Show must go on for Channel-crossing performer

Samantha David talks to actress/singer Sarah Tullamore about her one-woman show and how to please Anglo/French audiences

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Sarah Tullamore is an English actress and singer who lives in France. As a singer she has performed at clubs and festivals throughout the country, and performed in the cast recording of Blanche Neige at the Folies Bergère.

Her one-woman show Estelle Bright premiered at the Avignon Festival in 2005 and was performed in various venues in Paris until 2007. She also does voice-overs and appeared in the French production of Sister Act and Singing in the Rain. Her new show London-Paris-Roam! has been well-received by critics.

What originally brought you to France?

I moved to France for love, as you do, and I stay because I love it. After finishing university, I went to Tokyo intending to just travel and work for a year before going back to the UK, but in the end I went to Paris to live with my Japanese boyfriend.

In some ways it was an easy decision because my maternal grandmother was French and I already spoke the language. I talk about it in my show. If it had been Greece, Denmark or Germany it might have been different and no, I moved before Eurostar started! This was back in 1995. I’m sooo old. [In fact, she is only 48].

When I split with the boyfriend three years later, I wondered about going back to the UK but I had already started a three-woman jazz harmony group and having already uprooted from Japan I didn’t want to move again. So I stayed.

And what are you up to now?

My current show London-Paris-Roam! deals with many of my experiences, living in various places. It’s a one-woman musical show in which I talk directly to the audience, which gives it a cabaret element, but there is a story, and it’s not purely autobiographical.

The premise is very simple: the show is about a character packing her belongings and coming across items which take her back 20 years, and coming back to the present day. I’m amazed that it strikes a chord with so many people. They come up after the show and say they really identified with it.

How do you go about writing a one-woman show?

I developed the show with an English composer called James Burn who used my musical ideas to write the score. I did write one song, but the rest was a collaboration. Having written the script, I then got French director Frédéric Baptiste and American pianist John Florencio on board. I think we’re a great team.

This is my second solo show, but I’ve done so much musical theatre in French, that I decided to write and perform it in English.

How does that go down in Paris?

It was a risk but one that has paid off. French audiences have been enthusiastic and the show was also well-received in London and at the Edinburgh festival.

It was fantastic working at the festival, it’s so full of talent you really have to put yourself out there, but as a result of working in Edinburgh, I then took the show to South Africa, which was amazing. We had such a great time there. People loved the show.

Then we also did a regional tour in the UK. And now I’m thinking of taking the show to Canada, Austria and the States. Especially New York. It’s a lot of work but I’m excited about taking it there.

When’s the next show in France?

I’m next performing the show in Paris on February 13 at Les Feux de la Rampe theatre. It’s right next to the Folies Bergère.

I love that theatre, the team are fantastic and they are the people who organise the Paris Fringe festival (an Anglophone theatre festival in Paris) every May.

London-Paris-Roam! was the first show to be performed at the first festival in 2016 and as last year was so successful, it looks like the festival will run again this year.

What’s the difference between the musical theatre scene in Paris and London?

Musical theatre was practically non-existent in France when I arrived. It’s only in recent years that things have started to change here, and producers are now putting on musicals.

Paris theatres are even using subtitles to try to attract Anglophone audiences, and other producers are bringing French versions of musicals to Paris. In the past they had serious theatre, stiff, old-fashioned operetta or ‘comédie musicale’ which is just songs loosely strung together; it has no plot, no acting, no real drama. But now an audience is building for musicals with real heart, real acting, a real story.

And the fringe scene in Paris?

The fringe scene in Paris is expanding too. Even five years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do my show in English, but now there’s so much. Musicals are exploding in France now but that’s all new.

In the past shows like Les Misérables and Liaisons Dangereuses played in Paris but just for a season – they weren’t perennials like they are in London.

What about audiences?

Audiences in France are also a bit different from those in the UK. Audiences in London are much more diverse, but in Paris it still tends to be very intellectual, academic, serious people who go to the theatre and watch straight plays, and everyone else goes to ‘comédie musicale’, but we don’t have that divide in the UK.

In France, plays were traditionally written and performed for the upper classes, but in the UK theatre has always been written for the general public. So it’s only now that audiences in Paris are becoming more diverse, more inclusive, so there is more demand for new kinds of shows.

There’s still some way to go in France to get that inclusive thing, as it is in the UK. I love attracting a very varied audience, and I enjoy pushing and expanding the types of shows that people will go to see.

Was arriving in France a bit of a culture shock?

When I first arrived in Paris I had no idea how things worked. I tend to be spontaneous, honest and straightforward but that got me into hot water. I’ve learned to be more subtle now, more sensitive. And now, I’ve got it, and I love France.

I think perhaps French people are more inclined to be scared of unknown people than in the UK. Their education system is very strict, so moving through French society is different. I’m very used to it now, and I make fun of French people in my show and they all laugh their heads off at themselves.

And for me, that’s the process: getting to know France means peeling off the layers, and I use my experiences in my show, which I think is what makes it popular with both French and English audiences.

Tickets for Sarah’s show on February 13 at Les Feux de la Rampe are available from the theatre or via Sarah’s website: