Craig Revel Horwood is best known for his harsh criticisms on the Strictly judging panel. But his love of show business shines through in his latest role – choreographing songstress Alexandra Burke in a new production of Sister Act…

Words: Madeleine Howell

‘I saw the movie and I fell in love,’ director, choreographer and Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood says of Sister Act. We’re backstage at the New Wimbledon Theatre, and in place of his trademark cutting comments is pure, unbounded energy and enthusiasm for his upcoming stage adaptation starring Alexandra Burke as Deloris Van Cartier. ‘I fell not only for Whoopi Goldberg, but for the story as well,’ he adds. ‘I loved the story of the nuns, the fact that it had a soul and a heart, and development.’

Horwood is a busy man, and with his regular slot on the Strictly judging panel, pantomime season looming and his guest appearance at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home’s Collars and Coats Gala Ball in the diary when we catch up, it’s a wonder he’s found the time. ‘I was booked to do it way back when, nine years ago, and I couldn’t do it because of timings – but I’ve always had my heart set on doing it. It came around again and I snapped it up,’ he tells me.

As a director, Horwood has enhanced the highs and lows of the story. ‘I’ve tried to be epic with it,’ he says. ‘There’s a song called Raise Your Voice, where [Deloris] teaches them all to sing. Before that, they’re terrible – absolutely dreadful – and suddenly they just go mad, into the stratosphere. You’re expecting it, but you’re not expecting it to be that good.’

The title track, for Horwood, is another inspiring, dramatic moment. ‘It’s a delicious power ballad that’s all about unification, about the nuns protecting Deloris from evil. It’s about standing up for each other. It’s that “Do You Hear the People Sing?” moment in Les Misérables, or “I Will Give My Life For You” at the end of Miss Saigon.’

Despite the dramatic moments – ‘it has murder in it, people about to be murdered, guns, people that feel like they’re trapped’ – Horwood promises that the audience will leave the theatre completely elated. ‘It’s uplifting,’ he says. ‘The positive story of the nuns learning to sing and becoming human is the important thing. Under the habits, they really are people. They might be celibate, they might be spiritual, but they still have human emotion. Deloris teaches them to sing, but they teach her to respect them.’

No one’s ever seen the funny, comedic side of Alexandra Burke before. She’s funny. She has a super inner energy

He has added his own unique spin to the choreography, and admits that his biggest challenge was incorporating the nun’s habits into the show – but he’s not giving anything away. ‘You can’t see the body at all, you just see the face. You’ll have to come along and see how we’ve done it. It works really well.’

Alexandra Burke’s Deloris, of course, is another key, ‘surprising’ facet of the show, and Horwood is in awe of her as a performer. ‘No one’s ever seen the funny, comedic side of her before, not even in The X Factor,’ Horwood hints. ‘In life, she’s funny. She’s a wonderful character to be around. She has a super inner energy. Through any adversity in life, she just gets up there.’

Other top performers include Rosemary Ashe, who plays Sister Mary Lazarus, Karen Mann as Mother Superior and Aaron Lee Lambert as Curtis. The show features original music by Oscar winner Alan Menkin – whose credits include Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Tangled.

Burke herself, who has taken on the role hot on the heels of her tour of The Bodyguard, has said in a previous interview that it was the Sister Act soundtrack, which fuses Motown with gospel, that made her say yes to the role.

Deloris is a very interesting character, very different to Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard – but I’m looking forward to this new adventure

‘The songs are just so beautiful, and I thought it would be a privilege to sing them,’ she says. ‘The gospel aspect is appealing to me, as is being able to be unrestricted. We are able to just be ourselves and sing. Deloris is a very interesting character, very different to Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard – but I’m looking forward to this new adventure and it’s such an honour to play her.’

With a fresh take on the story, structure and music of an all-time favourite that’s more than just a revival, we’re sure that Horwood’s ultimate dream of taking the show to the West End and then on to an international tour will come true. Does he think he’ll ever tire of the endless tours and bookings? ‘I’ll never get bored of show business darling – it’s my life!’ he exclaims. Get tickets while you can for the run at the New Wimbledon Theatre, and you’ll be singing along in no time.

Sister Act is at the New Wimbledon Theatre from 28 November until 3 December;