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Sharon Benson on the 'perfect part for a black actress'

HONOUR: Actress Sharon Benson is one of a number of performers featuring on a Royal Mail stamp in aid of the 200th anniversary of The Old Vic

ACTRESS SHARON Benson, 50, played the lead role in Simon Callow’s 1991 production of Hammerstein’s 1943 Broadway musical, Carmen Jones. The show ran at The Old Vic for a season and subsequently won five major awards including the 1992 Laurence Olivier Award for best musical. Here, Benson, who is also qualified counsellor and has dreams of working on a James Bond film, talks about the honour of appearing on a Royal Mail commemorative stamp, her theatre career and the importance of Carmen for black performers.

Q: What does it mean to you to appear on a Royal Mail Special Stamp as part of a set marking the 200th anniversary of The Old Vic?
A: It’s amazing. I can hardly believe it. When my agent first told me I was speechless and the closer it got, it started to sink in.

I feel honoured and my mum [Jestina Leonora Banton] would have been so proud. She and I used to watch Carmen Jones all the time and I used to think, “God, I’d love to be able to play that one day” because it was mum’s favourite film. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 62 in 1987, three years before I got the part. She passed away the day after seeing me playing Grizabella in Cats.

Mum encouraged me musically from a very young age. She was into music herself, all our family is musical, but I’m the only one that went to drama school. She would be have been so proud of this moment. Mum would never be able to get her head around it. I don’t think any award would equal this. This is the best.

Q: How did you feel when you first saw the stamp?
A: When I first saw a picture of it last year I thought, “wow”. That was my favourite outfit and the song I’m singing is The Card Song, one of my favourite songs in the whole production. They’ve picked the best image to depict my favourite memory of the performance. It’s such a strong scene. Everyone’s in silver and Carmen walks in wearing this red outfit…I’m getting chills just thinking about it!

Q: How does it feel to be appearing on a stamp alongside such huge industry icons?
A: talking about the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, then down the list you see Sharon Benson. Oh my gosh. I want to burst!

Q: Why did playing Carmen Jones appeal so much?
A: I always loved the character. She is wild yet vulnerable, she’s strong yet there’s a weakness to her. It was all-rounded, a perfect part for a black actress to play...When the auditions came to the West End, I had to go for it.

Playing Carmen Jones was a lesson in everything – about my life, about who I am, about my vulnerabilities and strengths.

Q: Did Carmen Jones set a precedent for black actors in West End theatre?
A: Yes. The class, the costumes, the staging, the music. I haven’t seen anything that has come up to that standard. We had a black cast that was so talented. That was the show that set the precedent because it’s opened such big gates.

Q: Your Carmen Jones co-star Colin Griffiths Brown recently described the musical as “the biggest all-black show ever to hit the West End. A first”...

A: And look when it was done - 1991. First of its kind then and it hasn’t been done since. Other fantastic, amazing shows have followed but the story of Carmen Jones, the clothes, the tragedy, the characters, the music – you just can’t top it as a show.

Q: You’ve been in acting for over 25 years. What are your other career highlights?
A: Grizabella in Cats, which I performed for a year and a half. I also sang There’s A Place For Us on Channel 4’s stand up show Hysteria in 1991. Hysteria was about the people we have lost due to Aids and I sang as they read out the names of people that had died. At the run-through Lenny Henry came up to me afterwards and said: “Oh my God, I really loved that”. I was shocked. I didn’t even know he was watching. Another good one was playing Lorraine alongside Shane Richie in Boogie Nights. Appearing on this stamp with such talented actors is also a highlight of my career.

Q: What’s next for you?
A:I'm doing more serious acting rather than musical theatre because parts like Carmen Jones aren’t really out there for me. I’d like to do more TV and film work and that’s where I’m really training. A couple of little films are coming out next year. I would love to be in a really wonderful drama role on TV and something like James Bond or, if not, Casualty will do it!

All eight stamps in the collection can be pre-ordered now from shop.royalmail.com and are available on general sale from 7,000 Post Offices nationwide from August 30.

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