With Brian May performing again with West End star Kerry Ellis, they tell Sarah Freeman about a partnership forged on the stage.
When Kerry Ellis turned up to the auditions of the Queen inspired musical, We Will Rock You, it was just another job to add to her already burgeoning CV.
The stage school graduate had made her West End debut in My Fair Lady a year earlier, roles in Les Miserables, Wicked and Oliver! would follow, but it was We Will Rock You and more specifically a meeting with Queen guitarist Brian May which proved life-changing.
In between other projects, the pair have been collaborating ever since and are currently on the road with their Candlelight Concert tour which takes in more intimate venues than Queen are used to. Instead of big arenas or the roof of Buckingham Palace where the band memorably performed for Diamond Jubilee concert, the focus here is on small theatres, including Scarborough Spa later this month.
The programme is a mix of West End songs and Queen classics, but what they have in common is a stripped back, acoustic sound.
“In terms of Queen songs we are blessed with a very large back catalogue and there is something really refreshing playing them this way, it really gets to the heart of the song,” says May. “The set constantly changes in response to the audience. That’s one of the great things about this show, every evening is different. When you’ve got a whole band on stage it limits you in some ways. When there’s just me with a guitar and Kerry with a microphone there’s a much greater degree of flexibility. There’s a simplicity about it, we can chat in between songs and the audience see something which is very real.”
Last month, May posted a blog on the Queen website telling fans he had just been given the all-clear following a cancer scare. At the time he admitted there were “still some mysteries to solve”and the prospect of performing again with Ellis has been a welcome distraction.
“I feel good at the moment, really good,” he says. “It did pull me up short for a while, but these things happen don’t they?”
Ellis’ debut album, Anthems, released in 2010, was produced by May and after releasing a live album, Acoustic By Candlelight last year, they are keen to go back into the studio again. The only problem is time.
Ellis had her first child, a son called Alfie, last October and May, well, he famously has a finger in a lot of pies, not least the work he does around animal welfare. He’s become the face of the campaign against badger culling and he has previously been quoted as saying he would much rather be remembered for his animal rights work than anything he’s achieved in music or his other great passion - astrophysics.
He’s set up an animal sanctuary in the grounds of the home he shares with actress Anita Dobson and his Save Me organisation was set up, he says, to give animals a voice.
“It is vitally important. We work a lot on a lobbying level, because it’s decision made in Government that have the biggest influence on our wildlife.
“We have to make our voices heard. It’s tough, but we are gathering a lot of influential friends, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu who has spoken out in defence of the rights of animals. I believe we will see change. We have to. People thought the abolition of slavery wouldn’t happen, but it did and I honestly think that 100 years from know people will look back at the way we treated animals today and be completely appalled.”
It’s a philosophy Ellis shares. She provided vocals for the Badger Swagger, a protest song which also featured the unlikely pairing of Sir David Attenborough and former Guns and Roses guitarist, Slash.
Still, it’s the kind of surreal happenings that the 34-year-old has become used to since she began working with May.
“It is a complete privilege working with Brian and I do occasionally have to pinch myself. Out on tour, you see how much he and Queen really mean to people. Complete strangers come up to him as though they’ve known him all their lives and he always makes time for them. Just to be a little part of that is pretty special.”
Brian May and Kerry Ellis - The Candlelight Concert, Scarborough Spa, February 21. 01723 821888, www.scarboroughspa.co.uk