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Anoushka Lucas was never supposed to be here. She’s sitting across from me at the Young Vic, where she’s playing Laurey in Daniel Fish’s dark, stripped back, Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of Oklahoma! There’s a giant picture of her face emblazoned across the front of the theatre - but this wasn’t the plan. “I’m basically a failed pop star,” she tells me, and then bursts out laughing.
She finds herself in this massive lead role after a handful of captivating stage performances; devastating as an uncertain young queer woman in Chiaroscuro at the Bush in 2019, as the haunting presence of an old love in After Life at the National Theatre last summer, and as Princess Katherine opposite Kit Harington in the Donmar’s Henry V just last month.
But up until a few years ago, most knew Lucas, 34, as a singer-songwriter. Described by Jamie Cullum as “an exceptional voice”, she started playing the piano at the age of seven. Growing up in a two-bed council flat in Hammersmith with two sisters, she clocked early on that playing the piano was the only way to get everyone to leave her alone. She was a “scholarship kid” who went to Oxford to study Russian and Italian, living in Russia for a year, but the decision to pursue music felt natural – her parents, formerly musicians themselves, “raised us to believe that art is one of the most important things in the world.”
“I desperately wanted a record deal for the whole of my twenties,” she says. She came close – but never quite got there. So, since she was skint, she wrote some music for a friend’s theatre show, and then another; then she was in the band for a show; then she was in a show. And now here she is, with a career in theatre, playing a massive part in a massive show.
“There’s so much focus on having a plan and executing the plan. I’ve completely failed my plan. I’m so off-route from where I thought I was gonna be. And it’s so good,” she says. “What an amazing thing to discover something that you love, like... over 30? It really was an accident. I was so skint and miserable for the whole of my twenties, because trying to be an artist in a consumerist, capitalist society with no backing is a nightmare.”
Landing the lead in a highly anticipated musical revival isn’t the worst way for your plans to go awry, Lucas is aware. She’s a hoot to talk to; she laughs a lot, and often leans forward to make feminist statements, the tone of her voice travelling from ‘this is outrageous!’ to ‘this should be obvious’ as she speaks.
Growing up, she watched the film of Oklahoma! over and over- essentially the story of some people who fancy each other going to a dance, she says - and always thought of it as a romantic comedy. “Actually, it’s a very dark story about community and outsiders and insiders, and it ends with a murder. And we’ve sort of glossed over that,” she says.
The folksy arrangements in Fish’s version are bound to be bliss for the ears, but this certainly won’t be the Oklahoma! most would expect. For one thing, it’s been nicknamed “the sexy Oklahoma!” - can she confirm or deny that it is in fact sexy? “Fully confirm. It’s the sexist show I’ve ever done. There’s a huge amount of lust present on stage.”
Her Laurey, who wears jeans and is torn between confident Curly (Arthur Darvill) and shy Jud (Patrick Vaill) is “on the cusp of finding something quite powerful inside of her, but very scared of what that power is.” But for Lucas, it’s about more than whether Laurey wants a husband. “Is that the be all and end all of what women want? Where’s the space for those other things? And who is going to give her that vocabulary? Does she have it inside of herself?” Lucas sees similarities between Laurey and Princess Katherine, who she just played in Henry V: “What if marriage isn’t what she’s waiting for? Or what if she’s got a lot of other stuff going on at the same time? Or... what if she actually just really wants to f*** him?”
Here, Jud is portrayed more sympathetically, which complicates the narrative in all sorts of ways. “There’s a way you can do the show, which is based on archetypes. You’ve got the good, virtuous woman, you’ve got a sexually promiscuous woman, then you’ve got the good, strong leading man, then you’ve got the creepy man. What we’re doing is going: what if all these people are human beings, and they’re all complicated, and they all want things?” Lucas says. For Laurey, Jud is “someone who is maybe not the right choice in terms of social safety and status, but that doesn’t mean he is someone unattractive.”
Wait... aren’t we also describing the plot of Gossip Girl? Lucas does a big laugh and picks up the analogy with glee. “Jud is Dan! Jud is Dan! And Curly is Nate. But like, Nate has s*** going on as well, he’s not just a posh beautiful man!”
Having just been in a Shakespeare play, it makes sense to Lucas to strip Oklahoma! back and reimagine it. ”I think there’s a lot of material that becomes canonical, and gets treated with a certain reverence. And actually, in my mind, the most interesting way to interpret the material is just to discover it as though it’s a new piece of writing, which is what Daniel Fish has done,” she explains.
Some may find it challenging, but maybe the theatre world in the 21st century is ready for that. “We’re going through a period of being quite honest about uncomfortable social truths on stage. As I say that, I think we’ve always done that... but it’s maybe moving into more commercial spaces, because the conversations we’re having as a culture about race, class, sex and gender are now mainstream conversations,” Lucas suggests.
Later this year, Lucas will perform in her own debut play, Elephant at the Bush Theatre. It was commissioned after she wrote a short piece in summer 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd. Entitled Your Work, it was about finding space for her own emotional truth in response to her experiences of racism, amid a surge of white people wanting to be allies. “It came sort of pouring out of me,” she says. ”I started to talk about things that I’ve never talked about before.”
On the stage, it’ll just be Lucas and her piano - which has been a major source of inspiration. “My piano has been a place of safety and freedom and security. But then I realised I never really thought about where the wood comes from and where the ivory comes from and the metal, how they all connect, and how that landed in my parents house. And then I started to think about how that was sort of the same as my family,” she says.
She might release another album next year too, if she doesn’t keep taking theatre jobs. But she’ll be doing it differently this time. Lucas revealed on Instagram that it cost over £18k to release her first album, Dark Soul; it racked up over 100k plays on Spotify, but earned her a grand total of £83. Last year she released the single Wasteland, which she recorded in her room. “There’s a huge taboo about talking about money and art – they are inextricably linked,” she says. “It’s very expensive to pursue an artistic career, which doesn’t mean that not everyone should do it, but it means it’s expensive for some people to keep going, and I feel a lot of rage about how little money is talked about.”
Lucas is, therefore, “the only person in the world in the theatre industry for the money,” she jokes. It isn’t where she meant to end up – but I’ve yet to see a failure that suits anyone so well.
Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until June 25; youngvic.org