Janie Dee’s latest role is in the new play Monogamy opening at York Theatre Royal next week. She spoke to Phil Penfold.
A critic once wrote of the playwright Torben Betts that he had “a profound and hugely original theatrical voice”. Janie Dee is in complete agreement.
Actress and singer Dee is just about to open in Betts’ latest play, Monogamy, in York, and says: “He always writes very perceptive social commentaries, and, even better, it is always a joy to work with him.”
Betts’s career took off when he was picked by Alan Ayckbourn to be the resident dramatist at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. That was back in 1999. At the time, Dee was appearing in Ayckbourn’s House/Garden and had just finished a run of another hit, Comic Potential. Her career was about to rocket as well.
She is clearly one of those performers who is highly valued by directors and writers, always returning to them when they have a role for her in which she can shine. She has just finished a sell-out run at the Royal National on the South Bank of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies – opposite Imelda Staunton and Yorkshire’s own Dame Josephine Barstow. Without exception, there was a nightly standing ovation from the audience at the end of the show. “It was both exhilarating – and exhausting,” admits Dee. “But we loved it. The audience just spontaneously rose, and it went on, and on and on. It’s that combination, of a truly great piece of work that is brilliantly directed. I was so proud to be part of it all and, yes, it will return to the National, next year. I’ve signed my contract. It was a great example of teamwork, of everyone pulling together in the right direction, everyone giving it 100 per cent”.
After climbing that mountain, what Dee did next was uncharacteristic. She took three months off. “I’ve been so blindingly lucky over the years,” she says. “I’ve run pretty seamlessly into one job after another. I knew that Torben’s play was coming up, and I just thought to myself ‘It’s time for home, family, kids, doing things around the house’, which was pretty much the case, but the odd thing did pop up. A radio play here, something else there, so I wasn’t exactly lounging around!”
It won’t be the first time that Dee has played York’s Theatre Royal. “I remember doing a show there many years back, called Sleep with Friends – which wasn’t quite as racy as it sounds, since it was an evening with Wayne Sleep, and a few other old mates. I fell in love with York as a city, I really did – but then, who doesn’t?”
Monogamy focuses on Caroline Mortimer, “a celebrity chef on TV, she’s married, with three children, and she’s a committed Christian. She’s also terribly… nice. And she makes her TV programmes in her own kitchen. Outwardly, she’s got the lot. The audience will see a woman who, they think, has a perfect life. But then Torben takes everyone behind the scenes, and perhaps all isn’t quite what it seems. Perhaps things are not quite so serene, and nothing is quite as perfect as one assumes. I’m hoping that people will see a different side to Caroline and her world. And that’s always fascinating for both us actors, and the people we play to.”
While she is up in Yorkshire, Dee will, she says, “try very hard to get to see Sir Alan, who I really do adore. But then so does everyone who works for him. I know that he is hugely self-deprecating, when he comes to talking about his directing, but he has such an insight into a performer’s mind – he knows what he wants and he truly coaxes it out of you, without you realising that he’s doing it. We met when I was with a little show called Between the Lines, which we were doing in a room above a pub in Camden. Word got about that it was pretty good, and the business was terrific. Apparently Alan came in to see us, and the result was a Scarborough season. That was 1992 and he was kind enough to invite me back for other productions, so I owe him a big vote of thanks.”
She’s just been making a film based on real-life events, Official Secrets (with Kiera Knightley and Ralph Fiennes) which will be out later in the year. In the long term, Dee says that she has often pondered “about running a theatre myself, working behind the scenes to make it vibrate.” If she had to offer any wisdom to youngsters it would be, she thinks: “Know absolutely that you want to act, or perform, or whatever, and do it with your whole heart, and to the very best of your abilities. And then give it a bit extra. Oh, and always read the script before you agree to do anything.
“That’s from bitter experience. I signed up to do the Cole Porter musical Can-Can, which had a wonderful cast, brilliant sets, amazing choreography, and that glorious music. What it didn’t have was a plot, or a story, or anything like a decent book. It was the only time in all my career when I was wishing ‘Oh, God, get me out of here!”
At York Theatre Royal, May 22-26. Tickets 01904 623568.