We have much to thank High School Musical for. Zac Efron’s career. The rise of kids bursting into song in canteens. And the decision Gloria Obianyo made to have a crack at performing.
If Obianyo, who’s appearing in The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui, hadn’t seen the hit teen film, she might now be an engineer or a lawyer. That might have been better for her family’s nerves, but we’d have missed out on a star in the making.
“I play sports. I sing. I dance… What’s this?” is how the young star reacted to the 2006 Disney film. Like so many teenagers at the time, she saw herself reflected in the cast and she was hooked.
When a local stage school held auditions for their own production, Obianyo had to try. Unlike with the movie, she didn’t see herself reflected in the others auditioning: “Everyone else was in leggings and split-sole jazz shoes. I was in baggy Umbro trousers, a knitted jumper and chunky trainers. I felt so out of place.”
Fast forward a decade and Obianyo has proved that despite not being the classic stage-school kid, she was in entirely the right place. She made her professional debut last summer in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. That production went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. She followed up with performances in acclaimed musicals The Grinning Man and The Wild Party.
Now Obianyo is at the Donmar Warehouse. She’s taken a break from musical theatre and is starring in The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui – another brilliantly reviewed piece – in a company led by Lenny Henry. “He’s so quick,” she says of the comedian-turned-actor who plays the title role in the Bertolt Brecht play.
The piece, which has been adapted by award-winning playwright Bruce Norris, is the tale of a power grab made by a Chicago gangster. It’s full of everything you might expect from a post-The Godfather play about hoodlums, but it’s also deeply political and closely based on Hitler’s rise to power. With far-right politics on the ascent again, the revival couldn’t be more timely.
That balance between entertainment and provocation is one Obianyo believes is hugely important. “Every now and then you need a healthy dose of being woke… Then you need a dose of seeing cats stuck in a jar. I’ll listen to Rihanna and have fun in a club, but I’m also going to listen to Kendrick Lamar talk about what it means to be black in America.”
The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui does both in one play. The Donmar Warehouse is unrecognisable for this production. Its insides have been stripped out. Where once there was an intimate auditorium, now there’s a Chicago speakeasy. Wooden chairs and the odd cocktail table have replaced the standard seating. Characters roam the building before the performance, chatting to the audience. “The space,” Obianyo says, “is a character in itself, and the audience don’t get to be innocent.”
She admits that interacting with audiences like this makes her nervous. It wasn’t something she was used to. In fact, if you speak to Obianyo for long enough, you notice a pattern of her not quite believing she’s up to it. Make no mistake, she is. It’s no coincidence that she’s been gainfully employed since leaving drama school or that the shows she’s starred in have been universally well received.
“Mostly I feel lucky,” she says. “But I was talking to someone else about this and they said, ‘You’re not lucky, you’re talented.’ I gave a typically British response.”
There’s something hugely endearing about a young star not believing the hype. If you buy into it, you start down a slippery slope. But at some point, if this trajectory continues, Obianyo will have to accept how good she is.
For the moment she can be a recent graduate living the dream. She is still star-struck – “I literally vomited words all over Michaela Coel at the Oliviers” – and she still struggles to get tickets to the shows she want to see.
“It’s so hard for young people,” she explains. “Most of us don’t book in advance. It’s dependent on how much we have in our bank account. Sometimes theatre isn’t a priority because you’ve got to pay your rent.”
And, she says, “There are times I’ll go to the theatre and I’m the only black person there. It’s odd. When I saw One Night In Miami [another Donmar hit] it was breathtaking. Because the cast was so diverse, the audience reflected that.”
The kid from Acton, put off theatre after playing an angry sheep in a nativity play, is now a rising star of the West End. Strong enough to risk unemployment and turn down musicals in favour of waiting for the right non-singing project, but still a little unconvinced of her own talent. Out of place but entirely at home. I get the feeling that the more Gloria Obianyo graces London stages, the more she and the theatre scene will benefit. After all, as the great Zac Efron said, “We’re all in this together.”