Published Date: 17 October 2008 By LIAM RUDDEN
Arts and Entertainment Editor
TO borrow a line from her leading man, it appears Francesca Jackson was the one and only when West End supremo Bill Kenwright began his search for an actress to play Lucy in his new musical, Can't Smile Without You.
"I came out of the Nancy house on the Sunday and on the Monday was in his office singing songs for him to see if I was suitable for this job," smiles the 24-year-old, who got her big break when she was selected to appear as a contestant in I'd Do AnyADVERTISEMENT
thing, the BBC talent search to find a Nancy for Cameron Macintosh's new West End production of Oliver!
Jackson discovered that Bill Kenwright, who had been a judge on the BBC's second talent search, Any Dream Will Do, had been an avid viewer of I'd Do Anything and two weeks after she left the show, while the other girls were still battling it out, Jackson was signed up to her first national tour, which calls in at the Festival theatre next week.
"It was lovely. I just had to make sure that he was happy with me, and he was, and I was offered the part," she says happily.
All's well that ends well they say, but it could have been very different as Jackson was already an established West End performer when she opted to take the TV route.
"I'd done a three-year degree at Mountview drama school and had been in the ensemble for Tonight's The Night," she explains. "I'd also played my first lead in the West End, which was Joanne in Rent. From that I went straight into the Nancy house. So I was scared of the risks.
"What was going through my mind was the fact that if I was absolutely awful it could end my career. But at the same time it is the biggest and best audition you'll ever get. You'll never again get the chance for that many people to get to see and know you."
Although Jackson took advice from her friend Connie Fisher, who won How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, she admits that the show wasn't quite what she had expected.
"My friend Connie won the first one so she'd kind of let me know what it was all about. However, I think I'd Do Anything was very different to How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? because the BBC had worked out how to do it. They filled our days with more and more missions and knew what they wanted in interviews. They knew what questions to ask.
"It was a hell of an experience. It was terrifying and brilliant all at the same time. Very scary."
Luckily it paid off and next week Jackson shares the Festival Theatre stage with Chesney Hawkes as the 90s pop icon makes his musical debut in the show, which features more than 30 of legendary singer/songwriter Barry Manilow's best known hits.
"He is the nicest, down-to- earth person I have ever worked with. He has no airs and graces. He doesn't stress about anything. Just goes on relaxed, comes off relaxed, never changes," says Jackson of her co-star.
"When my mum said, 'It's Chesney Hawkes', I said, 'I don't know who that is'. When she said, 'You know, The One And Only,' I thought, brilliant."
Can't Smile Without You finds 37-year-old Hawkes playing Tony, the lead singer of an aspiring band on a visit to New York where they stumble across the latest TV auditions to find the next pop sensation. When Tony is offered a chance to perform, the other band members give him their blessing.
But before he can realise his dream, he is caught up in a tragic sequence of events which leave him fighting for his life. Left with no memory, his dreams are shattered. His only hope lies in the power of the music he loves and his feelings for a girl called Mandy – enter 23-year-old Siobhan Dillon, another How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? graduate, as Tony's love interest.
"I play Lucy, Tony's fiancee," says Jackson, before explaining the apparent conflict in roles. "She is Tony's fiancee but she is cheating on him with his best friend. When Tony gets back from New York he gets in a fight and loses his memory. He can't remember that he's marrying her, so when she asks him if they can split up so that she can start seeing his best friend, he says yes.
"She does get nicer as the show goes on but I do get some boos when there are Chesney fans in, which makes it a brilliant part to play because I never know how the audience are going to take me."
With the book by Tim Prager and based on an original idea by Bill Kenwright, this new musical, which comes with Manilow's blessing, includes classic numbers such as I Write The Songs, Mandy, I Made It Through The Rain, Can't Smile Without You and of course, Could It Be Magic.
"I was a bit of a fan of Barry Manilow when I was a kid. He was on my i-pod already when I got this part," beams the actress. "Still, it was surprising when I got into rehearsal to discover how many songs of his I actually knew. Songs I heard but never realised were his. His writes incredible pop songs.
"We've been told that he's trying to come to see us. He phoned Bill Kenwright during a notes session after one of our previews and spoke to Chesney. He also wants us all to come and see him at the O2."
Although the viewing public only became aware of Jackson earlier this year, the Welsh-born actress – she originally comes from the village of Ystradgynlais – had already appeared in numerous stage productions, starting with the role of Percy the Polar Bear in a nursery school production.
Later she would join the Swansea Amateur Dramatic Society where she was noticed, and at 13 played Bet, Nancy's side-kick, in the London production of Oliver!
Roles in the National Youth Musical Theatre productions of Whistle Down The Wind and Bugsy! followed, as did Rod Stewart's Tonight's the Night and Rent.
She still has her ambitions however. "I'd love to play Linda in Blood Brothers, Fantine in Les Mis, Ellen in Miss Saigon, Elphaba in Wicked . . . there are so many musical theatre roles I'd like to do, but I'd also like to get into television and do some straight acting, without the singing for a bit."
And as for the role of Nancy? "I would still love to play Nancy," she admits. "If that show lasts on the West End for a few years then I would love to go back and audition in the normal way to see if I could get the job. Absolutely. So you never know, you might see me there yet."
And that would be magic.
• Can't Smile Without You, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm (Thursday/ Saturday matinees 2.30pm), £8.50-£30, 0131-529 6000
It's all in the stars
FRANCESCA JACKSON admits that she lives by Cosmic Ordering, 'an art' she discovered while still a struggling actress working in a call centre to make ends meet.
"When I was out of work before getting a part in Rent, I was working in a call centre and waitressing," she says. "I worked at the call centre for just under a year. There were so many out-of-work actors there. It was so depressing because I was doing a 9am-6pm job and trying to see a light at the end of the tunnel and hoping to get an audition. My mum told me she'd found this Noel Edmonds' book about cosmic ordering and I started to read it. That's what I used to help me get through that tough time."
So how does cosmic ordering work? Well, every night, after a hard day's song and dance, Jackson pops a note under her pillow, hoping her dreams will come true. So far it seems to be working.