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Shona White: Fife musical theatre star on life, career and Gypsy at Pitlochry

Markinch-raised singer and actress talks about her roots as she takes on the lead role of Mama Rose in the Pitlochry Festival Theatre revival of Gypsy

Shona White. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Shona White. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Jule Styne, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s legendary musical Gypsy follows an overbearing and ambitious mother attempting to break her children into show business.

Last produced at Dundee Rep in 2005, its four month run at Pitlochry will be the first time in nearly 20 years that the iconic musical has been staged in Scotland.

But unlike the pushy showbiz mother Mama Rose that she plays, Shona White insists that her own parents tried to put her off what has become a very successful 25 year career.

Inspired by Markinch Sunday school

“This sounds corny but my love of singing started in the church,” says the 46-year-old former pupil of Markinch Primary School and Auchmuty High School, Glenrothes.

“I used to go to Sunday school at Markinch Parish Church.

“I was quite often honoured and given the solo for the Christmas service or Christmas carol concert.

“It was my Sunday school teacher when practicing one day who said to me ‘you might have something here’.

“He said ‘you might have some real talent and might want to explore taking it further’.

“I’m like ‘I don’t know what you mean’.

“He introduced me to Fife Children’s Theatre at the Lochgelly Centre.

“I joined that and I was just hooked. That was my world!”

Realising this could make a career

Shona had known for a long time that she liked to sing.

But when the Fife Children’s Theatre gave her the lead role of Annie aged 11, everything just clicked.

With no history of singing or acting in her family, she didn’t realise that performing was a “thing” she could actually make into a life choice.

“I’m definitely the black sheep!” she laughs: “although my dad has a very eclectic taste in music.

“One of the things that had influenced me was going out in the car and he would play his tapes.

“I used to gravitate towards the more musical theatre genre or ‘60s stuff as well.

“I think my love of music maybe started there.”

Edinburgh Acting School

Shona can’t remember if it was her parents or the leader at Fife Children’s Theatre who mentioned it, but Edinburgh Acting School was drawn to her attention.

It was a part-time acting school that she could go to at the same time as mainstream school.

Her parents – mainly her mum – would pick her up from Auchmuty High three nights a week from the school gates.

Shona White

She’d have her tea and change in the car en route to Edinburgh.

Then she’d do acting, singing, dancing and speech lessons for three nights a week.

Edinburgh Acting School also offered “amazing opportunities” to perform in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

For example, she played Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at 15.

It was quite a commitment outwith ‘normal’ school.

But that’s how dedicated she was and how much she loved it.

“My mum and dad joke that they were trying to put me off, but I’m not sure!” she says.

“Many a true word spoken in jest!

“But I think it just got me more addicted and more sure that that’s what I wanted to do with my life”.

Leaving home for London

Shona also became involved with the National Youth Music Theatre.

They did workshops and shows nationally.

She did Oliver with them as well as Brilliant the Dinosaur at the Edinburgh Festival.

She desperately wanted to go to Stage School in London, before school leaving age.

She used to get the Stage newspaper and read about Sylvia Young Theatre School.

However, her mum and dad said ‘no, we want you to get a good education first’.

When she then came to the point of auditioning for colleges in London at 16, she got three offers.

The deal then was if she got good grades in her Highers she could take one of these places and move to London. She got straight As!

She moved to London five days after she turned 17 to go to college.

“Back then you had to go to colleges in London because they didn’t really exist up here,” she says.

“There was only the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, which is now the Conservatoire.

“Back then you could choose music or acting – you couldn’t do it all together.

“So I had to go to London to one of these big colleges.”

She chose Italia Conte.

When she went to the building she felt like she “fitted in” because everyone was young and vibrant.

She did three years at the Barbican in London on their performing arts diploma course.

She then  embarked upon a postgraduate course for one year at the Royal Academy of Music where she’s now a proud associate.

Whilst training there she won the Ronald White Prize for Acting Through Song.

25 year career and counting

She’s since been working in musical theatre for 25 years.

