Monday, 3 November 2014

Big Interview: Harriet Thorpe

Harriet Thorpe is currently starring in the National Theatre’s production of Great Britain by Richard Bean. 

Following a successful premiere at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, the play has transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End. Hot on the heels of the phone hacking scandal, Great Britain is described as an “anarchic and foul-mouthed satire about the press, the police and the political establishment".

Harriet was most recently seen reprising her performance of Madame Morrible in the West End production of Wicked (Apollo Victoria). Her musical theatre roles also include: Frauline Kost in Cabaret (Lyric/Savoy/UK Tour), Lottie Child/Patricia Fodor in Crazy For You (Novello/Open Air Theatre), Tanya in Mamma Mia (Prince Of Wales), Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd (National Tour) and Madame Thernadier in Les Miserables (Palace).

Just a few of her other countless theatre credits include: Twelfth Night, Cymbeline, Richard III and A Midsummer Night's Dream (all Open Air Theatre), Brighton Rock (Almeida), The Vagina Monologues (Arts), Streetcar To Tennessee (Young Vic), Jackie (Queens) and The Bassett Table (Bristol Old Vic/Tour/Tricycle). Previous work at the National includes: A Prayer For Owen Meany, All My Sons, The Government Inspector, Pravda, Futurists, Jacobowski & The Colonel and Longtime Gone.

On screen Harriet is best known for playing Fleur in Absolutely Fabulous, Carole in The Brittas Empire and, most recently, Lynn in The Secret. She has made numerous appearances in some of the UK’s most popular TV shows and films. 

I recently spoke to Harriet about what makes Great Britain such a thrilling play and why it’s so exciting to be part of something brand new. We also discussed her remarkably varied career and what she used to get up to between performances during her time in Wicked…

You’ve been with Great Britain right from the beginning. What were the early stages like when it was all hush hush?
Well it’s interesting because when you’re in a play one doesn’t really discuss rehearsals anyway because if you are doing a Shakespeare, however thrilling it is for oneself, nobody is really interested in your rehearsals – so not talking about it was quite easy. People just knew I was doing a play, nobody really asked anything else! 

What first attracted you to it?
The subject matter is what was fascinating because it was ongoing at that time, and it still is actually. All we’re doing is reflecting our culture. This is an extraordinary, brilliant, grotesque satire that reflects the culture that we live in today. It’s a funny and witty reflection of a generalised culture that we have at the moment which is still ongoing. 

And what is so brilliant is that there is nothing else on in London which is as relevant!
I know. It is the most thrilling thing to be a part of!

I’ve seen the show twice now…
Well, then you will know I am a frenzy of Velcro and wigs because I play three different people.

Harriet and the cast of Great Britain 

Is it nice to have the chance to play multiple roles? 
It’s brilliant. Usually you get to play multiple roles when you’re just starting out in your career. I don’t want to say the word middle-aged because it’s too depressing, so let’s just say slightly mature – but I get to play this hideous PR representative, someone from the CPS and a hacked anorexic’s mother. I’m spoilt for choice really… and I defy anyone to recognise me as some of them [laughs].

I love that Lucy Punch has come in, taken over from Billie Piper and done her own thing with the role.
I know! Isn’t that wonderful? What you have then is the themes and text refreshed. You know when you hit the refresh button? Or when you get updates on your smart phone? It’s like a new version so you can re-hear and re-imagine those moments again which is thrilling. When we opened in the West End it felt so fresh and it also stays fresh because it is in our news every day.

Not that I even noticed, but I hear you cut half an hour off the running time for the transfer? 
Isn’t that fantastic? I’m sure Shakespeare would cut his work if he refined it [laughs]. Anything that you feel is slightly extraneous to the plot, however wonderful, you tear it back because it is about the energy and drive of the story that you’re telling.

What was Richard Bean like to work with?
He’s absolutely wonderful! He’s endlessly interested in what you offer up and he’s creative in what he gives back – he was endlessly tweaking and writing and evolving. He’s just a joy to work with! It’s such fun being in something which is a brand new piece of work; you don’t often get to do that as an actor. I mean, years ago when I was in my youth – I was obviously a child star – I was in a show called Pravda at the National Theatre which was a brand new play about a very similar topic to Great Britain. Again, to be a part of something then which reflected the culture of newspapers with Anthony Hopkins in the lead was extraordinary. The National is really the place to do it; to experiment, to be brave and to gamble with ideas. 

Lucy Punch in Great Britain
What is the atmosphere like backstage amongst the cast?
Well it’s exciting because we’re all in this together! We’ve all evolved this extraordinary piece and, as a cast, have a fantastic sense of humour. We do lots of jollies out; we do after show bowling sometimes [laughs], in-between show dinners – you know, just to hang out together because we have a great time. The age range is fantastic – obviously I’m stuck somewhere in the middle… early middle. Like with most shows I do, I call them my night time family because these are the people you see every day. You talk about the laughs you’ve had that day, what the audience are like that evening, and the thrill of the piece and so on. It’s a really collaborative and harmonious family experience. That isn’t always the case, but it absolutely is with this. 

You’ve done sitcoms, dramas, films, musicals, plays, new stuff and iconic pieces – the variety is incredible! Do you purposely try to do different things?
Darling, if anyone wants to employ me I just say yes! I will just say yes to everything. I do! I say yes to everything because I love working. This is my job and there’s no one way to do anything, every time I do something I make mistakes and I learn and I have a laugh. I feel so fortunate to be able to switch genre from, as you said, the National Theatre to musicals to a sitcom to a movie. I just did a lovely show called Secrets for BBC1 and it was a wonderful experience to do something utterly, utterly different and totally naturalistic. I’m not known for hiding away, quite frankly I like to stand in the centre with a big wig. I never, ever play someone who is remotely normal – they are all psychotic. 

