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West End and Broadway star Kerry Ellis returned home to stage a fundraising concert for the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket. Andrew Clarke met up with her and took her on a tour of a changing Suffolk landscape
here have the Haughley Bends gone? West End and Broadway star Kerry Ellis is at the wheel of her Audi sports car on her way, along the A14, to pay her first visit to The Apex concert venue in Bury St Edmunds.
The Stowmarket-born star is back in Suffolk to prepare for her homecoming concert to raise money for the John Peel Centre based in her hometown.
Kerry is a little non-plussed that the A14 is no longer as she remembers it. I grew up around Haughley the Haughley Bends were such a big part of my world I remember waiting an age to get across that road.
As we enter Bury, more surprises await the 32-year-old globe-trotter. I learned to drive in Bury, I dont remember this (talking of the Cineworld cinema complex on Parkway) everything has changed.
The biggest gasp is reserved for when we park in the old Lacey Scott car park and walk across the Arc shopping centre towards The Apex itself.
This is not how it was when I was growing up, she tells her concert promoter Steven Paling, The last time I walked across that car park, it was a cattle market. Its amazing, she says looking around her.
The concert, billed as Coming Home, has been organised by Stowmarket Rotary Club as a means to raise funds for the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket.
Earlier in the day Kerry met Sheila Ravenscroft (Mrs John Peel) and the team behind the centre, getting a feel for the venue and the work of the centre. She loved the fact that the centre was designed for use by the whole community rather than just one section of it.
I think places like the John Peel Centre are great for bringing communities together. The arts are so important. They fill a vital niche in our society.
She said that it was also fitting that John Peels name should be attached to it because he was very much part of Stowmarket life and the centre was exactly the sort of place that she would have loved to have had access to when she was growing up. Kerry left Stowmarket High School, aged 16, to attend the theatre school Laine Theatre Arts, hot on the heels of fellow Suffolk performer Ruthie Henshall.
Prior to Laine she had appeared at the Wolsey Theatre in a production of The Wizard of Oz. Also, while training, she gained experience and earned money performing at Potters Holiday Resort in Kessingland.
Until this years Apex concert, Kerrys biggest performance in Suffolk came when she was fresh out of drama school. In 1998 she had landed a job on The Magic of the Musicals Marti Webbs tour celebrating the music of the West End and Broadway.
The tour came to Ipswich and as fate would have it Marti was laid low by illness and Kerry went on in her place. She laughs now remembering her nerves at the time. Because it was in Ipswich, I had all my home crowd there to support me, Mum, Dad, family and friends. They were all urging me on which was great.
Having survived her baptism of fire, it was time for what amounted to a working holiday on the worlds largest cruise liner The Voyager of the Seas.
I was engaged as a lead vocalist. I sailed around the Caribbean for nine months, which was lovely. Its a fantastic job. I was sailing around this wonderful place, in the lap of luxury and I only had to do two shows a week.
Back in Britain she did more Magic of the Musicals before what was to become her big break in My Fair Lady.
My Fair Lady was incredible. It was a great step up for me. It was important not just in the type of show it was but also in getting my face known.
Kerry is renowned for the power of her voice and it was this that first attracted the attention of Queen guitarist Brian May who suggested she audition for the new Queen musical We Will Rock You.
Kerry landed the role of Meat and got to sing the only new number in the show, Brians song about Freddie Mercury, No-One But You (Only the Good Die Young).
Kerry stayed with the show for more than two years before being offered the lead in another new musical Wicked although on this occasion she wouldnt open the run.
The producers decided to bring Broadway lead Idina Menzel to play green-skinned witch Elphaba and offered Kerry the position of standby on the understanding she would take on the lead once Idinas three month contract ended.
Illness cover allowed her to take to stage nine times before she officially took on the role in January 2007. Kerry quickly made the role of Elphaba her own, and struck up a happy partnership with Dianne Pilkington who played Glinda, the Good Witch of the East. The pair remain the shows longest serving leads. In 2008 Kerry took her portrayal of Elphaba to Broadway before returning to London where she continued to play the role until May 2009.
She then immediately disappeared into Brian Mays recording studios to finish off her debut album Anthems, which was released in late 2010 and was followed up with sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and a nationwide tour in 2011.
In February this year Kerry won the West End Whats On Stage Award for Best Solo Performance for her Royal Albert Hall concert with Brian May.
Kerry has also just been cast in a new production of Jeff Waynes War of the Worlds which will be playing to huge audiences at the O2 before touring Europe in spring 2013.
With her career hurtling into the stratosphere does she have any advice for her younger self and any would-be performers taking their first steps into showbusiness at the John Peel Centre?
She ponders the question for a minute before answering. I was quite lucky because I had a very supportive family. I was lucky that I got a grant so was able to go to theatre school. I was lucky to be able to follow my dream.
But looking back on it, I think I would say to myself: Be a little bit daring. Be a bit braver. I was a little bit of a safe performer. Even though I tried different things, I would say now that I could have been a little bit more courageous.
As a performer I found it hard to talk to the audience but now its a joy to share my experiences.
Today Kerry is a role model for many younger performers. She conducts workshops with theatre schools around the country. Who was her inspiration when growing up?
Funnily enough it was Ruthie Henshall. She was a success story from Suffolk and from Laine Theatre Arts, so I looked up to Ruthie. I think I identified with her because it was an actual story that I saw happen and was achievable. She was only a couple of years ahead of me and I could relate to her.
She says that she hopes the homecoming gig will provide inspiration for any other young performers who live outside London to pursue their dream of a life on stage.
It proves that a girl from the country, who starts off at a Suffolk holiday park can, if she applies herself, go all the way to the West End, to Broadway and the Royal Albert Hall.
Thats where the John Peel Centre fits in. Who knows who will take their first steps into a greater performing world at the John Peel Centre? Who will first be inspired by something they see there? Thats what makes me so excited and why I wanted to support it. Also Stowmarket deserves it.