Pippa O’Brien

Staff. Musical Theatre.

Pippa singing onstage in Maleficent costume

Pippa teaches on our BA (Hons) Musical Theatre, and is also an actress and singer with a prolific career of performances on both television and stage, including the Only Fools and Horses musical and Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge.

Who are you and what do you do, both at ARU and outside it?

Well, at ARU I’m Pippa O’Brien and in real life I’m Pippa Duffy! O’Brien is my married name, but my performer name is Pippa Duffy.

I've got nearly 20 years of teaching experience. I also teach at Bodywork in Cambridge, which is a professional vocational 3 year course, and I teach at URDANG in London, one of the biggest drama colleges in the country. And over the years I've taught at lots of different places, at the moment it’s those three colleges, with ARU being the bulk of my time.

I started at ARU in September 2022, just as I was leaving the West End show Only Fools and Horses. My contract was coming to an end and I thought it would be rather nice to get involved with a local university, and realised there was a musical theatre degree right here in Cambridge.

I teach lots of different skills on the musical theatre degree. I’m a technical singing teacher, but I also direct and coach the acting and repertoire side of things. At the moment I’m directing the third year musical, which is their Level 6 performance project. We’re doing Alice By Heart, which is by the same team who wrote Spring Awakening, and we’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s very creative, and gorgeous, and very contemporary.

I teach Vocal Reel, where the students put together a reel of their best four songs to show themselves off, so it’s a marketing tool for once they leave university. At the moment we’re doing it filmed as well as audio. They can send it off to prospective agents, casting directors, or other courses they might want to take. I also teach Acting Through Song, where we dissect a piece of text with the music and work out how to treat it. Kind of like a monologue, but working with me as their pianist on Musical Theatre scores.

What inspired you to do what you do now?

I've always loved musical theatre ever since I was a child. I grew up watching films like Grease, Cabaret and Sweet Charity. Actually, my first musical I ever watched on film was given to me by my fun Auntie Tricia, who loved doing Am-Dram. She gave me a video cassette of South Pacific, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Very grand, lots of big adult themes, and I watched that when I was about seven, I think. Then I ended up doing an amateur production of it here in Cambridge, and I did an amateur production of The Music Man, both I think under the age of 10, and I just fell in love with it.

Then I worked with a group in Cambridge that back then was called Whiz Kids and then changed into the Young Actors Company. That was twice a week, and it was a big commitment for my family. It was straight theatre, singing, a bit of dance and musical theatre, and that probably shaped me into having no other choice!

Pippa in street under sign for Only Fools and Horses

What were your own education and career routes like?

I did a Drama degree at Bristol University and got involved with a lot of extracurricular musical theatre, but when I auditioned for postgraduate courses - which would be more vocational with an agents showcase and introduction into the industry - I auditioned mostly for straight acting courses, because that's always been my first passion.

I auditioned for one musical theatre course at the Royal Academy of Music, and just felt “Oh, yeah! This is it. This is the place I need to be.” Fortunately they felt the same way, so I ended up going there and didn't go to the rest of my auditions. And no regrets - I had the best year and met the most amazing group of people, most of whom are still working the profession, some of them very high profile now.

But it's a passion. It's not an easy lifestyle but it can be glorious, obviously. I got quite a few jobs, low-level theatre, bits of television, things like Casualty to start with. Then I felt frustrated. Because I'm not really a dancer, I felt like I wasn't getting seen for the kind of musicals I wanted to do.

Back then - this is about 20 years ago - if you trained in musical theatre and that was on your CV, a lot of TV and straight theatre casting directors would assume you couldn't act, which I think is such a shame. Judi Dench has done musical after musical, and she's one of the best actresses we've ever produced. But back then there was a bit of a stigma attached to it. So I pretended I hadn't done musical theatre, changed agents, and spent some time going for more television and straight theatre work. I had a degree of success in that, did some nice things like a couple of episodes of Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, then a Channel 4 sitcom called Pete Versus Life, which I was a regular on for two series, and various little bits and bobs. I love comedy and I love improvisation.