[laughs] I love that!
It’s true! I mean just look at the people I’ve played! They’re never normal darling, they’re all mad!

And talking of big wigs, last year you returned to Wicked. Wigs don’t come bigger than Madame Morrible’s!
I did, I was very fortunate to once again have that huge wig and wear those sensational costumes. That show is a phenomenon! There is no question about it! To have been a part of it and to have a chance to go back for a little six month slot… well what can I say? I did it for the costume [laughs], that’s not true actually. It was such an honour, pleasure and joy to be asked to go back and I had an absolute blast.

It’s a different world!
Oh it’s a completely different world! There was an amazing thing which I did with the backstage people at Wicked. If you look on my Twitter you will see it. Each week my dear friend Samuel Holmes, who played my brother in Crazy For You, would set me an in-between shows photo challenge. He selected an iconic Hollywood star and Jo, Jonny, Troy and Dan in wigs – who I called the green team – would brilliantly cobble together bits of costumes within minutes. No matter if it was Shirley Temple or Elizabeth Taylor I would always use my Madame Morrible wig.

"Darling, if anyone wants to employ me I just say yes!"

I can’t believe I didn’t know about this!
Well darling, you have to have a look. Check my Twitter! You have to go back to last May/June. I did people like Shirley Temple, Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis. Sam would come in if I needed somebody else to be the other character. He was my Joan Crawford and obviously I was Bette Davis. Literally within fifteen minutes we would do the photo shoot in my dressing room. It was just divine! 

Are you ready for a horrible question?
Yes darling, go on…

I’m sending you to a desert island and, as an accomplished musical theatre actress, I need to know which three musical theatre songs you would take with you…
Oh my giddy… why didn’t you give me time to prepare [laughs]?! Ok, ok, I think the songs would have to be from certain shows that I’ve done, I’m not going to take songs to sing because I have a voice which should clean ovens – we know that. 

 Harriet, Richard Bean & Lucy Punch at the opening night of Great Britain

Not at all!
Yes it’s true… anyway [laughs]. I adored playing Mrs Lovett when I did John Doyle’s production of Sweeney Todd with Jason Donovan, it was extraordinary. ‘Not While I'm Around’ is the most beautiful song, I love it. What else have I done? I know, ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ from Crazy For You because I am British and that’s what we do. I know everyone thinks actors are loveys, but we do eight shows a week! I have a company that I run with my sister, who is also an actress, that does presentation skills. We work internationally as well. I am also privileged to teach at all sorts of amazing colleges in London. So I work all day and then I go to work at night which is when I get to see my night time family! I’m so lucky to do that! But we do work darling, we don’t just do the three hours as some people like to think. We’re working! It is a privilege and it is wonderful, we’re not doing brain surgery – I’m quite clear that we’re not going off to war, but we do work. Now, my third song! Just bear with me a moment [laughs]. 

What is it going to be?
I suppose it has to be ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked because I think that’s what we all strive to do. Wicked is primarily about somebody trying to fit in and be good and that’s what we all do. We all have coping mechanisms for when we don’t, and that’s the deal. ‘Defying Gravity’ says it all!

As well as your sister, doesn’t your son (Jack Thorpe-Baker) work in the industry too?
He was a ballet dancer and now he’s directing, please god he employs his mother… because that’s why I gave birth to him! I have told him that, just so he’s clear. That’s why he has life, that’s why he has breath – to employ his mother. My daughter (Flossie Thorpe-Baker) is going to be a stylist, so I actually gave birth to an entourage; somebody to employ me and somebody to dress me. I couldn’t be happier! 

Harriet in Wicked
I spotted you once at one of Jack’s press nights at the Union. I think you were managing the chair situation!
Darling always, I’ve got to! It’s really nice that they’re doing Gypsy because I am Mama Rose [laughs], I live it. It’s not a nice musical for me, it’s a reality! Luckily I don’t have to do that any more because he’s been busy at the Park Theatre where he did three American, one-act Western plays with an all-female cast. It got four stars… a little bitter I wasn’t in it, but I was giving my greatness at the National!

In other news I see you’ve been nominated for a lifetime achievement award!
I know! I just don’t believe it will be me! I think it has to be Sheila (Hancock) all the way. 

You never know! I think Bonnie Langford, Imelda Staunton, Sheila Hancock and you all deserve lifetime achievement awards!
But darling I’m so young! How can it be a lifetime? That’s where I draw the line and that’s why it can’t be me! I am but a youth. 

You are such an icon in the theatre world; there is so much support behind you from different people who know you from many different things. You must love it?
I was on the tube the other day and somebody came up to me and said, “Hi, you were in The Brittas Empire weren’t you?” I said that I was and then we got chatting, all because she had seen The Brittas Empire. A lot of people I work with now who are in their twenties used to watch that show. For me whether it’s The Brittas Empire, Absolutely Fabulous or, more recently, The Secret it’s just fantastic to have that support! I’m so lucky that people can still laugh at those things. I am always amazed and happy to know that I’ve made someone laugh. I really am so lucky to have what I have and to be a part of this theatre world. 

Thank you so much for your time, Harriet! 
Oh darling any time, it has been an absolute pleasure! Thank you!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Great Britain runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until Saturday 10th January 2015.
Please visit for further information and tickets.

Photo Credit 1: Kate Scott
Photo Credit 2-3: Brinkhoff Mögenburg 
Photo Credit 4: Dan Wooller
Photo Credit 5: Tristram Kenton

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