Interview: I Dreamed a Dream is like a ‘dark explosion’, says Elaine C Smith

Elaine C Smith as Susan Boyle in I Dreamed A Dream
Elaine C Smith as Susan Boyle in I Dreamed A Dream
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RAB C Nesbitt’s Mary Doll tells Barry Gordon why she jumped at the chance to tell the story of singing sensation Susan Boyle in musical I Dreamed A Dream

‘A play with songs.” That’s how sweetly and succinctly Elaine C Smith describes I Dreamed A Dream, the new musical in which she portrays Blackburn singing sensation Susan Boyle.

It’s something of an understatement, too, considering Subo’s worldwide appeal. Interest in the 51-year-old from West Lothian has been immeasurable since she stepped out in front of a cynical audience at Glasgow’s Clyde Auditorium back in August 2008 for Britain’s Got Talent.

Since then, Subo’s story has been largely played out in the tabloid press, much to her detriment.

Smith, however, who also co-wrote the musical, has been very conscious of handling such a fragile, yet gifted person.

“I was apprehensive when the idea first came around,” she says. “I realised I’d been given something very precious, something delicate I wanted to treat well. Therefore, I wanted the show to be moving, entertaining, and wanted people to feel they’d understood Susan and what she’d been through.

“You have to remember that Susan didn’t tell anyone she was going on Britain’s Got Talent. She got on five buses and got completely lost. Why did she do that, at that point in her life? That interested me.”

One of Scottish TV and theatre’s best-known actors, it all started for Smith when Boyle spotted her on the Paul O’Grady show and thought she’d be good at playing her.

“My initial reaction was I didn’t want to, because there was a level of exploitation surrounding her,” Smith maintains. “But my sisters said it would be a brilliant thing to do.

“So, Susan invited me down to her house in Blackburn – the posh house – and it was lovely. We had a cup of tea, I met her family and I made sure I got a posh biscuit. We just had a laugh, and I told her she’d handled everything brilliantly.

“At the end, she put her arms around me and said ‘I’d be honoured for you to play me’.”

Touring since March, IDAD begins its six-day run at the Festival Theatre tomorrow night.

It charts Boyle’s humble beginnings; from singing karaoke in the small mining village she calls home to her audition on Britain’s Got Talent; from global domination to tackling the subject of bullying, her learning difficulties and her strict upbringing. It’s quite the fairy-tale.

There are songs, too, of course, and plenty of them. Be warned, though, Smith assures this is no cheese-fest.

“I know there’s a version of this show where people could put on a wig and a dress and sing her songs in the Pavilion and have a big sing along. And that’s fine. But this is totally different.

“The production values, the massive soundscapes, there’s no skimping at all. There’s an air of respectability.

“I didn’t want this to be a sugary-sweet version, either, aiming much more for a Blood Brothers, Billy Elliot, grittier kind of appeal.

“In many ways it is a fairytale, but like all fairy-tales, there’s a lot of darkness in there. You could liken it to a bomb explosion: you want fairy dust, but it’s full of shrapnel.”

Reaction to the show, by both critics and audiences alike have been very positive. Five-star reviews, standing ovations, fans travelling from America to see the show. Better yet, there’s no sign of Simon Cowell in the show, either.

“We didn’t want to do anything with Simon Cowell, or Piers Morgan, as that would be daft – it would take away the focus from Susan,” says the 54-year-old. “The reaction though has been fantastic. It’s like life in art.

“Suddenly it’s me on The Today Show. Susan texted me to say, ‘I take it the show is open – I just saw it on Jordan telly.’

“The only mediocre review was from The Herald. It’s typical and no less than I expected from my home town,” Smith jokes.

A clear success, so what of the future? World tours? A movie – Subo given the Hollywood treatment?

“The producers have signed a deal with someone - others clearly want to see where the story has led. You don’t know what goes on inside the head of a LA movie studio executive – Scottish women just don’t get that chance to do these things - so perhaps Michelle Pfeiffer may get to play me playing Susan yet.”

However, says Smith, “I’d like to go to Australia, and maybe even America with the show. That said, I don’t know if I want to play Wisconsin on a wet Wednesday evening – I want to be at home watching Coronation Street. I’m sh****** myself, though, as when you come home to perform it’s always that bit more daunting.”

Boyle herself is known to sing some songs during performances. As Smith reveals, to get her up for a few tunes is only a text away.

“She feels like this is her job now, whereas initially, to go from singing karaoke to what she’s doing now... well, it must make you fragile. You can understand the effect it’s had on her – she’s never had that kind of attention to deal with before and she still has a lot of nerves.

“I said to her, ‘we’ll have done our job if they’re on their feet before you come on.’ Susan says just text me, to Blackburn, if you want me to come up.”

Currently the face of a new breast cancer awareness campaign, Smith is no stranger to Edinburgh. She lived in the Capital for many years, met her husband in the city, and used to teach at Firhill High School. It’s clear she’s fond of the place.

“I’m looking forward to feeling the love in Edinburgh and I hope they come in their droves. As Susan says herself, though: one day at a time, one show at a time.”

• I Dreamed A Dream, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, tomorrow until Sat 29, 7.30pm (2.30pm Sat matinee), £15-£39.50, 0131-529 6000