She actually left the Royal Academy early – still graduating – to do her dream job which was Les Miserables.

It was a tour which included an “incredible” three months in Edinburgh Playhouse.

For her that was a “full circle moment”.

She vividly remembers her family and old school friends coming to see her perform.

Shona White

It also took her back to being a teenager when she’d get the old double cassette tapes of big musicals and listen to them in her bedroom.

She’d learn every word which was when Les Miserables become her dream show.

Most recently Shona was in the original cast of Jack Absolute Flies Again at The National Theatre.

Theatre credits include: Jack Absolute Flies Again(National Theatre); Miss Gordon in Michael Grandage’s award winning Merrily We Roll Along(Donmar Warehouse); Leda Cotton in I Capture the Castle(Watford Palace,Bolton Octagon) and Florence Vassy in the award winning production of Chess directed by Craig Revel Horwood (UK Tour & Princess of Wales Theatre Toronto).

She also played Elphaba in Wicked (Apollo Victoria), Usherette/Magenta in The Rocky Horror Show (UK Tour and Playhouse, London) and Lisa and Sophie Sheridan in Mamma Mia!(Prince Edward).

‘Tenacity and commitment’

While the buzz of performing has never left her, the “fun” of being a 10 year-old living out her passion has given way to the life choice that is “not always consistent or reliable”.

“It’s one of those things you only do if you really want to do it,” she says.

“You’ve got to have the talent first, but also the tenacity and the commitment, because it can be up and down.

“But I’m still doing it! I’m not ready to give up yet!”

Shona White. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre

With the industry still recovering from the tough Covid-19 pandemic – a period which she now finds “very surreal” as in “did that really happen?”-  she says society in general is crying out for “joy and escapism”.

Like many other artists, she had to adapt to doing concerts and teaching projects online.

Many colleagues have not gone back to performing, finding security elsewhere.

For her, however, there was nothing else she wanted to do.

Role of Mama Rose in Gypsy

Since Covid-19 she’s been “very lucky” to do some incredible jobs.

She’s now delighted to be playing the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy which is one of the greatest and most dazzling musicals of all time.

Based on the tantalising memoir of famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, it tells the story of pushy showbiz mother Rose, who travels across America with her daughters, Baby June and Louise, in search of success with their homemade vaudeville act.

Shona White and Blythe Jandoo rehearsing for Gypsy. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre

“I actually auditioned for Gypsy in London pre-pandemic,” she says.

“I didn’t really hear much else about it. I knew the production was planned to go on but then it was pulled because of Covid.

“It was very lovely to then receive a call from my agent at the end of last year to say ‘would I like to play Mama Rose in Gypsy at Pitlochry Festival Theatre as part of the Rep season?’

“I said ‘thank-you very much’!”

Family holidays in Pitlochry

Shona used to visit Pitlochry on family holidays as a youngster.

They’d go on caravan holidays around the Dunkeld and Birnam areas, visiting the theatre whilst there.

“Growing up as an actress I knew it was there and I knew they did a fantastic Rep season,” she says.

Shona White at Gypsy rehearsals. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre

“But it’s never really worked out that I could get in there.

“This is therefore an absolute bucket list moment to be so close to home in their festival season. It’s wonderful.

“In my opinion Gypsy is one of the best American book musicals ever written.

“It’s got one of the best scores and one of the best scripts.

“It’s based on real people. But it’s by no means their story. It’s a musical fable.

“It’s loosely based on real people but the characters you see in the musical are not the actual real people because some of the things that happen to those real people are actually quite dark.

Robbie Scott and Blyth Jandoo rehearsing for Gypsy. Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre

“It would make for a different musical and we don’t want that.

“We want joy!”

When to see Gypsy at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Gypsy runs at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from May 19 to September 30.

The revival will be the opening production of the Pitlochry Festival 2023 season.

The season also sees Shona play Mrs Medlock in The Secret Garden, as well as participation in other Pitlochry shows including West End Musical Extravaganza and The Greatest Musicals of All Time.