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BWW Interview: Harriet Thorpe Talks SLEEPLESS at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre

The actress discusses the Sleepless in Seattle musical

BWW Interview: Harriet Thorpe Talks SLEEPLESS at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre
Harriet Thorpe and Kimberley Walsh
in Sleepless

Harriet Thorpe is perhaps best known for her work on Absolutely Fabulous and The Brittas Empire. However, she has also enjoyed an extensive theatre career, including roles in Les Misérables, Mamma Mia!, Crazy For You and The Dresser.

She's currently starring as Eleanor in the new musical Sleepless (based on the hit film Sleepless in Seattle), currently in previews at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. Harriet talks to BroadwayWorld about the excitement and anticipation surrounding the first fully staged theatre production since the beginning of lockdown.

Following such a difficult time in the theatre industry, how did it feel to be back in the rehearsal room? And indeed back on stage?

We actually just went straight back on stage, because we were shut down three days before lockdown. The show had been rehearsed and we were already in the tech rehearsal [when lockdown began]. So we had the most wonderful first reading back together on stage at the Troubadour Theatre. All socially distanced, all in our masks. We'd all tested regularly every day - the results come through within half an hour to an hour. And it was the most wonderful feeling.

Of course there is an anxiety around it all, because it's all new, and the threat of Covid is obviously terrifying for everybody. But we are very well looked after. Everything is wiped down, and everyone is masked. It's an endless rotation of handwashing and sanitising. It just doesn't stop all day! But that's great. And we're all in bubbles in dressing rooms and all sorts of other things, depending on who you come into contact with on stage. The only place you actually take your mask off is on stage - and that's only the performers who do that. Everybody else is masked or wears a visor.

But I have to say, looking out into the audience - well, even the empty auditorium at that point - I think we all just felt, "We're home". And if this is a template to get everyone up and going again, then our job is done. Because if this works, it'll be fantastic.

As you mentioned, the cast and crew are having to adhere to a new daily testing procedure. How's that been going?

It is daily, but it's easy to get used to. It doesn't matter - it's just something we do to take care of everybody's health and wellbeing. You know, I posted a live [stream] of myself having my test - you can still catch it obviously because of Insta and everything. And I know both Jay [McGuiness] and Kimberley [Walsh] have done their own posts about it as well. And it's fine. It's not a drama. There's more drama happening in the world. This is just part of our process today.

You have such a wonderful cast and creative team on Sleepless. Despite all the new rules and regulations, there must be such a feeling of relief and joy amongst the team that you are finally getting to do what you love again?

Totally. Being together with the company, having the professional chats, and laughs. There's moments where you think "We're back. It's normal." And of course it isn't completely. But it is fantastic, because we love our jobs. I know some people think theatrical people are very superficial and one-dimensional. But this is our job. I brought my children up on my own, earning my living from my job I do. It's not some airy-fairy thing of "I like doing this and dressing up".

It's something our culture has always had. Something human nature has had from the beginning of time to reflect its society. To laugh at it, mock it, or to honour it. And we need it. And what is everybody doing now that they're locked up at home? Watching television and streaming shows. It's part of our human DNA - to perform and to have people reflect our world.

Let's talk about the show itself. There's a lot of buzz around the production, given the fact it's the first fully staged production since lockdown began. How have audiences been receiving it so far?

Well, they're loving it! They're so enthusiastic. For everybody else who loves theatre and goes to the theatre regularly, it's part of their life. So it's a bit of normality. This is a feel-good show, and that's what we need. It's about hope, love conquering all, doing the right thing, making choices in life, having integrity and honesty. And it's really funny! The kids are amazing. It's a fabulous cast.

Would you say there are many differences from the film itself?

There's no difference in the story at all. It's just like a cancel/continue kind of thing. You're breathing air into a story again. Giving it that context. The sets are extraordinary, and the live performance aspect - it's so wonderful. So, not the film - but it is the story. And they don't sing in the film, darling. [laughs]

Can you tell us a bit about your character Eleanor?

Well, she's a mom - she has lots of suburban mom attitudes. But she's also pretty frisky and chats about her own personal life a little bit. It's always our job as mothers to embarrass our children, and she does that quite happily to her daughter!

You've spoken to BroadwayWorld previously about your passion for championing older women. Is that something you're excited to continue as things get moving again?

Well, it's always interesting. The idea is to give us a voice. The irony is, whether you're 30 or 90, you feel the same. And other than the fact that you're slightly more wrinkly and gravity is taking its toll, you don't feel any different.

Almost every day over lockdown, Sherrie Hewson, Dee Anderson, Debbie Arnold and I have been doing a live online show called The Wonderbirds. It's mature women talking a load of crap really! But it's fun. It's about being together, and sharing all sorts of things. We've had some amazing guests on - Gok Wan, Paul O'Grady. You can check it out on YouTube and Facebook.

Having an online presence as an actor seems so important these days. Do you think it's important to move with the times in our ever-changing industry?

I think it's important, absolutely. To embrace everything and keep evolving. It's the world we're in today. And it's business. It's showbusiness. It's nothing we haven't done before. We used to send out photos and now we email them! It's the same thing. Sometimes one is anxious of things. You think: "Oh, I don't understand this and it's not my world." But's all our world. And it's easy - it's just about learning something new. I think the main thing is not to be frightened of moving forward and going with the flow. Being part of the current world. Not the world we were in but part of the one we're in now.

You've also spoken previously about the importance of having something to fall back on as an actor, as you're likely to experience periods of unemployment. Do you feel this period puts that into focus now more than ever?

Yeah, no shit! [laughs] I'm doing a lot of work over at Joe Allen [Harriet is involved with a series of virtual concerts at the restaurant, co-produced by Matt Elson]. I worked at Joe Allen when I was younger, before I went to drama school. I served Tennessee Williams, Lauren Bacall. Elaine Stritch came in every day and had a cheeseburger and fries. Diana Ross came in, put on her own music and danced to it. All the old stars came. Elizabeth Taylor came in - well, I have actually done a film with her, but I'll just mic drop that later! The most amazing people, because it was a theatrical café. That's why we're doing all the virtual shows from there - we've come up with some brilliant stuff. So I'm just happy to keep going.

I've been doing a lot of online teaching, which I do all the time. My sister [Matilda Thorpe] is also an actress and we have a company called Dr Theatre, which works internationally with people in business. I'm teaching online to people in all sorts of businesses - because of course it's more important than ever now to be able to express yourself over a Zoom call. And I also teach at Arts Ed and various other schools.

I think the most important thing is to always do what you know. Which is why I'm happy to go back and do some shifts waitressing at Joe Allen as soon as they open again. It'll be great. So that's what I'll be doing.

And lastly, why should audiences come to see Sleepless?

It's a vast venue, socially distanced, it's a feel-good production, and it's just a little bit of normal life for a couple of hours. It really is a wonderful show.

Sleepless is at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre until January 2021

Harriet's show Wonderbirds can be viewed on YouTube here

Photo credit: Alistair Muir

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