News Column

'Hairspray' Star Says 'Don't Be like Velma'

July 5, 2013

Alan Smith

Lucy Benjamin had a string of West End shows to her name as a child, including a revival of Annie when she was all of 11 and a stage version of the Worzel Gummidge children's TV show. But only now is the 42-year-old EastEnders veteran tackling the adult musical repertoire, playing the sassy, scheming Velma Von Tussle in the tour of the Broadway and West End musical, Hairspray - the same role for which Tracie Bennett won the second of her two Olivier Awards.

I had seen the show in town with Michael Ball and Nigel Planer and loved it, she says. My agent sent me along originally to have a look at Velma but I got so swept up in the magic of the piece as a whole that I wasn't particularly looking at Velma.

When I was then asked to audition, I went and saw the film just to remind myself of Velma specifically - which meant that Lucy had not just Tracie to reckon with but also Michelle Pfeiffer when it came to leaving a fresh imprint on the part of the vampy villainess whom audiences love to hate.

It's almost best not to think about who's come before you, says the performer, whose only other stage role of late was opposite Les Dennis and Daniel Boys in a panto-season Peter Pan at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, late in 2011.

What you have to do is put all that to bed, really, and make it your own; otherwise, you start imitating, says Benjamin.

Though tiny of frame (only five feet), she, like Tracey, is a small person playing a larger-than-life character: an outsized personality in alarmingly bright yellow, high heels to match and a wig that she calls a heightened version of Marilyn Monroe but about twice or three times the size.

Nor was her lingering renown as TV's Lisa Fowler an automatic guarantee that she would get this current role. The cross-overs between TV and the theatre are happening more and more but the great thing is that I had to audition as much as the next person. I had two big auditions in front of a panel bigger than The X Factor, with ten of them sitting there with pads and paper. It was scary stuff.

You're still really, really put through your paces.

Lucy was born in Reading and went to the same theatre school (Redroofs in Maidenhead) as Kate Winslet. Having done three consecutive West End shows before reaching her teens, she thought she might graduate to adult life as a dancer only to decide that she was too short. TV fame came along, followed by her two daughters, now aged six and nearly two, so Hairspray represents what she calls a rediscovery of an art form where the actress had been thinking, I missed my chance or that boat had sailed.

This part, Benjamin says with a laugh, is a lesson in how not to be: just don't be like Velma; please don't be like Velma.

It's a great life lesson, absolutely, for me as a mum. Hairspray's run at the Theatre Royal continues until next Saturday, July 13. Performances are at 7.30pm with a 2pm matinee on Wednesdays and 2.30pm on Saturdays. Tickets are Pounds 19-Pounds 45 from the box office, call 0115 989 5555 or go to

'' I had two big auditions in front of a panel bigger than The X Factor in my eyes, with ten of them sitting there with pads and paper - it's scary stuff

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