As theatre goers await the much anticipated return of Kenwright’s Blood Brothers, Manchester’s Finest explores one young woman’s journey from audition rooms to stage productions, as her lifelong dream is finally realised in this, its latest tour – and she just happens to be local.
It’s 2010 and a week until Christmas, it’s cold in London but there’s a buzz that flows through every business man with his swinging briefcase and every commuter standing squashed together. Loud cries and shouts let out puffs of steam in the cold air as Laura Harrison stands in the Kenwright offices waiting to be called in to audition.
‘Laura Harrison?’ A man pokes his head around the door and beckons Laura to follow. She scuttles after him attempting to follow his enormous strides; he leads her up what seems to be an endless staircase and Laura’s breaths are short and furious sometimes broken by the sudden puff of her cheeks.
The man pushes open a door at the top of the staircase and ushers Laura to go in with a jerk of his head. ‘This is Laura Harrison Bill; she’s trying for the Narrator’.
‘Bill bloody Kenwright’, she shouts to her Mum on the other end of the phone. ‘I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t breathe anyway but then seeing him really knocked it out of me.’ A short pause while Laura listens to her mum’s excited reply. ‘No I didn’t get it’ she answers.
Five years earlier, it’s 2005 and an audience sit cramped in an Arts Theatre in a Sixth form College in a Northern town called Warrington. It smells of teenage heartbreak, incessant sprays of cheap perfume, hairspray and the latest themed Lynx deodorant. But the uncomfortable seating arrangements do very little to detract from an eighteen year old Laura Harrison who at that moment weeps over the bodies of her two classmates in ‘Tell me it’s not true’, the final number of ‘Blood Brothers’.
The teenage cast gather together, clutch the others hand with a giggle and take a second bow. Unbeknown to the teenage version of Laura who stoops down into the bow, she’ll find herself in the same production, holding back tears as she does now, and this time she’ll be a part of the legendary company of Kenwright; but there’s a gruelling ten years ahead of her yet.
The end of Laura’s college years loomed over her. She constantly battled with where she should take her talent and how far her talent could really take her, always hoping that she wouldn’t stray too far from home. She finally chose to study her BA in Musical Theatre at Cumbria Institute of the Arts, a two hour journey from Warrington that she would drive countless times rattling down the M6 motorway to get home in time for the weekend.
Laura graduated from Cumbria Institute of the Arts with a first class honours and a hunger for a bigger stage, brighter lights and compared to the rolling hills of Cumbria a murkier setting – her sights were set on London. The cost of her great dream brought Laura in front of her first panel as she auditioned for a BBC Arts bursary which would contribute to her future study.
It’s August 2010, it’s warm in London, unbearably so. As evening approaches the sinking sun offers some relief as a small family group head towards The Royal Albert Hall. Under the clip-clopping of high heels and dress shoes low whispers, nervous glances and reassuring smiles are shared.
‘And the roof has just come off the Royal Albert Hall’ the radio presenter declared as an 80 year old Stephen Sondheim took to the stage accompanied by the concert’s finale.
Laura was successful at the BBC Performing Arts audition and this secured her place on an MA course at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. It also meant that she was offered to share the stage of The Royal Albert Hall as part of the choir at the BBC Proms and the celebration of Stephen Sondheim.
There’s a rumour that floats between family and friends that if you listen closely to the recording of the Sondheim celebration and the finale ‘Side by Side’ you can distinctly hear Laura singing out from the choir…
There’s a rumour that floats between family and friends that if you listen closely to the recording of the Sondheim celebration and the finale ‘Side by Side’ you can distinctly hear Laura singing out from the choir, one voice singing for the first time and possibly last, to the multitude gathered from the most magnificent stage.
She graduated from Central School of Speech and Drama with a distinction and an agent. She began the audition process beginning with the West-End revival of Hair.
Laura had developed an intense strategy for the audition process. Her preparation spanned from choice of audition outfit – it had to be relevant to the production as did the hair, makeup and especially the song choice.
‘Hiya’ she blurted out to the audition panel.
‘Hiya’ they returned, mimicking her casual introduction and fierce northern accent.
She was nervous, she laughed louder than usual, her gestures became increasingly larger and she nodded frequently even when the remark didn’t beckon a response.
‘What have you brought for us Laura?’ a member of the panel enquired.
‘I’m going to sing Woodstock – you know the Joni Mitchell one?’
They smiled subtly but the panel all slowly shuffled to the tip of their seats, it was an unusual choice after all, there was something different about this girl with the northern accent.
It was the first time Laura really cried when she realised she wasn’t successful.
Her strength to battle the process had weakened, she wasn’t able to push through as she had hoped. Other career paths would tempt or sadden her. Fruitless auditions and opportunities emerged and departed. Her optimism was battered and bruised.
Three years on and Laura had settled into a nice routine. She taught singing lessons from her dining room, she dedicated multiple hours to students who looked to fight the same fight she currently fought, and now it’s 2014 and Laura stands in the sports hall of a school as she sings through classic musical numbers as a favour to a friend.
Accompanied by a small orchestra and an enthusiastic crowd Laura suddenly finds herself sobbing just as she sang out the final note of ‘As Long As He Need Needs Me’. She stares at the floor and then turns away from the audience.
It wasn’t clear why she cried, to the audience she was just an outstanding performer who found herself carried away by the music and lyrics, but to her family it was apparent – she was performing in a place that Laura saw as a ‘what could have been’.
She continued from her dining room, inspiring others, only recollecting her ideal future in snatched daydreams and memories of what was.
It’s dark, and Laura hears a band playout the final moments of the finale of Blood Brothers. The music that plays the theme to her frequent fantasies.
Ahead of her she sees an audience of unfamiliar faces who take to their feet applauding.
She sighs wistfully and as she did in the night of her teenage years she chokes back the tears.
The lights come up and she’s still there, a reality she’s only ever imagined. She takes her final bow in a line-up that includes Maureen Nolan and Marti Pellow. She bows once more and then stands to salute the band.
She exits stage left, balances herself against a wall and cries. In 2015 Laura Harrison was offered the role of Donna-Marie/Miss Jones and understudy to Mrs Lyons.
A decade of auditions, hope, dedication and daydreaming and there she stands, leaning against a wall, crying as if she didn’t know how she had got there.