The Woman in White Star Anna O'Byrne on Love Never Dies, Julie Andrews & Her Surprising Dream Role

The Woman in White Star Anna O'Byrne on Love Never Dies, Julie Andrews & Her Surprising Dream Role
Anna O'Byrne in "The Woman in White"
(Photo: Darren Bell)

Australian actress Anna O’Byrne has the distinction of playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, directed by none other than Dame Julie Andrews, as well as starring as Christine Daae in the successful Australian premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies. Now based in London, she is among those headlining the Charing Cross Theatre revival of an earlier Lloyd Webber show, The Woman in White, playing the orphaned, impassioned Laura Fairlie. caught up with O’Byrne during previews to hear about what seems to be a very charmed career.

You have prior associations with the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber via some of his other work but did you have any previous connection to The Woman in White?
I didn’t, although a very good friend of mine, Damian Humbley, took over the role of Walter, Laura’s love interest, in the original production, but I didn’t know any of the music beforehand, so when the audition notice came through, I had a quick listen to the original cast recording just to get familiar with it.

Were you even in London when the show was first on?
Actually, it was during my gap year, when I was over here in the U.K., and I think I remember seeing the marquee at the Palace Theatre and that huge orange artwork.

Is this production quite different to that first West End one from 2004, which was directed by Trevor Nunn and starred Maria Friedman, Jill Paice and Michael Crawford?
It really is. We’ve had all the creatives from the original production in to see us, and they’re all very interested in what Thom [Southerland, the current director] has been achieving. We’ve got entirely new orchestrations by David Cullen and have focused a lot on clarifying the storytelling. The original Wilkie Collins novel is over 700 pages long, so there’s a lot of information to fit in!

What is the result of this fresh approach?
Thom’s really been given carte blanche to reimagine the piece so that it feels like a new show. I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s been stripped back: if anything, this is more claustrophobic and intimate and has a greater sense of Victoriana than was probably there before. But what Thom has done is accentuate the fluidity of Andrew’s storytelling: this is a very quick-moving piece that also manages to be very low-tech.

How does it feel to be in an auditorium, down near London’s Embankment, a fraction the size of some of the big houses you have played?
I was just saying yesterday that I’ve been fortunate in my career to work on some really massive projects where I’ve been playing 2000-seaters with every seat filled. Until now, I hadn’t really worked in such an immediate way where I can look out and see actual faces for about the first 10 rows: that’s really thrilling and also slightly scary.

What was it like before this job came up to be in your home country of Australia, playing Eliza Doolittle under the direction of the woman who created that same role, Dame Julie Andrews?
It was beyond anything I could have dreamed. To have this movie star from the golden age there in the flesh with us for such a long time was just extraordinary, and the piece itself is just so exquisite and beautifully crafted. I think working with Julie sort of changed me: she turned me into a bigger feminist than I already am. 

So, which is home for you—Britain or Australia?
I’ve lived here in London for five years, so it’s where my home is and my apartment and my partner [Andy Conaghan, an actor-singer as well], but I do like to come and go. And, of course, I would have done My Fair Lady under those circumstances anywhere in the world; it just so happened to be happening in Sydney. That was initially meant to be a four-month season that ended up occupying me for over a year.

How did it feel going from that project directly to this one?
It was all so fast! We finished My Fair Lady on Saturday, I got on a plane Sunday, and came in Tuesday to begin Woman in White rehearsals, having missed the first day. But that’s what this business as we know is like: you have to make hay while the sun shines.

Were you struck by the complete contrast between the two jobs?
I think I knew that whatever I did after Eliza Doolittle would have to be completely different; there was no way of topping it. But what was great with The Woman in White was to get to play a character who I think is actually more interesting to me on stage than she is in the novel, and also slightly unknowable. She’s a shy character, which can be a challenge, but she also gets these beautiful songs!

As your career progresses to include an album and concerts and much more, do you have any sort of guiding plan?
The best experiences in my career have generally happened when I was looking the other way, or been in shows that haven’t been written yet so I couldn’t have known what they would be. I’m doing quite a lot of concerts next year, which I enjoy: my favorite thing to do onstage is sing with an orchestra. And I've really liked with this show going from something big to something else much smaller.

Are you tempted to do a spin in Les Miserables on the West End, given that your boyfriend is in it?
I think no probably because Andy is doing it! I think if you do Phantom, people expect you to go into Les Miz, and I absolutely adore the show—I always have—but my dream role in that musical is probably Javert. I don’t know what that means! 

Having done this show and Christine Daae in both The Phantom of the Opera and its sequel, Love Never Dies, do you ever think about trying that other Lloyd Webber stage heroine: Eva Peron in Evita?
I was in New York when the production was on with Michael Cerveris and Ricky Martin, but I’ve never really thought of [Eva] as a role for me. I think it would scare me, though maybe that’s a reason to do it. You know what, leave it with me!