RISING STAR: Niamh Perry

West End diva Niamh Perry of I’d Do Anything fame on life, love and phandom

The 19-year old woman at the other end of the line sounds breathless when she picks up the phone, recovering from a grueling day of rehearsals. Little has been heard from Niamh Perry since 2008, when she competed for the role of Nancy in the West End musical Oliver on the BBC 1 show I’d Do Anything.

I'd Do AnythingThe eighth girl out of 12 to leave the competition, the then 17-year old wowed the judging panel and silenced critics with her renditions of hits such as 'They Can’t Take That Away From Me' and 'I’ve Got The Music In Me'.

Fellow contestant Jodie Prenger, from Blackpool, went on to win the show and become Oliver’s leading lady, whilst Northern Ireland native Rachel Tucker has just been cast as Elphaba in global hit Wicked. But what has Perry been up to?

'After leaving the show, I landed a role in Only The Brave, a World War II musical which had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,' Perry beams. 'I went on to play Eponine in Les Miserables in Jersey, Snow White in the pantomime in Eastbourne, and then as Sophie in the West End version of Mama Mia.

'I’ve also done a lot of concerts, including the BBC’s Proms, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 60th birthday bash at Hyde Park and a requiem at St Paul’s Cathedral which was really great.'

The Bangor-born actress started her career in musical theatre at the age of 13, acting in Musical Theatre for Youth (MT4UTH) productions such as Sweet Charity, Oliver, Guys and Dolls and West Side Story.

In 2007, she achieved a distinction in her Grade 8 classical singing examination, for which she was awarded the South Eastern Education and Library Board (SEELN) Outstanding Achievement Award for Contribution to the Arts.

An ex-pupil of St Malachy’s Primary, Perry auditioned for I’d Do Anything while studying for her A Levels at Our Lady and St Patrick’s College in Belfast. 'The role of Nancy was advertised as a young, Amy Snow WhiteWinehouse-style, quirky character. I’ve always loved Oliver, so I decided to audition for it. I saw it just as audition experience, but then I kept getting through the audition stages.'

While on the show, one of the strongest criticisms leveled at Perry was her age and inexperience. Lloyd Webber in particular worried that the workload demanded of West End stars might damage her voice.

Yet Perry has went on to defy even ‘The Lord’ himself (as Webber was affectionately nicknamed by I’d Do Anything presenter Graham Norton): he has just cast her in his latest musical, The Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies, in the role of Fleck, the Phantom’s sidekick.

Set in the ‘world’s fairground’ of Coney Island, New York, the musical has received mixed reviews from theatre critics in London with die-hard Phantom ‘phans’ unhappy. Their bitterness seems to stem from a misguided loyalty to the original prequel.

Many of the characters, including Perry’s, are completely new and therefore do not strictly remain ‘true’ to the prequel, but are open to new interpretations. Indeed, being the first actress to play Fleck has created much expectation for Perry from critics, meaning that rehearsals have been more demanding than usual.

'The rehearsals have been so hectic,' Perry admits. 'We’ve literally been rehearsing every hour of every day. The show opened on March 9, so things have calmed down a bit and I’m starting to get my life back now.'

Love Never DiesAnd what does the future hold after Love Never Dies? 'I’m contracted to play Fleck for a year, until March 2011, so about 6-8 months from now I’ll start putting out the feelers again for another job.'

In an industry where 85% of actors are unemployed at any given time, Perry is keeping her options open. Her dream is to work in television ('I’d love to do straight acting on TV') and she is currently recording material for a future album, carving a reputation as a solid singer-songwriter.

But if she could have her pick of any role in the West End or Broadway, what would it be? 'That changes all the time depending on my mood, to be honest! Once, it was Eponine in Les Miserables. Now, it’s Christine in the Phantom.'

And with that, the exhausted, multi-talented Ms Perry heads off to sing her heart out to a crowded Adelphi Theatre in London. Watch this space for future news on Northern Ireland's latest theatrical export.

Lyra McKee