BWW Interview: Actress Harriet Thorpe On THE DRESSER

Harriet Thorpe and Ken Stott in The Dresser

Harriet Thorpe's diverse career ranges from hit musicals Les Miserables, Wicked, Mamma Mia! and Crazy For You to Absolutely Fabulous and extensive work with the National. She's currently starring in The Dresser, alongside Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith, which begins previews at Duke of York's Theatre on 5 October.

What sparked your love of acting?

I'm born to perform, genetically hardwired. I didn't have a choice! One of my earliest memories is being able to make my sister laugh. As soon as I realised I could entertain people I never looked back.

Where did you train?

The Royal Ballet School and Central School of Speech and Drama.

What was your professional break?

I was four and I did a Persil advert.

Tell us about your role in The Dresser and what attracted you to it.

I play 'Her Ladyship'. She's the daughter of a theatrical dynasty and Sir's common-law wife, so she's terribly grand and melodramatic. However, at the time we meet her I think she's coming to terms with the possibility that she perhaps isn't as talented as she would have hoped. She has devoted her life to a narcissist who wouldn't even marry her, and only realises at the end that perhaps it was a mistake. I love her humour, her glamour and her pain.

How well do you think the play captures the dynamic of a company and its theatrical types?

Utter perfection. We've all met and worked with these wild and wonderful people - and probably have been them at one point, too! I expect we've also been on those tours where everyone is living on top of each other and you hardly know where you are and what show you're doing day to day. It's excruciating and hilarious.

Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott
in The Dresser

Do any of them remind you of people you've worked with?

Of course, all of them... I can't say who though - my lips are sealed!

Why do you think it's such an enduring piece?

It's quintessential British theatre. It's full of references to our wonderful dramatic heritage, and at the same time pokes fun at our quirks and mannerisms. It's not just about theatre either - it celebrates our stoicism and strength, our Blitz spirit. I've always thought it was amazingly brave that all these theatre and ballet and opera companies went on performing throughout the war, endangering their own lives just to bring entertainment to our country in its darkest hours.

Does its portrait of Sir have a different resonance now, with so much discussion about conditions like dementia?

Interesting question. I don't think it impinges on the play - his condition comes on suddenly, so I'm not sure if it's dementia-related. But yes, this is an excellent vehicle to tackle the subject, because as a performer one's memory is an absolutely critical tool, so it's twice as debilitating if it starts to go. If it does start conversations amongst people on the subject, then that's great, because it's a hugely important issue.

What was it like to reunite with the Ab Fab team for the movie?

It was the most fun I've had in years! It's always the best - it feels like coming home to family.

Are you rejoining The Girls for the West End run?

No, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be part of The Dresser. But I'm sure The Girls will be terrific too.

Harriet Thorpe in The Dresser

Any dream future projects? Would you like to do more musicals, stage, TV?

Oh yes. I'm excited to be starting a campaign to champion older women who are taking back control of their lives. I plan to host events and interviews with women from all walks of life who refuse to let their age hold them back. We will have a website up soon with vlogs and more information. You'll be one of the first to know more!

Otherwise I'm proud to have had a diverse career in film, television and theatre. I would be delighted to continue that, while also building my profile online. As I said, for a long time women of my generation might have felt unsure how social media and the online world related to their lives, but we're now realising it's ours for the taking and that we can make what we want out of it.

I want to be part of that while still continuing the work I've been so lucky to build a career on. I think that's the best way to stay positive and involved - keep one foot in the past and one in the future... much as our characters are having to do in the play!

Yours is such a varied career. What advice would you give to budding performers who similarly want to do a range of projects, rather than be pigeonholed?

My theory is work breeds work. Have the humility to be open to everything, but never compromise your integrity and professionalism. Know what you do best and maximise that while never being afraid of taking a risk on something that could give you an opportunity to grow or learn something new. And always have a fallback. You may not be able to perform 100% of the time, even if you are successful, and you must always have an alternative way of making a living to rely upon.

The Dresser is at Duke of York's Theatre 5 October-14 January, 2017

Picture credit: Hugo Glendinning

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