Cabaret Interview Caro Meets

Sarah-Louise Young: La Poule Plombée

By | Published on Thursday 1 September 2016


Our admiration for the amazing actor and cabaret veteran Sarah-Louise Young is pretty long standing. She first stole our hearts with her acclaimed solo cabaret shows in Edinburgh, which led to our decision to give her one of our ThreeWeeks Editors’ Awards; but she does loads of other stuff too – she performed in a highly rated play at the Fringe this summer, for example, and performs with much loved improv musical troupe Showstoppers.
She and her equally brilliant collaborator Michael Roulston are set to perform one of their new shows, ‘La Poule Plombée’, at London Wonderground next week, and I thought it was about time we caught up with her, to find out more about this show, the other shows, and her career in general.

CM: Can you begin by telling us about the show you are performing at London Wonderground this week? What can audiences expect from it? Does it have a narrative?
S-LY: La Poule is a troubled artiste with a massive voice and an aching heart. She sings beautiful and bittersweet comic songs woven with tales of jealousy and lost love. Keeping the show together is her long-suffering pianist Mumu and their story and co-dependent relationship is the narrative spine of the show. Together they present a dark comedy for fans of cabaret and musical theatre.

CM: How exactly did it get that name?
S-LY: ‘La Poule Plombée’ is a play on Edith Piaf’s ‘Little Sparrow’. It literally translates as ‘The Leaden Chicken’, both heavy and wounded, as if shot by a gun. La Poule explains how she got the name and that English people refer to her as ‘The Frumpy Pigeon’. Her jealousy of Piaf is a driving force in her life. How exactly did I get the name? I asked my French neighbour to help me!

CM: How do you go about putting a show like this together? What’s your creative process?
S-LY: La Poule has featured in four previous Cabaret Whore shows where over the years I have played seven different characters, usually four per show with quick changes. She has endured the most so we felt she deserved her own one-hour piece. She also threatened us with a knife so we had no choice!

All the decisions come from story and character: my writing partner Michael Roulston and I have been collaborating for ten years, so we have developed a way of writing that works for us. We will discuss ideas for songs and story and then I will go away and write a draft lyric and script. Next we get together and start setting text to music, editing as we go. Michael then works alone on the arrangements.

For this show we also worked with the brilliant clown expert and director, Peta Lily. It was a different challenge making a story arc to engage for an hour as opposed to just fifteen minutes. Peta really helped us discover and define who we were and what we wanted to say. It was also the first time that Michael had joined me on stage in character, and we created a whole new identity for him in Mumu.

The final ingredient is the audience: what I love about cabaret is how it changes with each audience and how the work develops over the course of a run. It’s been a thrill seeing ‘La Poule’ take flight over the Edinburgh Fringe and we are really excited about bringing her home to the Wonderground.

CM: As it’s a new show, did you find yourself ironing out kinks during the August performances?
S-LY: We did five previews which were invaluable to us. We also did a very early run through with mostly pre-existing songs back in December to a select group of friends and peers to find out which parts of the story resonated with them.

In the past we have given out feedback forms at early showings but have found over the years that the best way to improve your show is to listen to the response in the room. If you ask lots of individuals for their comments they often give you conflicting suggestions so you have to stay strong and trust your experience and your gut. Plus checking in with your director and a few well-chosen creatives.

We made a lot of bold changes between the preview shows so by the time we arrived in Edinburgh we were ready to hit the ground running. That said, each show has taught us something new and we are always tweaking and adjusting. It’s helpful to have the writers on standby!

CM: How did the run go? You won an award, didn’t you…?
S-LY: We had an amazing run, thank you. The Voodoo Rooms was perfect for the show and the audience response was fantastic. That is the most important thing for us. Reviews have also been positive. It’s always interesting to read what people think your show is about and how it resonates with them. Winning The Stage Award was the icing on the cake. We were performing two shows: ‘La Poule’ and ‘Roulston & Young: Songs For Lovers (And Other Idiots)’. Paul Vale from The Stage came to see both of them. His write-up was really insightful and intelligent so we were really pleased to have our work acknowledged by him and his team.

CM: Where will the show go from here? Will you be taking it on tour, or doing other runs in the future?
S-LY: We are looking at some international dates: possibly Perth and Adelaide and we would love to take ‘La Poule’ to New York. We are open to offers. There are lots of conversations to have now that Edinburgh is over and the reviews are in. We are also playing a great little pub theatre in Dobcross on 23rd October and the Canterbury Festival on 4th November. Canterbury is my home city so my mum can finally see it!

CM: You’ve done lots of amazing shows in the past, ‘Julie Madly Deeply’ and ‘Songs For Cynics’, to name but two… What happens to them? Do you still perform them? Are they added to a ‘wardrobe’ of shows that you ‘wear’ from time to time, or are they shelved after a while?
S-LY: Ha ha, I like that idea. They are all in the trunk. We are a cheap date really. Michael and I have gone on tour and played three different shows over three nights before! ‘La Poule’ is our eighth show together and we already have ideas for our ninth so who knows, we may be taking them out of moth balls like vintage outfits well into our eighties.

