Maimuna Memon was last seen on a London stage six months ago, in the phenomenal new musical, Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Her performance as the loveable, yet flawed, Nikki – and showstopping rendition of Richard Hawley’s Open Up Your Door – earned her an Olivier award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The show won Best New Musical.
But this is just the latest in a glittering selection of highlights that Memon has already had since leaving drama school a mere eight years ago. Along with the National Theatre run, this year alone she has filmed a new drama for the BBC, got a recording contract, been commissioned to write a new musical, and is developing a TV show.
In October, Maimuna is bringing her award-winning 2022 Edinburgh show, Manic Street Creature, to the Southwark Playhouse for a month-long run. I caught up with her to find out more about a performer whose career is set to go much further than the sky's edge.
First things first, can you summarise this show in a single sentence for us?
Manic Street Creature is a ‘concept album musical’ about love, mental health care, and co-dependency.
The show received rave reviews, and several awards, when it played Edinburgh last year. How did you find the whole Edinburgh experience?
Edinburgh is the most creatively rewarding thing I have ever done. The community up there is incredibly supportive and inspiring, and I was so lucky that the team around me were as passionate about the show’s subject matter as me. There was also a buzz about the festival returning fully after Covid.
It was also KNACKERING. Producing and performing an incredibly exhausting show was all-consuming. By the end of the run, I had lost a stone. It was proper graft, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
This isn’t the first time you've dealt with mental health. Electrolyte explored grief, depression, and psychosis; isolation was one of the themes of Nine Lessons and Carols.
Theatre allows us to tackle challenging subjects in ways that can be both moving and entertaining. It can take people out of isolation and leave impressions for a long time afterwards.
I believe theatre can provide catharsis and relief. It can create community and support systems, be educative and incite awareness, cause intervention, and be a call to action.
Theatre has the capacity to communicate what can’t always be communicated in everyday life.
Heritage seems another theme close to your heart. Two upcoming pieces (Sparrow Girl and Third Culture Kid) are both billed as autobiographical takes on the subject.
Being of South Asian/Irish mixed heritage, I’ve always felt underrepresented on stage and screen. I started writing because I was frustrated with this lack of mixed representation. We live in such a beautifully multicultural country with vast ranges of experiences, and telling such stories feels essential.
Heritage plays an incredibly important role in my work, and I’m very proud of that, but my heritage is just one piece of who I am. So much of me comes from where I have lived and who I have met through my life, so it’s important that I tell other stories too.
When your professional work deals with subjects close to your personal life, how do you avoid taking feedback too personally?
I try to remind myself that the art is separate to my identity. Everyone has an opinion, and I must respect that. Easier said than done though!
I try not to read reviews when I’m in the thick of it too. Good or bad, they have the potential to get into my head!
Do you think you will ever put personal experiences aside and write something that is complete fiction?
I absolutely LOVE writing to brief. It opens a whole new world of possibilities for me and makes me write in new and fresh ways.
I wrote songs for the Globe’s production of Henry VIII last year, and I’m currently writing music and lyrics for a show at the Almeida. I’m also developing my own next show and that will definitely be fictional.
Of course, it was fiction that brought you to the attention of many theatregoers, including me, when you played Nikki in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Audiences really seem to have taken the show to their hearts. I get the sense that the cast have too.
Absolutely. It’s very rare that a job like ‘Standing’ comes along. I feel very lucky to have been part of such a special show.
I was involved in the project from 2018 so I grew up so much with it. The show has so much heart and soul and everyone involved, creative and cast, truly believe in it. And we all really do love each other.
So many people have connected with its message: that community and love can conquer all. The show has developed so much over five years but at its heart is a universality and purity.
Five years is a long time, even longer when you throw in a pandemic. As a performer, how do you think you have developed over the last five years?
I was incredibly insecure as a 26-year-old , constantly wondering whether I was good enough. I still doubt myself at times , but I think I have more of an idea of who I am and what I can bring to the table. As a musician and actor, I think I’m more grounded.
On a more technical level, my voice developed loads. In the years between the first and second iteration of 'Standing', I worked on my voice technique a lot, and really felt the benefits of that. The song felt much more in my body the second time round.
The National Theatre saw the third iteration, and the fourth opens next February at the Gillian Lynne Theatre in London's West End. Will we be seeing your fourth iteration too as Nikki?
I don’t know if I will be returning yet, but if someone else does take over, I will be incredibly excited to see what they bring!
Nikki is such a fun role and can be played in so many ways. And of course, I will go and watch it! I have been desperate to see the show from an audience’s point of view.
It’s not just been about 'Standing' for you though. Since graduating in 2015, you’ve been busy writing, composing, releasing music, doing TV, and performing in some huge shows.
Being an artist is always an up and down ride, but I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience such a variety of experiences since graduating.
I have loved being able to split my time between writing and performing. And I've enjoyed being able to perform in intimate spaces and much bigger ones.
There’s too much on your CV to go through it all so let’s do some quick-fire firsts.
My first professional job was Into the Woods at The Royal Exchange in Manchester.
I grew up around Manchester and am also a huge fan of Sondheim, so to get to do that straight out of drama school was an incredible experience. I learnt so much.
My first time writing the entire score for theatre was for Electrolyte.
We took it to the Edinburgh Fringe for a month and the response we got was truly mind-blowing. It was a pivotal point for me, as it gave me the confidence to carry on pursuing my composition work.
My first time playing a lead was Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
I just couldn’t believe it was happening. When we came back to do it for a second time during the pandemic in 2020, it was such a moving moment. None of us had any idea when theatre would be revived again, and yet there we were.
Your voice has often been compared to that of a notable singer. To quote a handful of reviews: “Her Amy Winehouse-esque rendition is so good we get actual chills”, “a beautiful yet powerful reggae tone similar to that of Amy Winehouse” “standout voice has something of the Amy Winehouse”
I am very happy to be compared to Amy Winehouse, she’s a total legend!
Finally, I like to give everyone chance to do a 50-word pitch. Tell our readers in exactly 50 words, why they should book tickets to see Manic Street Creature when it plays at Southwark Playhouse, Borough from the 19th October – 11th November.
With Manic Street Creature, Maimuna has brought her background as a recording artist into the theatre sphere, tackling the subjects of co-dependency and mental health.
Ebbing and flowing between underscored spoken word and emotion-filled songs, she takes the audience on a musical journey that is entertaining, devastating, and insightful.