How my acting career spread from a Flora commercial

Actress Phoebe Thomas is appearing in Hetty Feather at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Actress Phoebe Thomas is appearing in Hetty Feather at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
  • She started her career on screen aged just eight years old, but it’s in the theatre where Phoebe Thomas is now flexing her acting muscles. She speaks to Phil Penfold.
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There are few people who can put BAFTA nominee on their CV. Phoebe Thomas is one of them. The actress is also a musician, singer and performer – as well as gymnast, personal trainer and marathon runner (best time, just over three hours).

“I was only eight when I was nominated,” she laughs, “and it was for a TV commercial for Flora and I was up for The Best Young Actress Award for an advertisement. I’m pretty sure that they don’t do that one any more.” She pauses, “Didn’t get it, obviously. I think that it went to the wretched kid from the Colgate commercial, who obviously had all the screen presence that I clearly lacked.”

Thomas is now 32 and one of the ensemble cast of the stage version of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather, adapted by Emma Reeves, and which has just finished the second of two hugely successful West End runs. It is now on a long tour, which takes Thomas – who plays the eponymous heroine Hetty – and the rest of the cast and crew, well into next year. It’s a challenging role – she not only has to play Hetty as both a tiny baby and a little girl, but also Hetty’s mother.

“It is done with incredible invention, and I lay that firmly and gratefully at the door of our director, Sally Cookson, who has one of the most brilliant minds, and who is one of the best people I have ever worked with. We all play children at some point in the play and she insisted that there were no caricatures. We had to do it from the heart.”

Thomas is still remembered for her four-year stint in Holby City and she admits that life after the medical drama wasn’t easy.

“My character, Maria, went off to nurse somewhere overseas. Heaven knows where they sent her. When I left, things were tough for a while. I didn’t get a job for some time, and inevitably you start thinking ‘Well, what else can I do?’ I’d been acting on and off since the Flora job and when Holby and I parted company, it came as a bit of a shock to be described as ‘the red-headed actress from that medic series’ and it was frustrating when I got turned down for jobs because I was ‘too recognisable’, so I went and developed another string to my bow. I began finding clients for fitness training, and that certainly helped in getting to grips with the sheer effort that goes into Hetty Feather.”

One of her early inspirations, she says, was Barnsley’s Brian Glover who she appeared with in Annie Get Your Gun.

“He was wonderful, always telling me funny stories and offering lots of advice. When you look at his career, it was incredible – going from being a teacher, to getting that breakthrough role in Kes, and then joining the RSC. He died too young and was such a loss.”

Thomas didn’t go to stage school, but she did attend a number of drama clubs as well as ballet and tap classes. Her initial breakthrough came when she was cast in Teachers, followed by a stint in an ill-fated ITV soap called Night and Day.

“That experience was invaluable. Because we shot scene after scene in very quick succession, with hardly time to learn our lines. You discover, in circumstances like that, whether you can hack it or not. And I could – and did.

“It also meant that I was, in a curious way, prepared for how Holby worked. And while I was there, yes I loved it. Great team, good people to work with.

“Would I do another long-running serial? I would never say ‘never’, but at the moment, it isn’t on the cards. You see, I do love the theatre so much. I’ve just done a lovely TV part in a new series called The Coroner, playing a bit of a criminal who is absolutely terrible at what she tries to pull off, but at the moment, I am loving this show. Loving it to bits – and it helps that my partner Luke Potter is also in the cast. He’s one of our two musicians, and wrote a lot of the score.”

Thomas says that one of the great joys of taking this show on the road, is the fact that she gets to see a different town or city every week.

“Each is as different as the theatre we are performing in. We got very used to the Duke of York’s, in the West End, because we were there for so many weeks during the summer holidays. It’s Victorian, it’s very tall, and has a deep old-fashioned ‘out front’ auditorium. That couldn’t be more different, of course, to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, which is a totally different structure. So you have to pitch and play the show differently every single week. I love that.”

Thomas can often be found exploring the local galleries, museums and she already has one must-see on her list when she comes to Yorkshire.

“I’ve been told that there’s one place that we have to go and see, and that’s the Ripon Workhouse Museum. A large amount of the action in Hetty Feather is set in the London Foundling Hospital, where unwanted children were left, and there’s a lot of talk about the conditions there and in the local workhouses. I want to learn more about how they operated, and what the conditions were like.”

So is this is going to be Phoebe’s first time in Yorkshire?

“No”, she laughs again, “I remember coming on a school trip in my teens, and I know that we all went to the Bronte Parsonage, and it was a cold, wet, miserable grey day, and I could imagine that family all those years ago, and how they must have felt living there, day after day. I had a lovely warm cosy house in Palmer’s Green, with mum and dad and my three brothers to go back to. They didn’t”.

Thomas says she can identify with Hetty because her character is a tomboy and independent spirit.

“She questions things – which I do – and she doesn’t pull any punches. And she also grows up with a lot of young men around her, which I did as well. I am so proud of my family, and what we mean to each other. We are a very tightly-knit unit, and we have a lot of laughs together. We all gig together as well, when we can, in a band called Professor Redhead, and Luke is part of the ensemble. God forbid that he and I would ever fall out – my brothers and my mum and dad would probably keep on asking him to play with them, and leave me on the sidelines.”

Rehearsals are about to restart and Thomas needs to grab some food to top up her energy.

“We all seem to get through a LOT of bananas”, she laughs, “but apart from that, we can eat just about anything we like, because it all gets instantly burned off on stage. We do – sorry to be crude – all sweat a lot. Alcohol, however, is another matter, cast get-togethers with a drink or two are very few and far between. You cannot afford to have a hangover and be performing on the high wire. Trust me.”

• Hetty Feather, West Yorkshire Playhouse, October 27 to 31. 0113 213 7700,