CM: Did you always want to be a performer? What set you on the road to this career? What do you love about it?
S-LY: I was the last person in my life to realise I was going to become a performer. I had always sung in choirs and used to annoy my four brothers by endlessly tap dancing in the kitchen. I went to university to study languages and only changed onto drama and English after I arrived and met the other students on the course. Suddenly it all fell into place.

Fortunately for me I was at Bristol which has one of the best academic drama departments in the country. At Bristol I was exposed to a lot of different theatre styles and voices and also spent most of my spare (and some not so spare) time acting, directing, choreographing and even once, doing props (for the now very well established director Tamara Harvey. She was brilliant even then).

It was thanks to the university drama society that I first came to Edinburgh twenty-one years ago and since then I have been hooked. I did my first solo show ‘Drag King’ there when I was 22. It was on at one o’clock in the morning with a free shot of vodka in a venue which doesn’t even exist anymore. Suzanna Rosenthal saw it and invited me to perform it at the Etcetera Theatre for four weeks, so I found myself in London doing a run of a show I had written and realising that I had become a performer.

A year later I trained in acting and musical theatre at Mountview and pretty much from then on I began working in cabaret, thanks to my old friend Paul L Martin and our new friend Dusty Limits. We put on shows in broom cupboards and back rooms until Peter Lewis let us take over the Battersea Barge as often as we wanted to. There was a group of us who started out there together and a lot of us are still collaborating now. That is where I met Michael, and in between jobbing actor gigs as various pregnant women on Casualty and some great plays at the Royal Exchange, he and I discovered we could write together and the rest… is where we find ourselves today.

I worked for eight years doing temping jobs, wiping everything from tables to bottoms but it was worth it to forge a life where I get to tell stories and sing songs for a living. I have been very fortunate.

CM: Who has influenced, inspired or helped in your career?
S-LY: There were many kind words from older actors over the years who offered their wisdom and shared their experience. Now that I am forty I find myself doing the odd bit of mentoring myself, both formal and informal, which I enjoy. The now sadly missed Gillian Barge taught me, when I told her that I was keen to get my foot on the first rung of the ladder, that there was no ladder. I’ve never forgotten that.

Meeting Peter Straker at C Venues when I was twenty and watching him sing Brel every night, inspired me to write ‘Drag King’. I am lucky enough to consider him a friend now, which my younger self could not have believed. Part of the deal for us students being at the venue was that we ushered the next two shows after us. Most of the cast wanted to go out partying but I volunteered for extra shifts so I could watch him perform again and again.

Paul L Martin played me Victoria Wood and Fascinating Aida for the first time at age fourteen, and as with many of my contemporaries, that set a bar and moved me in the direction of musical comedy. A few years back I had the amazing opportunity to perform with them as a guest soprano for ten months, which was a total joy. I even got to write with them and record a CD and DVD and do a West End run. Family have always supported me and I have a handful of very close friends (very few of whom are performers) whom I have known since I was young. They love me whether I do a good show or not.

CM: Where do you see yourself going? Are there any ambitions you have yet to fulfil?
S-LY: Michael and I are about to start writing a musical which I have been researching on and off for the last seven years. It’s set in the French horror theatre, the Grand Guignol, so a lot of the source material is in French. We are really excited to have some financial backing and a lot of interest in the idea already. I don’t plan to perform in it: I just want to make it happen.

My first professional job was working for the great Tall Stories theatre company and their approach to devising and physical story telling continues to influence me. I still act and love working on new plays and musicals (I have just been in Desmond O’Connor’s ‘Royal Vauxhall’ at Edinburgh. My third show of the day!) I’d love to return to the Royal Exchange, perform at the Royal Court, play Mrs. Lovett, Beatrice in ‘Much Ado’ and a whole host of other parts. I would die happy if Patty LuPone sang one of our songs and have a childhood dream to appear in an episode of ‘The Archers’… and ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. Most, if not all of the Showstoppers – with whom I have improvised for the past six years – want to be on Strictly!

CM: What’s next for you?
S-LY: As I type this I am on a train to Pitlochry to take a three-day holiday! Then it’s back to Glasgow for more gigs, then the London Wonderground for ‘La Poule’, plus a bit of coaching and meetings about new shows. There is always something to do or see. I’m already booking up every free evening to see shows in London. First up is Spymonkey’s ‘Complete Deaths’ and then ‘Groundhog Day’. I can’t wait!

Sarah-Louise Young performs ‘La Poule Plombée’ at London Wonderground on 6 Sep. See the venue website here for details.

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Image: Clive Holland