There was a time when Carley Stenson was best known as Hollyoaks’ Stephanie Dean. But even back then, in the noughties, she dreamed a dream of performing on the stage.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and that dream has very much come true. Her CV now boasts leading roles in West End productions of Legally Blonde The Musical and Shrek The Musical, as well as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on tour.
While those shows all allowed her to flex her comic muscles, her latest role takes her into far more emotional territory. Carley Stenson has joined the cast of long-running London hit Les Misérables. In the epic tale of obsession and redemption in revolutionary France, she plays Fantine, a woman whose life takes a dramatic turn when a secret is exposed.
Carley Stenson tells us more about joining Les Misérables, fighting preconceptions about being a soap star on stage and why she’s always loved theatre:
How would you describe Les Misérables?
Les Misérables is a remarkable story that is both hard-hitting and uplifting. Most importantly, it has a profound message: love is the most important thing, what we all want and all that really matters. Les Misérables will keep you captivated with its depth of story and character and with its glorious score. If you want to feel something, you can’t escape it here at Queen’s Theatre. The story and music connect with everyone somehow.
Why did you want to be in it?
Why would I not?!
As a performer, this is the ultimate role in musical theatre. The world’s longest running musical and possibly the biggest score to really lose yourself in. Fantine is an iconic character. This is not a role you can hold on to lightly. You are given it, you cherish it and give it your absolute best!
The music moves me, her story is harrowing. This is pure drama and grit. Exactly why you get into acting in the first place.
How would you describe Fantine?
Fantine is a romantic, hopeful, naive yet incredibly strong lady! She lives for her daughter and her daughter alone. In a way I guess that blinds her. Fantine gave all her faith and love to one man who let her down. Yet she focuses on love till the very end. I think we can all relate to her story in [the song] I Dreamed A Dream, of being hurt and let down by love, and seeing the ugly part of humanity. But Fantine never allows herself to dwell and feel sorry for herself. She simply knows there isn’t time for it.
Why do you think Les Misérables is such an enduring success?
Les Misérables affects people deeply. The score captures you straight from the start. It’s like hearing your favourite song on the radio, or one that takes you back to a place in your memory. The story is powerful and overwhelming and always, unfortunately, too relevant. Despair turning into absolute hope. Why would you not want to watch something that hits you right in the heart, then lifts your spirit? A show that moves and affects you deeply. That’s the point, right? That’s why you keep coming back or playing that favourite song. Because it moves you.
How much of a challenge is it to step into a role that’s been played by many different actors before you?
I’m not going to lie; it is daunting to take on a role mastered by many before you. But life would be boring if it was always easy and never scared you. I was never going to turn this opportunity down when I have so much to learn from it. I’ve learned you’re never going to please everybody. I guess the point is to make yourself and your loved ones proud. Then anyone else is a bonus.
I will try my hardest, do my best and work extremely hard for the creatives and the fans of the show. I’ll scrutinise myself more than anyone in the audience will until I feel I can give it no more. I work closely on the book and what my amazing director, Sam [Hiller], has to say. I haven’t watched the show in years. That’s beneficial as it will be my own interpretation. That is how it should be and can be in this show. They hire actors and singers to play the text, not to mimic the previous performance. So I guess I hope people like my take on Fantine.
How challenging was it to make the change from TV star to musical theatre star? Did people have preconceptions that you had to conquer?
There were changes I had to make, as a performer, from screen to stage, naturally. My stamina and fitness level had to change. I expected that. But I did find the preconceptions surprising. It was such a shame. I still hear and see it now with other performers.
We shouldn’t pigeonhole people. If a performer can act, then they probably love to sing and dance, too, and vice versa. Why is that so hard to believe? Do you know their history? It’s judgemental and ignorant, and it really did knock my confidence at first. But then it hit me – I’m just going to prove them wrong. It made me tougher. Now I’m very grateful.
What was your first experience of theatre?
I was always surrounded by theatre. I honestly can’t remember my first time. I’ve been performing on stage since I was a tot in ballet shoes. All through my childhood my family took me to every show, as from birth they knew I didn’t want to do anything else. There was never a hesitation. Just one sole focus. When I got cast in Hollyoaks, I didn’t make it to the theatre as much. When my best friend bought me tickets to see Beauty And The Beast for my 20th birthday, I hadn’t watched a show for three years. As the curtain lifted I cried. No one had even sung, but my heart spoke and I knew I had to get back there!
Why is live performance so special?
Live performance brings adrenaline and atmosphere. It’s raw and it’s unpredictable. We will all turn into robots if we don’t connect on that basic eye-to-eye level. In that moment you are as responsible for their performance as they are.
Apart from Queen’s Theatre, what’s your favourite London theatre?
I loved Drury Lane [where Stenson performed in Shrek The Musical] and Jill on stage door. Hi, Jill! I love history. My room was beautiful. It was like my own London flat. I see it now and can’t believe I got used to the size of that audience. It’s just breathtaking!
What one piece of advice would you give aspiring performers?
Keep bettering yourself; you can always learn more. Take criticism well; take what you can from it and move on from the rest. But mostly ENJOY!
What’s your top tip for a trip to the theatre?
Plan dinner or a drink after to discuss what you have just seen. Talk about the issues raised and the meaning behind it all. That’s what it’s there for. To make you think.