While Shetland boasts plenty of talented people, over the years there are not many who have made it onto the West End stage in an instantly-recognisable show.
Francesca Leyland, 20, from Lerwick, however, has done just this by gaining a place in the ensemble of Les Miserables, which will run from June at London’s Shaftesbury Avenue.
Francesca said: “I’m just over the moon. It’s so rare to get a place in the West End, especially straight from college. I’m very privileged.
“Usually you leave college and could end up auditioning for a few weeks or even a year, but I’ve got a job before I leave. There were five people who have West End jobs, but there were 48 in my year.”
Francesca has been studying for a BA (Hons) degree in musical theatre production at the prestigious Arts Educational School in London. She had been due to finish in June but is leaving early to begin her first role as an actress.
Although this is her professional West End debut, Francesca is no stranger to performing. In 2008 she appeared as Princess Jasmine in the Christmas pantomime Aladdin in Basingstoke, Hampshire.
She said: “That was a fantastic experience. I was playing a lead role among various well-known faces. I got that through my college. Since then I’ve been doing my final year at college.”
However gaining such an important role so soon after college has been a dream come true and as 2010 is the 25th anniversary of the West End production, it is an important show to be a part of.
She was put forward for the role of the lead character by her agent. Francesca is represented by Cole Kitchenn, who have some popular names on their books, such as Emmerdale’s Roxanne Pallett, Jennifer Ellison and N-Dubz singer Tulisa.
Originally she was pitted against some popular names for the place of the lead character. She didn’t make the cut for the lead role, but was asked back to sing for a place in the ensemble nevertheless.
She said: “I went to see Cameron Mackintosh twice in the Easter holidays, to audition for a place in Hair the musical, which I made the finals for, and for Les Miserables.”
Gaining the place was gruelling and meant a five-round audition process.
Francesca said: “For the first audition I had to sing two songs, one to demonstrate the high end of my voice and one for the lower. I was up on the Queen’s Theatre stage and the casting panel were down in the stalls of the theatre, it was quite a daunting experience!
“One week later I was recalled and they sent me materials from the show. For the next audition we did workshops and they directed me to see how I would perform. Then I got another phonecall to say I’d made the finals.”
During the next audition she was kept for three hours and was asked to sing with some of the other lead boys.
“That was fun, it was a good experience – there were some nice boys!”
She was asked back the following day where she took part in another day of workshops where the auditionees had to learn a section of the show and perform it.
Following this there was an X-Factor style cut, but Francesca made the final group. She was called by her agent who let her know she had the job.
“I was in the middle of rehearsing for a musical version of Romeo and Juliet and when I got the phonecall all I could say was ‘Oh my god …!’ I was over the moon. I went shopping to celebrate!”
Francesca’s role in the ensemble means she will play various characters, be part of some fantastic ensemble singing and get to wear some “extravagant costumes”. She said: “I’m looking forward to that!”
She said all her friends and family are equally delighted and her mum Diane Leyland and dad Martin are hoping to make it down to see the opening performance.
Written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, Les Miserables has been translated into 21 languages and productions have played in 41 countries.
It originally opened at the Barbican Theatre in London in October 1985 before transferring to the Palace Theatre, and in 2004 it moved again to its current home at the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.
Two years later it took over the title of the world’s longest running musical from Cats, another Cameron Mackintosh production, and features some of theatre’s best known songs such as I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own.
The production opens on 21st June, but Francesca will leave Shetland for London in two weeks’ time to begin five weeks of rehearsals. This will involve taking over from the current actress and learning her parts inside out.
When the production begins, she will perform eight shows a week, and with the show running for a year, it will be a tiring time for Francesca.
She will be contracted to her part in Les Miserables for one year, after which she hopes to do more West End theatre work.
“It’s very exciting. I am nervous, mostly because I want to impress, if I do well in this first job it could lead to so many more things so it’s important that I do well.”
Acting is a notoriously difficult industry to find success in but she has worked hard to get this far. After leaving the Anderson High School she studied at the Dance School of Scotland in Knightswood, Glasgow, before gaining a place at the Arts Educational School.
She said: “It’s my career now and it’s beginning. It has taken me five years of gruelling hard work to get to where I am now. There has literally been sweat, blood and lots of tears but I’ve done it and I hope I can make Shetland proud and act as an ambassador for the island. If any Shetlanders are ever in London, please pop along and see the show!”