‘I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world!’ – Amy Lennox, the knockout star of Cabaret | Musicals

Let’s get one thing straight: although Amy Lennox sings and is Scottish, she is not related to Annie Lennox. She is, however, used to people making the assumption. She laughs, remembering a breakfast radio appearance from 2016 on which the host kept referring to Annie, thinking it was her mum.

“I was half-asleep,” she says. “Then the penny dropped and – on live radio – I said: ‘Oh my God! You think my mum’s Annie Lennox.’ And the producers behind the glass went – she throws a hand up over her mouth and opens her eyes wide. “Everyone was flapping. I thought, ‘I’m going to let you sit on this. You deserve it.’” She laughs again. Sure, both Lennoxes are from Aberdeen. But Amy’s journey – from belting out Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston songs in her bedroom to the West End – had nothing to do with nepotism.

There is one legacy she has to live up to, though: she is following Jessie Buckley’s Olivier-winning turn as Cabaret showgirl Sally Bowles in Rebecca Frecknall’s dynamic staging of the classic 1960s musical. Buckley and her Emcee, played by Eddie Redmayne, stepped aside in March for Lennox and Fra Fee, who is from Northern Ireland. Lennox wouldn’t normally step into a role first cast for another actor. “I don’t want to be put in a stifling position where I’m being told, ‘Stand here, do it like this’ – rather than originating a musical. It’s not how I work. It doesn’t get the best of anyone. I was always adamant about that.” A breath. “And then I thought, ‘Well, this does feel different.’”

Sleepwalking towards horror … Lennox as Bowles with Fra Fee’s Emcee. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Lennox is outspoken, chatty, fond of a giggle and sharing an opinion. We’re sitting in the bowels of London’s Playhouse theatre, to talk about how Frecknall (“Frecks” to Lennox) managed to persuade the star to take a recasting and propel her further into the spotlight. Lennox may not yet be a big name. But for the past 14 years she’s been in musicals, plays and on TV (she bowed out of Holby City earlier this year). Her cheeky, lascivious Bowles is like a jolt of electricity, and no doubt a sign of great things to come. How daunting was it to take over from Buckley? “Do you know what? I didn’t really have much time to think about it.” Her casting was confirmed, she says, and then “we started the following week. It was so fast.”

Lennox and Fee previously shared a stage in Belfast for 2015’s The Last Five Years, a two-hander musical charting the breakdown of a relationship. Cabaret was a completely different experience, given that Bowles and the Emcee barely interact. “We hardly saw each other in the rehearsal period,” she says. “It was very, very odd. I’d bump into Fra – and we were like passing ships. Bumping into him in Pret, I’d be like, ‘How was your week?’”

They’re both leads, though. It’s just that each speaks to a particular aspect of the story’s descent towards antisemitism and authoritarianism. Fra’s Emcee lulls you into a false sense of security, before slapping you across the face – look, Nazis! – and unravelling the freewheeling, booze-soaked world you’d come to understand. Lennox’s Bowles, meanwhile, blows through like a hurricane. She’s preening and cooing one moment, dressed in pink frou-frou taffeta for Don’t Tell Mama, then roaring through the title song the next, dishevelled and looking swamped in a man’s suit.

Off stage, I can see hints of Bowles’s frenetic drive in Lennox: the way she cracks herself up, gushes about her colleagues, and describes the breathlessness of her part. At the end of every performance, she says, “I just get spat out. It’s like a wipeout from flumes. Just” – she makes the sound of something shooting from a tube – “out! You’re done. I’m not having to conjure it because the show itself takes me there. It’s relentless.”

Lennox has built her stamina up over years, after falling in love with musicals at the age of 11. She remembers watching a TV documentary. “Proper stagey kids from London,” she says. They were maybe auditioning for Annie (she makes a retching sound). “And I thought, ‘Oh, what’s this?’” She wasn’t a child with pushy stage parents, though. Her mum was a solicitor, her dad the head of IT and communications for an oil firm. She had rebelled against ballet (mum’s idea) and singing (dad’s) before finding her way to musicals.

Amy Lennox in rehearsal for Kinky Boots in 2015.
Olivier nomination … Lennox in rehearsal for Kinky Boots in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

“You don’t get that local opportunity that kids down in the south-east of England take for granted – because they’re so close to this hub that we’re in now.” She motions to the West End above our heads. “I didn’t have any of that.” In Aberdeen, it all felt “so far away that you don’t really have links”. Envy propelled her, though. After seeing those children on TV, and then failing an audition for the school musical, she joined a local am-dram group and was soon honing her acting and singing.

“I auditioned for the National Youth Music Theatre loads of times. I got recalled. Never got in. My poor dad would fly with me down to London. And I never got in. It was always because I would get to a song and panic.” Over time, she learned to take charge of her voice, landing Liesl in The Sound of Music at the London Palladium right out of drama school in Guildford. She’s since received an Olivier nomination for her Lauren in 2015’s Kinky Boots, plus stage credits in 9 to 5 The Musical, Lazarus, Legally Blonde and others.

When she started out, Lennox was often told she wasn’t playing roles “big enough”, as if only an exaggerated performance would resonate. But in one of her quieter moments in Cabaret, her Bowles expresses an apathy about her situation – sleepwalking into horror – that strikes a brutal chord today. “Politics,” her Sally asks, “what’s that to do with me?” “It’s bonkers. I don’t think [Cabaret’s writers John Kander and Fred Ebb] ever intended for it to feel so valid now. We like to think, as human beings in this society, we’re constantly moving forward, striving for excellence and this and that. But we’re not! If anything, we’re just driving ourselves towards absolute disaster and we all know it,” Lennox says.

She alludes to everything from deluded strongmen to the war in Ukraine, from reproductive rights for women to the general acceptance of a future more bleak than the recent past. “It’s like Groundhog Day – and there are quite a few moments in the show that do that,” she says. “There was a prop newspaper we were using and it said, ‘Russian invasion imminent’. And you go: ‘Oh God. Oh God. What the hell’s going on?’ We’ve got another Hitler over there. Some man that’s ” She stops herself. “I’d be interested to know how much more of an edge this show has because of what’s going on in Ukraine and in Russia. It’s just chilling. Absolutely chilling.”

Lennox as Elly in Lazarus by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove, in 2016.
Lennox as Elly in Lazarus by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove, in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Beyond the show’s depiction of fascism’s creeping rise, we discuss theatre’s post-lockdown stumble back into the light. Shortly before we speak, some of the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s high-budget Cinderella found out that their jobs were to be cut short, some via social media. “I think that’s deplorable,” says Lennox. “We’ve all been pushed to our limits [by the pandemic]. I don’t know the ins and outs of what happened. But didn’t someone consider, for a moment, the repercussions of the way it was dealt with?” (The Really Useful Group said it had made “every effort” to ensure cast members were notified of the the closure.)

She takes a breath, emerging sunnier. “It’s a crazy old thankless existence for so many people. I’m grateful. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the West End. Maybe even the world.” She laughs again. Bowles has taken over her life for the past couple of months – so much so that, on some days, Lennox has to refrain from speaking to preserve her voice, which makes for silent commutes back to Ramsgate from London with her husband, actor Tom Andrew Hargreaves.

There’s now a sign on her dressing room door, made by her colleagues after she’d been really tired at the start of her run. “You know the line when I’ve got my gin and I say, ‘I’m just not speaking today.’” She laughs. “I’ve got an ‘I’m just not speaking today’ sign on my door. I’ve only done that once. I’ve only not spoken once.” She laughs again. “It’s very hard. I’m not very good at it.”

Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is booking at the Playhouse theatre, London, until 1 October.

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