West End star Kerry Ellis tells Tim Hughes about  her charity project, alongside Queen guitarist Brian May, which is coming to a small Oxford venue

SHE has graced the stages of the West End and Broaway, playing dazzling leads in some of our best-loved shows. But few people watching the glamorous Kerry Ellis know that she started her career in humble style – as a Munchkin!

“Yes, I did!” she says, laughing at the memory of her first foray on stage, aged just nine. “I was in character from day one.”

But while she has come a long way since that school production of The Wizard of Oz, it was a formative experience, instilling in her a love of musical theatre. That was cemented four years later when she went to her first West End show – Les Miserables – as a treat for her 13th birthday.

“It was the first musical I went to, but I knew then I wanted to be on the stage – and be part of that show. I had no idea I’d go on to play the lead.”

Making her debut as Martine McCutcheon’s understudy in My Fair Lady, she went on to star in the Queen musical We Will Rock You, Oliver!, Wicked and, of course, played Fantine in Les Mis. She also appeared in productions of Miss Saigon, Chess and Jeff Wayne’s musical version of War of the Worlds at the O2 Arena. Next week the 33-year-old singer takes to the stage in Oxford. But don’t expect any lavish sets, costumes or supporting actors, for this show will be held in a church.

St John the Evangelist, in Iffley Road, may be a world away from the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, but her show will be no-less-thrilling than any of her blockbusting leading roles, if only because her co-star is probably the world’s greatest guitarist – Queen legend Brian May.

“I have worked with Brian for 11 years now,” she recalls. “He first came to see me, by accident, in My Fair Lady, then asked me to audition for We Will Rock You. “I was so busy concentrating on what I was doing then, I forgot he was in the audience,” She was given the role of Meat.

“It was the first role I’d ever created,” she says. On June 17, the pair will perform an intimate show to raise money and publicity for the Born Free Foundation. The two musicians were invited to see the work of the big cat charity in South Africa, by its founder, the actress Virginia McKenna – who made her name playing the naturalist Joy Adamson in the film of the same name.

Kerry fell instantly in love with the lions she saw roaming the Shamwari game reserve and, together with Brian (whose wildlife conservation activities, including his current campaign to stop the badger cull, are well documented), vowed to do something to help. “It was while in the bush that the idea dawned on them.

“It was shocking!” she says. “I don’t think people realise what a state the lions are in. They are incredible creatures but there aren’t many left. I can’t imagine how people can hunt them.

“Brian has always been an animal lover and has massive respect for wildlife. He took his guitar and we enjoyed singing around the campfire, which was magical. Then we thought ‘this could actually work as a show’.”

The tour, which moves on to bigger venues in Northampton, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, follows the pair’s 2011 Anthems shows and a series of 11 acoustic gigs last year. “We went out together with a huge band and were really loud and rocking, but had the idea to go out again with an acoustic show.

“We had no idea how it was going to be, but people loved it. “It’s great fun. We feel very comfortable and it’s good to be doing the second leg as a pair.

“Brian is a legend and I’m so lucky to be working with him. He’s great at bringing out the best in people – including me. Being on stage with him is a joy.” The pair will play stripped-down versions of Queen classics and some of the pair’s favourite songs.

It will also showcase Brian’s new single – The Kissing Me Song – his first for nearly a decade. “There will be a real mixture,” she says. “And we change it because, as there is only the two of us, we can evolve it and keep it fresh.”

  • Kerry Ellis and Brian May play St John the Evangelist Church, Iffley Road, Oxford, on June 17, and Northampton’s Royal & Derngate on June 21.
  • Tickets are £39. Go to ticketzone.co.uk or call 0844 758 758