Maria finalist now in South Pacific

Emma Lee How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? runner-up Helena Blackman takes centre stage as Nellie Forbush in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific at the Norwich Theatre Royal. EMMA LEE spoke to her.

Emma Lee

On Saturday night, when I'd Do Anything finalists Jodie Prenger and Jessie Buckley were anxiously waiting in the wings to find out which of them would be playing the coveted role of Nancy in the West End, one woman knew exactly how they were feeling.

Two years ago, Helena Blackman was in the same position, having made it through to the last stage of the BBC's first search for a new theatre star, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?.

While Connie Fisher won the lead role, taking part in the show, which included invaluable advice from the biggest name in the business, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, gave Helena's career a big helping hand.

Now she's playing the lead role of Nellie Forbush in a touring revival of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, which is at the Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday.

While shows like …Maria? are sure-fire ratings winners, what's the reality of taking part in a TV talent search?

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"It's very emotional," Helena says. "And it's very hard work. But it was such an experience to go through. And I do feel nostalgic about it."

And what did she think of this year's contestants? The public decided Jodie will be starring alongside Rowan Atkinson (who's playing Fagin) when Oliver! returns to London at the end of the year.

Did they make the right choice?

"They were all very talented girls and I didn't know what was going to happen," she says. "I did like Jodie. She's probably the closest to the character of Nancy.

"It's all just about casting at the end of the day and they have to choose the right person for the job. And the public decided that they wanted to go and see Jodie. She's got plenty of time to prepare - six months."

Helena, 25, says she has been performing for as long as she can remember.

Born in Hampshire, the seeds of her career were sown at the age of just 18 months when she started dance lessons.

She studied ballet, modern character and tap, gaining qualifications from the Royal Academy of Dance.

An all-round entertainer, she started her music and drama training, which included singing, piano and clarinet lessons, when she was 10. It led to appearances at shows and concerts throughout her home county.

At 18 she won a scholarship for the three-year musical theatre course at the renowned Guildford School of Acting, from which she graduated in 2004.

She says that she loves musical theatre and decided to go in that direction "because it combines acting, singing and dancing".

Her early professional credits include Grab Me a Gondola at The Theatre Museum, London; Frasquita in Howard Goodall's 20th Century Musical Greats for Channel 4; and Spirit of Fire at the Royal Albert Hall.

In 2005 she spent seven months as a principal singer at Tokyo Disneyworld in Japan, followed by the role of Jill in Jack and the Beanstalk at The Wilde Theatre, Bracknell, and a European tour of Beatlemania.

But it was How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? that brought her to a wider audience and led to her role in South Pacific.

The acclaimed musical has won numerous accolades, including nine Tony awards.

Helena's character, Nellie, is a naïve Navy nurse from Arkansas, who falls in love with middle-aged French plantation owner Emile de Becque (played by Dave Willetts, a stalwart of musical theatre who has appeared in Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers) during her wartime posting to a Pacific island.

However, she soon discovers secrets in his past that she finds difficult to come to terms with.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Joe Cable is caught in a similar dilemma as he grows increasingly fond of Liat, daughter of the Asian pedlar Bloody Mary.

The score features a host of classic crowd pleasers including Some Enchanted Evening, Younger Than Springtime, There is Nothing Like a Dame, Bali Ha'i, Happy Talk and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.

"The show does have its dark moments," says Helena. "But there are a lot of laughs to be had by the audience too".

With South Pacific coming to the end of its run, where would Helena like to head next?

She says that there's one role she would love to play.

"Eliza Doolittle," she says.

"Whenever My Fair Lady comes back, I would love the part. She's another of those female leads that goes on a journey, there's great music and it's a classic big musical, which I'm probably more suited to than anything else."

South Pacific is at the Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday to Saturday, June 10-14. Performances start at 7.30pm with 2.30pm matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk