Monday , June 17 2024
Obioma Ugoala as Kristoff with Sven (Credit: Johan Persson)

Theatre Interview: Ashley Birchall on Playing Sven the Reindeer in Disney’s ‘Frozen’ at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

One of the most highly anticipated new musicals is Disney’s Frozen, which has five productions opening across the world this year. The musical follows the events of the first Frozen film, released back in 2013. Today I’m focusing on the new production at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, currently on and booking through April 3, 2022. It’s a great opportunity to see your favorite characters live on stage in London’s West End: Elsa (Samantha Barks) with her ice powers, her sister Anna, Olaf the snowman (Craig Gallivan), Kristoff (Obioma Ugoala), and many more.

I spoke on Zoom recently with Ashley Birchall, one of the actors who plays Sven the reindeer. Birchall filled me in on what you need to pass a Sven audition and what it’s like to wear the beautiful and large costume.

Do you remember your first encounter with the Frozen films?

My little boy is Frozen mad. It’s always been a big thing at our house. When he was a very young age, he asked for an Elsa dress. That would be what my big encounters were com[ing] across Frozen, [through] my little boy.

What was it like to be in Mary Poppins Returns?

It was amazing. To do two Disney things, a show and a film, is a dream come true. I feel very privileged to be able to do that. 

What are some other interesting costumes you’ve worn as an actor?

I’ve had a career with very big costumes. On Starlight Express, I was in a train. In Wicked, [I was] a monkey. Then with Pet Shop Boys, [I was] a balloon. Now I’m a reindeer! They’re all fun and unique in their own way. 

Photo of Ashley Birchall
Ashley Birchall, who plays Sven

Do you alternate nights as Sven?

My colleague Mikayla [Jade] and I do four shows each week. We alternate one-and-one to take a bit of the stress off and rest our bodies. 

If I wanted to be Sven in this musical, what would that take? Do you have an exercise regimen?

They say that we carry 80 percent of our body weight on our hands throughout the show. When we auditioned, it was a very strength-based audition. It was all carrying a lot of weight on our upper body and our hands. We did a lot of handstands and weight transfer with one hand against the wall. We walked around the room on our feet and hands. 

When it came to rehearsals, it would be walking with press-up bars or dumbbells in our hands just to get used to the weight of everything being at our hands. Then we’d get onto stilts and build up our time. On the stilts, we’d do three minutes, then seven minutes, and then 12 minutes. Then we’d do it in costume. It was a very intense couple of weeks to get us up to show standard. 

When you wear the reindeer costume, what’s your visibility range like?

Most of the time, what we can see is the floor. If you need to look in front of you, you need to look up a lot of the time. You have very limited sight anyway because the costume puts blinkers on you at the sides of your face. 

We rely a lot upon the speakers in the floor or someone’s shadow for what we need to do. When there’s a lot of dry ice or fog on the stage, then visibility can become quite hard. 

Photo of Samantha Barks as Elsa, standing on stage for a musical number in Disney's Frozen
Samantha Barks as Elsa (Credit: Johan Persson)

Do you have a favorite song from the show?

“Let it Go” is iconic, obviously. There are so many. The whole arrangement is beautiful, but I have to say “Monster” is my favorite. 

What’s it been like to work with the cast?

It’s been amazing. The whole cast is extremely talented. Everyone is lovely and they’re beautiful people. After the past year we’ve had, it’s been the biggest breath of fresh air to come into this company and to work at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which just had its £60 million revamp. Everyone gets on so well, which is everything you want after what we’ve just been through.

When they asked you to audition, did they show you a picture of Sven from the Disney film? Did they give you a rough idea about what your costume would look like?

To be completely honest, I had no idea what I was going in for. My agent called me, I think, a day or two before and said, “They want to audition you for Sven. Can you make this day?”

I said I’d make the day. It wasn’t until I went home that evening when I looked it up, that I went, “Oh! This is how it’s going to be.”

I thought this is amazing and let’s do it. 

What’s one of your favorite scenes to perform?

It’s near the end of the show. I personally love when we bring Anna back to the castle. It’s a very short scene. I don’t know what it is but I just love it. It’s when we drop Anna off at the castle gates and the castle guards take Anna back in. Kristoff goes off and sings his Lullaby song. To me, that flows really nicely and it’s my favorite scene.  

Frozen fever has been a thing for a while. People love these films. Was there any pressure to get the musical right?

Frozen is one of the biggest shows in the world. The pressure is massive. I love pressure. It drives me to be better. I got [the role] in February and then by March, we went into lockdown. We had to wait for a whole year with not only the pressure of the show, trying to stay fit for it when the gyms and everything were closed. Then is the theatre going to happen? Will it come back?

It was a very daunting year. The cast has come together and made something incredible. It’s been amazing. 

Photo of Samantha Barks as Elsa and Stephanie McKeon as Anna standing and smiling at each other with the Ensemble behind them
Samantha Barks as Elsa, Stephanie McKeon as Anna, Ensemble (Credit: Johan Persson)

What makes Sven endearing to audiences? 

If you’ve seen the Disney-film Sven, he’s a lovable character. People warm to him straightaway. Sven in the musical is different. The costume is more realistic. When we’re at the gate, I think for the audience it’s like, “Whoa, there’s a reindeer on stage!”

It’s not like a cartoon. It’s real. For the first part of the show, I think people are trying to figure out how it’s done. Then they just let their barriers down as if they believe it’s a real reindeer on the stage. They invest in the character. 

Since you wear this costume, do you enjoy a bit of anonymity? 

It’s so strange to have the people at the stage door. It’s quite a surreal feeling because when everyone [else] walks out, [fans] ask, “Can we have a photo?”

When I walk out, they ask me who I was. I [have to] say, “I play Sven.”

Then they say, “Oh, my God. Amazing!”

It’s nice if you have to get home quick. You just walk out the stage door. 

What’s a big lesson you want to take with you as you move forward?

To be grateful for what you’ve got. Be grateful about how lucky we are to be here and doing this show. For a year, we haven’t been able to do what we love. 

If we have a sequel to this musical, would you like to be Sven again?

I’d love to be in this part for years. It’s physical. You can act. It’s very rewarding. There are mystery elements to it. I’d be happy to do it. 

Find out more about Disney’s ‘Frozen,’ the production in London’s West End, at the LW Theatres website.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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