WHEN it comes to a career in entertainment, it’s fair to say that Frances Ruffelle has had a go at most things. Perhaps best known for her portrayal as Eponine in the smash hit musical Les Misérables, for which she won a Tony Award, her glittering career has seen her make a name for herself on the West End stage playing the leads in a variety of musicals including Chicago and Starlight Express.
She’s also made a successful transition to TV and in film with roles in The Bill and Bird’s Of A Feather, has released albums of her own music and has even taken part in the Eurovision Song Contest.
But now she is back on the stage playing the lead in Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party.
Directed and choreographed by 2016 Olivier Award winner Drew McOnie, it is the debut production at The Other Palace, formerly St James Theatre.
Set against a backdrop of Manhattan decadence and 1920's excess, The Wild Party tells the story of Queenie (Frances) and Burrs, a Vaudeville showgirl and a Vaudeville clown whose relationship is marked by vicious behaviour and recklessness.
In an attempt to salvage their toxic union, they decide to throw a party to end all parties. The guests are a vivid collection of the unruly and the undone - a cocaine-sniffing bisexual playboy, a washed-up boxer, a diva of indeterminate age, a fresh-faced ingénue, and a handsome Valentino who catches Queenie's roving eye.
The jazz and gin soaked party rages to a mounting sense of threat, as artifice and illusion are stripped away. But when midnight debauchery turns into tragedy, the revellers must sober up and face reality. After all, no party lasts forever.
Chatting to Frances in a break from rehearsals I tell her it sounds like a riot.
“It really is,” she laughs. “It’s based on Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem that was banned in many countries as it was so raunchy!
“It is set in 1929 at a time when people couldn't drink as it was illegal and so they held these parties, many of which were pretty wild.
“The people in this story are pretty crazy characters and most of them are Vaudeville performers, so you can imagine what would go on back stage! You might arrive with one person but you’d probably go home with another. It’s quite dark, incredibly emotional, but a lot of fun.”
And it seems that Frances has had her eye on this show for a number of years so when it came along she couldn’t say no.
“About 12 years ago I heard the soundtrack to the piece,” she says. “I was really excited by it as it’s utterly brilliant and beautifully written. I describe it as more of a jazz opera in style and I absolutely loved it when I heard it.
“I know that a lot of West End producers had wanted to get the rights to put it on but hadn’t managed to. However at one of my solo shows composer Michael John LaChuisa was in the audience and we were introduced after the show and we talked about The Wild Party.
“We were chatting away about it and he just said I was his Queenie and I was thrilled. So to be here now, it really is a dream come true.”
Fortunately, Frances, whose mother Sylvia Young founded the famous theatre school at which she trained, and whose daughter is singer songwriter Eliza Doolittle, is nothing like her alter ego in character. What they do have in common is a love of the stage and singing, but Frances insists that’s as far as the comparison goes.
“Queenie is wild and crazy, a girl who wanted to make it big but it didn’t happen to her,” she laughs. “She got in to Vaudeville rather than Broadway, has hardly any money and mixes with people who drink and do drugs, have sex and anything that can make them happy so they don’t have to face up to reality.
“None of them have got what they want out of life and for Queenie she didn’t get to be the theatre girl she always wanted to be, so they are a bit of a sad crew. I’m sure there will be people who come and see it who will understand what that feels like in some way.
“But you get to see Queenie go on a journey of discovery, realising that she needs to be happy and see the light in her life rather than the drugs or alcohol.”
Despite it being a dream role, Frances says it’s not without its challenges. Portraying someone with many elements and layers to their character she says has stretched her as has getting the music’s rhythm right. But she says it’s been “great fun” to get her teeth into such a role.
“It’s been demanding and tough at times in rehearsal,” she admits. “There are so many elements to Queenie to get across. She is a survivor, wants to look gorgeous and look like she’s happy but she’s also of course incredibly vulnerable and completely unfaithful to her lover.
“It’s because she is so insecure though. She realises she has to come through and that life can be OK.
“So it’s a challenge to get that across and hopefully get the audience on her side.
“But it’s been an incredible experience for me, there is a lot of dancing and movement to get right as well as the music, elements of ballet too - the music has an unusual rhythm in it - Michael doesn’t write things that are easy to learn so it’s quite difficult but then I like doing things that aren’t easy and that stretch me.
“I have sung a lot of jazz in my time and love that odd rhythm but don’t find that it comes easy. One of my albums had more of a jazz focus to it. However this is something else! We are rehearsing one number now which is so tricky it’s a real killer!” she says cheerfully.
“But that’s what is so interesting - he writes like no one else and when you come and see it you will see what I mean. I’ve never been in a piece like it.
“The cast and creative team are also a joy to work with, there is so much energy and such a good feeling in the room which is very rare. So it is a joy, it’s fresh and exciting and we are loving it.”
Frances says she is also looking forward to coming back to the theatre in which she stared her career so many years ago.
“It used to be the St James Theatre which was where I had my first West End job when I was just 16,” she recalls. “I hadn’t thought about it till today but it’s like it’s come full circle.
“I always knew this was the career for me and at the time I got my first job I was 16 and thought I was earning a fortune! I’ve been a very lucky girl since then.”
And so she has with roles in several West End shows including the famous Eponine in Les Miserables.
She acknowledges its place in her history with a genuine warmth and affection saying it opened up many doors for her. But it’s clear she’s just as proud of the rest of her extensive body of work.
“Les Miserables changed my life,” she says. “I’m lucky to have had such an incredible role that was so successful and opened doors.
“There are times when I think ‘oh God just go away’ because it was 30 years ago and I’ve had 30 years of it but then I realise what it gave me and embrace it and am grateful to have had that experience and chance. I can’t ask for more.
“In fact it’s lovely when I hear people talk with such warmth and affection for Eponine and the show in general. I still get such lovely letters and emails - it’s so nice!
“But now I’m doing something else that I hope will excite people just as much - so see you at the party!”
The Wild Party is on at The Other Palace in Palace Street, until Saturday, April 1. Tickets cost from £10. Visit www.theotherpalace.co.uk or call the box office on 0844 264 2121 for full listings.