Rising star: Lizzy Connolly

Matthew Amer talks to the Once In A Lifetime star about hard work and dodging pigeonholes.

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As career beginnings go, Lizzy Connolly has enjoyed a pretty perfect one. In the same year she graduated from Arts Educational, she landed a standout role in West End show Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. For a young actor, the part was a gift. It didn’t have the success of the show riding on it, but it featured a set piece number that gave her the chance to shine. And shine she did. Like a star.

“You just need one person to go ‘Oh, she’s funny’,” she laughs, underplaying her reputation-building performance. Pretty much every audience member that saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels had that thought. It was a performance that launched her into the theatre world’s consciousness. And, most importantly, it led to more work. Hit West End musicals Mrs Henderson Presents and Vanities The Musical followed.

This winter, however, she won’t be singing-in the New Year. She’s starring in feel-good Hollywood comedy Once In A Lifetime at the Young Vic, which comes without songs. It was, she says, a project “I was absolutely desperate to do. I could have been sweeping the stage in this one and I’d have been happy.”

She’s not. She is, in fact, playing a “terrible actress” who finds herself in the right place at the right time. This is not art imitating life!

Lizzy Connolly and Buffy Davis in rehearsal for Once In A Lifetime at Young Vic (Image: Johan Persson)
Lizzy Connolly and Buffy Davis in rehearsal for Once In A Lifetime at Young Vic (Image: Johan Persson)

That place and time is 1930s Hollywood, a town on the brink of leaving silent films behind and moving into ‘talkies’. It’s a classic story of chancers giving it a go and getting caught up in all manner of misadventures. Perfect, escapist Christmas fun.

“I can’t believe my luck,” Connolly squeals as she chats about the project while snatching lunch during rehearsals. Part of that feeling comes from working with director Richard Jones, who she considers “a bit of a genius”. The other part is due to the immense talents of a cast that includes Harry Enfield, Kevin Bishop, John Marquez, Claudie Blakley and Lucy Cohu. “It’s ridiculous,” she laughs. “You can learn so much from every single person.”

This, I suspect, is central to Connolly’s swift success. “I’m not someone who’s naturally gifted,” she admits. “I genuinely have worked bloody hard.” Since being inspired by Shirley Temple (weren’t we all?) she’s set her mind to a life of performing.

She’s also been smart. She has said no to projects and, though her CV is laden with musicals, she’s managed to inject enough variety to stop her being labelled a ‘musical star’. “I’m lucky,” she says, “I’ve dodged a bullet on that one. But there are such fantastic musical theatre actors who haven’t got so lucky.”

Buffy Davis, Kevin Bishop and Lizzy Connolly in rehearsal for Once In A Lifetime at Young Vic (Image: Johan Persson)
Buffy Davis, Kevin Bishop and Lizzy Connolly in rehearsal for Once In A Lifetime at Young Vic (Image: Johan Persson)

While it’s easy to understand how a young girl falls in love with the jaunty tap dance and bouncing ringlets of Shirley Temple, that fascination wears off. In my experience, anyway. What has taken its place and kept Connolly entranced by theatre? “I love that you can see the raw emotions, that you can choose the person you’re watching, rather than being given a shot [as in film or television]. I love the tangible, touchableness of it all; that it’s so close.”

“As an actor I love that you can feed off an audience. You can feel them there. You can hear their laughter or feel the silence. I hope in years to come, even with current events that have knocked us all for six, that theatre is still pulling people through and making them think.”

It’s safe to say that anyone who has recently been knocked for six will be able to escape reality into a world of silver-screen jollity at the Young Vic this Christmas. Audiences that do head that way will see both a British comic legend in Harry Enfield and potentially one of the biggest British comic stars of the future in Connolly. For as much as she protests her lack of natural talent, I’m convinced she has comedy in her bones.

Lizzy Connolly stars in Once In A Lifetime at the Young Vic from 25 November to 14 January.