MAMMA Mia! The North-East is having a Gimme, Gimme, Gimme moment with three North-East performers grabbing a place in the casts of the Abba-inspired musical which has been hitting the headlines since 1999.

The touring version hits the Sunderland Empire this week, and runs until November 11, featuring Prudoe’s Kay Milbourne as alternate Donna and Billingham’s Hollie Nelson in the ensemble.

Meanwhile, Newcastle’s Adam Paul-Robertson has landed a cast ensemble role in the West End version at his first audition after leaving stage school.

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Milbourne toured to Tyneside with the show in the spring, but admits that the Sunderland run finally allows family and friends to watch her on stage. “When we came to Newcastle it was pretty much sold out before my family knew I had the job. So, people couldn’t get tickets and have been waiting for Sunderland. I’ve got a bus trip coming one night,” she laughs. “The thing is that my niece and my brother had never seen me in a show before because everything I’ve done is London-based.”

It’s also a long trip from the west of Newcastle to the imaginary Greek island of Kalokairi to share the role of Donna with Helen Hobson. Milbourne confesses she’s 36, a long way from the usual age of a mother who isn’t sure who fathered her daughter, 20-year-old Sophie.

“I’m a slightly younger cover, but in theory I’m just about legal in terms of pregnancy. Well, the age did go up for the film, where Meryl Streep was 59,” she adds. “There have been people who have played the role from late 30s to mid-50s. This is a great opportunity for me because I’m in the middle casting bracket now: Too old to play youngsters now, but maybe not old enough to play a middle-aged person. I’m stepping into alternates and cover roles until I’m old enough to be cast full-time, which hopefully will happen soon,” Milbourne says.

Her contract is for one performance a week “giving Helen a night off, just because this role is such a big vocal thing. You require a lot of energy”. And no temptation to trip up her co-star in the wings?

“No, she’s too nice. She’s wonderful and used to teach me when I attended the London School of Musical Theatre. I’ve pretty much followed her career since then and followed her into various shows. When they phoned me to offer me the job, and casually dropped in that Helen was the lead part it was a no-brainer for me. I learned a hell of a lot from her at college and to share a role with her was pretty special,” she adds.

With so many versions of Mamma Mia! Touring worldwide, Milbourne hopes that she’ll get the nod as top Donna one day. “You do get to hear things through the grapevine, and we’re not sure what’s happening when we finish this tour in March. It might just be a matter of auditioning for other roles all over again.”

While Adam Paul-Robertson confesses he didn’t know much about Abba until he was cast in the show, Milbourne confesses that the Swedish band’s hits were a staple part of her first singing act in the North-East. “My training was on the Tyneside circuit and there were always a couple of Abba numbers in there. I started as a solo artist and me and my mam traipsed round every weekend, carrying gear up flights of stairs and, eventually I joined a Motown tribute band called Hitsville. That was much nicer being on stage with four others, rather than being up there on your own... and the club pulling the plug on you when it was time for the bingo,” she jokes.

Milbourne moved to London in 2005 and has spent most of her adult life in the South after doing her early training at Newcastle Performing Arts College. She pays tribute to tutor Lee Proud who helped her find London-based training.

The singer also has fond memories of appearing in Leah Bell’s North-East shows. “I enjoyed the chance she gave me and she never stops working and she helped me out a lot. There are so many people in the North-East who champion young talent.”

Milbourne’s big breaks were being cast in The Kinks’ musical Sunny Afternoon and the North-East-inspired show Billy Elliot the Musical. “For Billy I played ensemble and Dead Mam, which is a really glamorous title. It was a brilliant show which I was part of for about four years and in the final year I got to be one of the Mrs Wilkinsons. That was incredible.”

Her favourite Abba song is Winner Takes It All... “that’s the song that lets you know you’ve made it”.

ADAM Paul-Robertson (he had to link his middle and surname for Equity purposes) couldn’t believe his Mamma Mia! moment after getting through four rounds of auditions to land a West End show at the age of 19.

“I didn’t think I’d get anything in the first couple of years because I only graduated this year and I thought I’d be facing a long battle in London getting my name out there so that people knew who I was. But I got it first try. I think my dancing was the telling factor, although this is a singing show first.

“I didn’t really know the Abba songs as I do now. I had seen the film in the past, but I did rush out and get hold of it again once I was cast,” says Paul-Robertson.

He took the gamble of moving to London, having also opted to join West End and touring star Jonny Wilkes’ Academy of Performing Arts in Swindon at the age of 16.

“I met him at Newcastle Theatre Royal when I played the young Tommy in Tommy the Musical. He inspired me to go that step further and train with him after I left Gosforth Academy. Jonny’s advice to me when I left Swindon was to be professional and keep my head down,” says Paul-Robertson.

Wilkes has been to watch his pupil on stage on opening night in the summer when the 19-year-old became part of the latest cast change.

“I think I’ve found my feet now and that’s good because I actually cover eight other roles now. That’s pretty hard. I had to play three different roles in one night a couple of weeks ago and during one dance I actually had to switch costumes to play another role,” he adds.

His ambition is to move on to audition for other shows in future because “I’m still quite young and I think lead roles might be a couple of years on I think”.

Paul-Robertson says that it’s boosted his confidence when members of his family make the trip down from Newcastle to watch him in Mamma Mia at the West End’s Novello Theatre. “I’m signed up until next July. I was lucky that some friends of mine had a spare room when I came down to London. It is very competitive and everyone I know is trying to land a show. Quite a few tried out for Mamma Mia! Fortunately, they took the news I’d got in quite well,” he jokes.

  • Mamma Mia! Sunderland Empire until Saturday, November 11. Box Office: 0844-871-3022 or ATGtickets.com/Sunderland
  • Novello Theatre Box Office: 0844-482-5170 or novellotheatrelondon.info