As Southend actress Maisie Smith swaps the small screen for the stage in her musical theatre debut, she talks to Rebecca Pitcairn about first night nerves and the TV show that has helped build her confidence
Having starred as Tiffany Butcher in EastEnders since the tender age of six, Southend actress Maisie Smith is used to being on the small screen. And, after reaching the final of the 2020 series of Strictly Come Dancing, she’s no stranger to dancing in front of a live audience.
However, her latest role, which sees her stepping out on stage as the female lead in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom The Musical, she admits has been quite a daunting experience.
“I’ve never really done anything like this before where I’m singing, dancing and acting all in one capacity and in front of a live audience, and the first couple of nights I was so terrified, I was shaking,” she tells me during a break in rehearsals. “But as the days have gone on, seeing the audience’s reaction, it really does give you such an adrenaline rush.”
When we speak, Maisie is just two weeks into the UK tour, which sees the show stop at 40 theatres across the country, including the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend next March.
“I always like coming back to Essex when I’m doing shows,” says Maisie, who lives in Leigh-on-Sea and attended Chalkwell Hall Junior School and The Singer Stage School as a child. “Partly because most of the audience is taken up by my family. It’s cool to have so many people from your hometown coming to see you. It’s always a completely different atmosphere when I’m back in Southend.”
Directed by Craig Revel Horwood, who also acts as choreographer alongside his Strictly Come Dancing colleague and creative director Jason Gilkison, the musical is based on the Australian award-winning, 90s global film phenomenon, Strictly Ballroom, which spawned the BBC dance show.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, it tells the beguiling story of Scott Hastings, a talented but rebellious young ballroom dancer who finds himself dancing alongside novice, Fran, after his radical dance moves see him fall out of favour with the Australian Federation. Despite the unlikely pairing, the pair gather the courage to defy both convention and their families.
In what is her musical theatre debut, 21-year-old Maisie takes on the lead role of Fran, alongside Strictly Come Dancing professional Kevin Clifton as Scott Hastings – a casting he has described as a ‘dream’.
“When I got the part, I didn’t know who the other role was going to be so when I found out I was so excited, it was comforting to have a familiar face as I start this new side of performance that I’ve never done before,” says Maisie, who danced alongside Kevin, taking home the glitterball, in the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need Special in 2019.
The following year, she became a contestant on the mainstream show, reaching the finals with dance partner Gorka Márquez and only narrowly missing out to winners Bill Bailey and Oti Mabuse.
While she certainly proved her dance credentials on the show and later joined the Strictly Tour line-up, Maisie is most well-known as an actress, having played Tiffany, the daughter of Bianca Jackson [Patsy Palmer] and Ricky Butcher [Sid Owen] on EastEnders for 13 years.
Her final scenes on the set aired last December, but the door has been left open for a return, although she will not be drawn on if or when that might happen.
“I do miss it, particularly the people,” says Maisie, who won a British Soap and Inside Soap award after being on the soap for less than a year. “I spent such a long time there seeing the same people every day so I miss that and working with those people but I’m so focused on what I’m doing right now. This musical takes everything out of you so you’ve got to really be in the moment.”
Maisie also has a passion for singing. She released an EP in 2017 and wowed judges when she was unmasked as Baby Dino on the UK tour of The Masked Singer back in April. Despite this she says the singing is the part of Strictly Ballroom, which brings to life iconic songs, including Love is in the Air, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps and Time After Time, that she gets most nervous about.
“The Masked Singer was the first time I’d ever sung [to a live audience] so to then lead in a musical, with lots of numbers to sing, it’s quite nerve-wracking. I was really quite scared of revealing my voice,” she admits. “But coming out of the stage door and hearing people say they were surprised at my voice and really complimenting it, it’s really helped boost my confidence.”
Maisie’s stint on the latest series of Celebrity SAS Who Dares Wins, which was filmed in October 2021 but only aired this autumn, has also helped build her self-confidence. “It was scary, it was absolutely brutal, every minute of the day was tough but I felt so strong coming out of it, inside and out,” she explains. “I wanted to see what I would be like pushed to my extreme and it certainly did that. It’s really changed my outlook on the importance of life and the little things that I would worry about.”
Due to the tour, Maisie will be spending Christmas Day with her family in a rented home in Surrey instead of at home in Leigh-on-Sea, but is looking forward to strolling along the seafront when she does get some time off to go home.
“The one thing I really miss about Southend when I’m away is the seaside,” she smiles. “I don’t go in the sea. I used to but it’s too cold in December. Saying that I’ve jumped in a pool of ice for Celebrity SAS so I might give it a go at some point this winter!”
Strictly Ballroom The Musical is touring the UK until July 2023, stopping at Cliffs Pavilion, Southend, from March 20 to 25 2023. For tickets visit strictlyballroomtour.co.uk