course! Well, I was going to say it’s great to be given an opportunity that is so far from how we’re usually perceived-
Rachel: -Small women who look about 17, even though we’re really in our late 20’s now-
Kelly: -Exactly. Because of that, we’re having to think a lot more about the delivery of our lines, and the way we walk and move. And having to do things perfectly in sync with each other. It’s been challenging, but really fun to work on.
Rachel: Also, the show itself has a very specific feel to it - very 1920s cabaret crossed with slapstick comedy, and that’s been really interesting to dig into and try to recreate.
Kelly: It almost has a sort of panto feel about it, in the way that you get to break the fourth wall and engage with the audience. Not to the point where they’re going to be shouting ‘HE’S BEHIND YOU’, but you certainly feel like they are with you and a part of it!
How long have you both been a part of GMT?
Rachel: Oh wow… it’s been a long time! We both joined almost eight years ago now, in 2010 for West Side Story.
Kelly: Even though we’d auditioned together, we were cast on different sides - Rachel was a Jet and I was a Shark.
Rachel: And I think, between the two of us, we’ve been cast or been on the production team for every single GMT show since then. Which is pretty ridiculous when you think about it.
Kelly: Yeah - we both grew up within this company.
What has changed for you since you joined GMT?
Rachel: We got old REALLY quickly! *sob* I was still studying Medicine when I joined the company, but now I’ve been a doctor for three and a half years, and work in Public Health like an actual grown up. And back when we started, Kelly had just finished studying Musical Theatre and was getting ready to move down to London to continue her professional career... until she bought a dog and turned her focus to Veterinary nursing.
Kelly: Yep, Dexter ruined my stage career! Now I work in a Veterinary practice, and hope to start training within the year to be a nurse. I’d only move to London now to play Elle Woods in Legally blonde… and even then, only if Dexter could play my onstage pooch!
Rachel: I suppose I should say, I also met my partner Erik through the company - he’s one of our Musical Directors, but we actually met performing together in Threepenny. I guess that’s sort of important?...
Kelly: We’ve both also got a little bit fatter. It just goes to show that carbs do get you in the end...
Rachel: I think the only thing that’s actually stayed the same has been our hair colours - always one blonde and one brunette, to fit the most diverse range of parts!
Kelly: To be fair, we have swapped the blonde and brunette roles around a few times, with me having a burst of red for a moment as well at one point, but now we’re back to normal. Every blonde needs a brunette...Right Rachel?
What’s your favourite memory of working together? Or your favourite memory of GMT?
Rachel: I really enjoyed directing Kelly in the first GMT concert (2013). That was my first time as a Director, so it was nice to have someone I knew so well and who was so supportive and easy to work with - I remember it helped make it seem a lot less terrifying.
Kelly: I would say I really appreciate how it’s given us a way to stay in touch with each other. We drifted apart a little after school, but GMT gave us two guaranteed nights a week where we would see each other, even if we were too busy with work and whatever else was going on to do it any other time.
Rachel: In terms of specifics, I think that we can both agree that A Chorus Line (2013) was something very special to us.
Kelly: Absolutely. I not only played a dream role (Diana Morales) but we received a standing ovation every single night… Definitely one of my favourite memories. “That’s Theatre!”
Rachel: On a lighter note, I get great joy from remembering all the occasions of Kelly stealing other cast members costumes and parading down the hallway of Eastwood Park Theatre in them! Well, mainly Andi’s costumes, really... (Denny, playing Robert [The Bridegroom] in The Drowsy Chaperone)
Kelly: Yeah, I do like to swap roles during the week and just go and steal costumes from other peoples dressing rooms - it’s became a bit of a tradition!
Rachel: I now worry if you didn’t do it something would go seriously wrong. It’s like our GMT good luck charm.
Kelly: For me, I’ll never forget the end of West Side story. Rachel was crying as soon as we got offstage from the finale on the last night, because she thought she would never see anyone ever again and she’d had such a great time… Eight years later she’s crying that she never gets rid of us all from her flat and we’re still sleeping on her couch!
Have you ever played roles opposite each other before?
Kelly: We used to always be paired together when we were at school, so we got pretty good at playing off each other. We were the Wicked Witch and Glinda the Good when our school did The Wizard of Oz, to give you one example, and we also seemed to get a duet in every single school concert - our parents must have been sick of it!
Rachel: Interestingly since we joined GMT though we actually haven’t done anything as a pair - we’ve been in the same cast, but never as a double act, despite people always commenting on how close we are off stage. It’s been really nice to work with each other again so closely, rebuilding some of that onstage chemistry. I do like to think we’ve gotten slightly better since school though... and I’m also very glad not to have to wear green face paint for this partnership!
What are you most looking forward to about performing opposite each other again after all these years?
Kelly: Making people laugh? Well, we hope!
Rachel: Oh! Getting to wear comfy clothes.
Kelly: YES. It’s so satisfying knowing that we don’t have to be wearing heels, or dresses, or a pair of tights with stunt pants on top - we might actually be able to breathe normally in this show! Also, not having to spend ages doing our hair and make-up. I have too much hair, and it gets a bit annoying having to style it every show.
Rachel: And after Sweeney Todd (GMT’s last production) I’m just happy to not have to deal with the hair extensions of doom ever again...
Kelly: Yep, those things were not your friend Rachel. Or mine for that matter, trying to get them to look halfway decent in your hair that one night stressed me out so much I remember I actually made you order a new pair for the next night when the photos were getting taken!
Rachel: It’s worrying that these are all so shallow… I’ll try to say something serious! I think the best thing about working opposite each other really is that we’re so comfortable with one another, we can be brutally honest about something we don’t like and know the other person won’t get upset by it. Not that it happens much since we’re mostly both on the same page when it comes to our characters, but there’s a certain level of trust and mutual understanding that comes from knowing one another so well. We’re pretty secure in the knowledge of how much we each respect each other’s abilities, so there’s very little ego about it.
What will you miss the most when the show is over?
Kelly: Again, hopefully making people laugh!
Rachel: Not to go all soppy, but I always miss not seeing everyone all the time once a show is over. During show week you spend so much time with one another you get a bit lost afterwards. You almost begin to miss having five girls crammed against the one mirror spraying three cans of hairspray at once, at least one of which goes directly into your face…
Kelly: I’m going to miss talking in an old Bronx accent, although I do tend to do that a lot randomly... So maybe I will more miss the fact that it doesn’t seem so strange when I do it at the minute!
Rachel: Should I say it? One of us has to, I guess. I’ll miss performing with my best friend…
Kelly: BOKE! That was so cheesy... *laughs* but I guess I have to agree. It’s been so great working with each other again, and we’ve had so much fun. When we finished West Side Story all those years ago, we bought each other charms for our charm bracelets - I got a wee shark, and I got Rachel a jet plane - so maybe we can find a wee mini rolling pin or chef hat charm for this one, to tie it all together.
Rachel: Ok, now THAT is cheesy!
Glasgow Music Theatre’s THE DROWSY CHAPERONE runs from 8th-12th May 2018, at the Brian Cox Studio Theatre @ SYT, Glasgow. Tickets £15, available from http://www.glasgowmusictheatre.co.uk/box-office-information.