But then I had my daughter and around that time work dried up for about seven years. I still had an agent and was still auditioning, but I think I probably came across differently in the room. My focus had shifted, you know? I was still getting recalled for shows and getting right down to the last few people for really lovely jobs, then just not landing the job. But it did mean that I was around a lot for her early years so I think it all happens for a reason. Then I got offered a job teaching musical theatre at the Institute of the Arts Barcelona so my husband and I moved to Sitges in Spain, which is gorgeous. We had a very happy six months there, then came back to Cambridge in 2018 and I booked Only Fools and Horses straight away. It was like it was meant to be.

What’s the most valuable thing you took away from your own education?

I don't know because I've had different strands of education. I'm very grateful to my parents - my Dad is an academic here in Cambridge and was adamant that I wasn't to go to drama school straight away. He wanted me to have a degree because I was fairly academic and did well at school. Therefore studying the theory behind theatre and the way people behave, which is an important part of it that I got to do my drama degree, was incredibly useful to me. And I use that in my teaching every day. It’s why I can direct as well as perform, so it gave me another string to my bow.

But then, at Royal Academy of Music, I learned so much about the voice that gave me the ability to be a technical singing teacher, which is the other thing that's been a huge part of my career.

So I guess in terms of life lessons, “stay interested” I suppose. Keep learning. Don't ever assume you've nailed it. There are some students who you know are going to keep asking questions and keep trying to improve, and they're the ones that will do really, really well.

Pippa O'Brien smiling

What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

Don't try so hard. I think I would agonise over taking the perfect song into the audition room, often to the detriment of picking the song that showed me off best. I think it's just about trusting your strengths, and being at peace with the rest of it, rather than pedalling so hard all the time. I don't think that really got me anywhere, and the people that I observed who had great success early on and then continued it, seemed to care a bit less. Not that they weren't passionate about their careers, but they they just went into a room a bit more confident and bit more at peace with themselves, I think.

My first couple of years out of college, I auditioned for Mamma Mia again. I'd auditioned before and got very close to getting the lead, but didn't get the job. So the next year, auditions opened up and I went in and they remembered me. I went in the room and they were really nice, and said “Oh, great to see you again.” I thought “This is going to be in the bag. This year, I'm getting the lead.” I had decided not to sing the material that was in my rep folder, that they might have had before. I'd learned a new pop song that day – No More Tears (Enough is Enough), by Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand. The panel were so excited that I'd offered that song because it's a camp disco tune.

I'd never done it with a piano before, which is not like me to not check because I am musical, but I went in and the pianist started, then I started, and I sounded like a dying cat. And as the song went on, I just watched their faces dropping. Then I had to wait outside the room until the nice stage manager popped her head out and said “That's all for today. Thanks.”

Lesson learnt: check your music. Sing something you know.

What have you learned about Cambridge that other people might not know?

In Cambridge we've got a huge amount of theatrical venues. We've got the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and obviously the Corn Exchange that gets all the big touring productions. Then you've got Cambridge Junction, which does great live music, comedy and really interesting left-field theatre, and The Town and Gown, and our own spaces at Covent Garden and Mumford Theatre. There's lots of small studio theatres and, for amateur musical theatre, there's about four or five different societies, all of whom have a huge membership.

My husband's actually started doing some shows - last year he did Urinetown and the year before Calendar Girls: The Musical, and he's about to start rehearsals for The Producers. So anyone coming to Cambridge who wants to get involved in musical theatre, you're spoilt for choice. And plays as well. It's got a really active amateur dramatics scene. I think it's because you've got loads of super-intelligent, interesting, creative people here who have proper jobs in university or pharmaceutical or scientific research, who just happen to also be really talented and driven, so you get a lot of great amateur theatre here.

It's been so strange getting to know ARU and the Mumford Theatre area again, because I knew it well. We did lots of shows there as kids. My drama group used to take us there, and any singing or acting competitions that we did were in the Mumford, or the Rex Freeman Hall at Chesterton.

What projects are you currently working on, both at ARU and outside?

I've moved agents recently and they're keeping me really busy, which is great. I've just finished pantomime here at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last month, which was great - it was full on with lots of three show days. At the moment I've just had an audition for Dear Evan Hansen, the musical, and next week I've got a recall for a production that's going to the West End over the summer - a new comedy musical called Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder!

And in the meantime, I'm doing the third year musical and my third year modules of Acting Through Song and Vocal Reel, then my two days a week at other drama schools just to keep myself relevant and too busy!

Where now