Mamma Mia - London

A mother. A daughter. Three possible dads. And a trip down the aisle you'll never forget!

West End Mamma Mia! Star Sara Poyzer on Stealing from Meryl Streep and Bringing ABBA to the World

West End Mamma Mia! Star Sara Poyzer on Stealing from Meryl Streep and Bringing ABBA to the World
Sara Poyzer in "Mamma Mia!"
(Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

Sara Poyzer didn’t graduate from drama school until she was 27, but in the two decades since has established herself as an invaluable company member of several long-running musicals. She spent two years as Mrs. Wilkinson in the since-closed West End hit Billy Elliot and has spent the last six years on and off starring as Donna in Mamma Mia!, where she has just embarked upon a year’s run at the Novello Theatre having taken the ABBA extravaganza quite literally to the world. Just how bursting is her passport? was eager to find out.

How does it feel finally to be playing Donna on the West End?
You know, it feels really nice to be able to come back to my house, which I’ve only been able to live in on and off over the last five years while I was touring with the show around the U.K. and also globally: I spent nearly four years touring internationally and played 35 cities with the show across the world. 

Goodness! Just how full is your passport?
I just got a new one, and I was really sorry to get it; I feel like I want to take the old one with me, given that we went everywhere from Johannesburg, Tel Aviv and Hong Kong to South Korea, Singapore, Dubai, and all across Europe. I kept thinking it would be great to have one of those old-fashioned suitcases with all the stickers on it!

Does Mamma Mia! still feel fresh for you?
It really does, and that’s all to do with discipline. I have to say that the “phoning-your-performance-in” method just doesn’t work for me. I’m an avid theatergoer myself and as an audience member always want to feel a connection, so when I see something, I want a performer to do that for me. It’s about putting the job first, which is something I do with relish.

Did the show on tour resonate differently in different countries?
There were some where the issue of a woman with three possible husbands for her daughter was a bit of a thing, but at the same time it was clear that wherever we went, the story has a universal language, even if a particular joke might not work in a country where, say, the trains actually do run on time.

Did you learn any of the host languages?
We always performed the show in English but I did learn how to say, “Do you want one more song?” in every country. I failed in Mandarin [during their China visit], I’m not going to lie. Apparently, I told the audience that they were fat!  

Were you a fan of the show before you were in it?
I might not have gone to it when I did except that I was working on Billy Elliot at the time and someone in the wig department said would I like to go and see Mamma Mia!, and so I went and saw Linzi Hateley . As soon as she stepped out for “Money, Money,” I leaned across to my friend and said, “I want to play that role!” It was one of those moments where you see a role and think, “I have to play that part.” 

What do you think you were responding to?
So many things: Donna’s honesty and toughness and vulnerability and grit and the songs that she gets to sing. I left the theater and thought, “How do I make this happen?” I auditioned and didn’t get the role but then came back a year later and I did; I coveted the role for quite a while. 

Have your feelings about Donna changed over the years?
That’s a really interesting question. I guess what I’ve done is invent an ever-richer tapestry and filled in more of the gaps—what she might have been like before we meet her, for instance, or what she will go on to be like later. At this point, I do feel as if I know her really well. I’ve always said that if she were a real person, I would want to be her friend.

Does the specter of Meryl Streep hang over the role now, following the film?
It’s funny, by the time I went on the second international tour, the film was very much in people’s minds and people were clearly coming to see Meryl Streep. I think it helped that I’m not a million miles from her in terms of my physical appearance, so that may have been good. And when I saw the movie, I did steal a few ideas from her—why not? I mean she’s a major Oscar-winning actress!

Didn’t you start on the West End in Shakespeare?
Yes, I was Emilia opposite Lenny Henry [in 2009] in Othello. When I trained as an actor, I was very intent on being a serious, heavy-duty tragedienne—that was the plan! It was my agent who said, “Why don’t you audition for a musical?” and Billy Elliot was a great place to start: that show has such a strong dramatic arc that it was like marrying the worlds of drama and musical theater, in a way.

Was Mamma Mia! a logical next move?
It’s kind of taken me by surprise, if I’m honest with you. I think at the beginning I thought, “One year will be lovely, thanks very much, and I’ll head on and do something else.” But six years into it, I’m still here, so there’s obviously enough to keep me interested. I still do have a huge love for it.

Shakespeare and musicals: isn’t your inevitable next venture a revival of Kiss Me, Kate?
Yeah, now that would be great!