Theatre Thoughts: Casting Choices

There's been a bit of a kick-off across my Facebook over the news that reality TV "star" Ferne McCann has been cast in a musical.

I don't watch reality TV. Even the adverts for things like Essex Shore, or whatever it's called, make bile rise in my throat. But I can't deny that they have some sort of popularity, and their lead characters have, I'm aware, gone on to do other (usually equally banal) things within the entertainment industry.

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On the one hand, I understand why the vitriol: I trained as an actress and dancer, and to appear in a show like this would have once been a dream for me* so to see someone who is "straight up there" on a karaoke, and who was rejected from a drama school so went travelling instead, is a real kick in the teeth to all of the supremely talented, dedicated, highly trained performers out there who are desperate for work.
She seems so, I don't know: glib about the casting. Her attitude is extremely irritating and thoughtless: "I sing all day long..." Great. Doesn't make you a singer, sweetheart. Have you trained and worked for this? Nope. You're a pretty face who happened to be in the right place at the right time for some TV executive to see you and decide he can make a buck off of you.

One of the points raised was "Why? Why was she cast?" Yes she has a certain type of popularity, but the people who watch her shows are not the sort of people who would buy West End Theatre tickets.

And this, I think, is the point. They're not. But they could be. They are a previously untapped source of revenue, and casting someone like this may get a whole new audience in to the theatre, to see a "sleb" in the flesh. And you never know, they may like it! Marketing departments across the arts are constantly trying to think of ways to engage new audiences, and this is one of the ways that theatre can.

Brooke Shields, Denise Van Outen, Michelle Williams: some of the celebrities who appeared in the West End's 'Chicago'

It has happened time and time again - celebrity casting in order to sell tickets. Hell, Chicago made it into an art form of its own! My auntie would go and see the show each time there was a cast change (i.e. new celebrity playing any role), so that was the point; repeat custom and drawing in fans of a particular person. However, the Union isn't a huge West End theatre and probably can't afford the likes of a Hollywood star, or maybe even a faded 80's pop singer. But they can afford a reality TV star.

The Union isn't one of the major London theatres, so this will get the press talking, and different kinds of press such as tabloids and magazines, that would not usually cover theatres. This casting has made news already. It will get fans of her and her show into the theatre, and will probably get people in purely for the chance to possibly watch her crash and burn.

The way people are going on (on my timelines, at least), you'd think she was playing the lead. She's not. She's playing the role of Myrtle Wilson; the character is a wannabe flapper who makes all of the wrong choices. In this way I think the casting actually quite inspired; if Myrtle was real and alive today, she'd totally be the kind of person who wants to be on a reality show.

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Isla Fischer as Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby movie

You never know - she might be quite good. I doubt even a cash-strapped theatre or company would risk their reputation casting someone utterly shite. The rest of the cast is cracking, so this shouldn't be allowed to overshadow them.

Yes, I'm annoyed they've gone for someone who sounds so flippant about it. Yes, I'm gutted for the people who auditioned only to find they've been passed over for someone with such limited performance experience. And yes, I think that talent should trump every time. But it doesn't, and I can see why this decision has been made, as galling as it may be.

* I regularly have a dream where I'm suddenly standing on-stage or backstage, and have to go on and do a role. It's usually a really hi-octane dance routine or pas de deux, or sing a leading role. And I have no idea what the show even is. The panic is real.


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