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Interview: Janie Dee Talks A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Opera Holland Park

Stephen Sondheim's musical is being performed as a concert in the London park

Interview: Janie Dee Talks A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Opera Holland Park
Janie Dee

Among the hopeful shoots of returning theatre is a new concert version of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, coming to Opera Holland Park on 15 August. West End leading lady Janie Dee is wearing two hats for this project: she's both starring as Desiree, and co-producing with Alex Parker. She talked to us about her lockdown experience and the pleasure of reprising a great role.

How has your lockdown been?

In some ways, it's been great to have this time and get to spend it with my family. We're lucky enough to have a communal garden, so we've been out there all through lockdown, and doing all this cooking with fresh produce. I'm trying to counteract eating too much by doing yoga and working out - I actually just did a workout online with Ashley Campbell, who played my little boy in Carousel at the National all those years ago!

I think we're starting to realise that we're going to have to cope with this 'new normal' for the next few years probably. The opportunity is to think about not rushing about so much, to spend more time with family and with nature. I'm not a workaholic exactly, but I find it difficult to say no - to people or myself. I always think "That could wonderful, I can't turn it down". But spacing out work would really help. I'm going to be more mindful of not cramming in too much, I hope.

Tell us how this concert performance of A Little Night Music came about

I was standing on the forecourt of Holland House, and thought "This is the chateau of A Little Night Music, it's just gorgeous", so I rang James [Clutton, Director of Opera] and said "Look, I was just wondering: could we try and do A Little Night Music here if we can get the rights?". We'd actually tried to get the rights last year - I invited James to Follies, and we had dinner afterwards and talked about it doing it, but someone else had the rights. And then this year, James said, "Well, we could check with Sondheim", and the word came back: "Yes, you can have it for the night". So here we are!

Was there any concern about whether people would be happy to return to theatre?

Oh yes, I wasn't sure people would want to go. Alex Parker - who is not only the most wonderful MD, but a great producer, and we're jointly producing this - he said it would sell out in 10 minutes, and in fact it sold out in six! Of course, we're all conscious of the fact that people might be scared, so it's very reassuring to see from something like this that people do value theatre, they're happy to come to an open-air venue, and they want to come back as soon as the shows are there.

Interview: Janie Dee Talks A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Opera Holland Park
Janie Dee and the cast
of Putting It Together

What precautions have you had to take?

The great thing about being outdoors in that we're out in the open air as long as we can be, we can social distance from one another as performers and backstage, and the audience can all safely gather and sit at least a metre away from one another. We can't have an interval, so we're doing it with great energy and steaming through in just over two hours. And there's no loos, just to warn everyone!

James had already done some concerts at Holland Park, so he was able to pass on everything he'd learned. Without him there, it would probably have been trickier - he's incredibly thoughtful and knowledgeable about putting on a show in these times. That's something we're all working out as we go along, so that audiences feel secure and can enjoy themselves.

Were any of the cast worried about doing the show?

Not at all - everyone was very keen. I'm thrilled, we've got the most wonderful company. Damian [Humbley, who plays Frederik] and I did Putting It Together and had such a good time on that - he's a great laugh, but also a tremendous actor. Jo Riding is my mate from Carousel and Follies. Actually, when we were rehearsing Follies, she said "By the way, I'd love to do A Little Night Music again and play the Countess", and I said "Right, you're on". So it's all fallen into place beautifully.

Is singing particularly difficult to do right now? It seems to be a major issue for the Government when it comes to letting theatre come back fully

As performers, we do have to space more, so it'll be different from usual - no kissing, no hugging! But there are wonderful ways to express love and emotion without doing that literal action. We just have to be vigilant, but it pushes you to be creative too.

Are you having a smaller orchestra?

Yes, we've got I think nine musicians in the orchestra, and then the audience is just 200 seats. There was no budget up front - we told everyone "This is how much we can pay if we sell out". So we're not about to turn a profit really, but it's worth it for the pleasure of doing it, and getting back into a space with an audience and having that conversation again.

Interview: Janie Dee Talks A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Opera Holland Park
Janie Dee in Follies

How does it feel staging a musical in these times? Does anything from the show come across differently?

When I was in lockdown, I had the feeling that something very special has happened as well as something tragic. On the tragic side of course are the lost lives, and people have lost loved ones - my heart just goes out to everyone. But it also feels like a terrible indictment if we don't do something to celebrate our lives, to be truly grateful and joyous about how incredibly fortunate we are to go on living.

And this show really is life-affirming. Over this short passage of time, you see everything in life - from youth through to old age, all the phases of a relationship or a marriage, a career, how we view ourselves, and I think making peace with some of those struggles and messes. Because ultimately, love, family, it's worth the trouble. It's also an innately theatrical show, which feels like a celebration in itself.

You've had the pleasure of reprising a role in Follies, and again with A Little Night Music. How does it feel to play Desiree now?

Oh gosh, life has changed so much since that last time I played her - five years ago I think, at the Palace. I feel differently. Overall, my love of this role is just the same; it's the most wonderful role. But you do grow with Sondheim, and your own life experience informs it. I probably empathise more with Desiree now. I understand how she's been working nonstop. She's so much on her own - which I can relate to, as an actor, because you do have to focus on your own preparation, and it takes you away from family. Then these wonderful songs, like "Send in the Clowns", there are so many ways of reading every line, every moment. It's why people love returning to Sondheim.

It's funny, I originally said to Alex that I might just produce this one and not perform, and he said "No - I don't want to do it without you playing Desiree". I'm now very glad he pushed me into it, because I'm finding all sorts of new information and just loving getting that part of my brain working again. Although it is a lot to be producing as well and learning all about that side of things.

How are you finding that producer role?

So far, it seems to be beautifully simple, and I'm so looking forward to seeing lots of people sitting in a space for something that is new in a way - Opera Holland Park has never been used in the way we're using it. I remember while I was doing The Boy Friend, I went for a walk in the park, and I was looking at the sort of auditorium they build here and thinking "We could even do shows in the winter". It's a really good way to manage it - not just a safe way to perform in terms of Covid, but consuming less energy.

I'm also the organiser of the London Climate Change Festival, and it's made me think so much more about how we can make theatre better for the planet. The more natural lighting we can use, the better. So for A Little Night Music, we're in nature, we're not using a lot of power. And the sunset couldn't be more perfect for this show. We'll be finishing just before it gets dark, and I really think that will be special.

Interview: Janie Dee Talks A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Opera Holland Park
Janie Dee in cabaret

Would you like to see more theatres adopting green strategies?

Our dear theatre buildings, I do hope by the time we get back into them, we can make sure that we're at least conscious of how much energy we're consuming. It's so easy to switch to a supplier like Octopus, which is clean energy. Some venues like the Royal Court have already done it.

Do you think lockdown has changed people's habits when it comes to being more energy- or community-minded?

I really do. Just going to your local greengrocer is such a joy - haven't we all felt something like that? Or getting to know your neighbours more, or taking stock of how lucky we are to have services like the wonderful NHS. My granny said to me that during the war people looked after each other, and it did feel similar when we went into lockdown.

I've certainly thought about how I structure my life and work commitments. I suddenly realised I've spent 25 years in the theatre, and not seen the garden in the evening because I'm always working. Now, I'm getting to know the neighbours' children - they come watering with me. After all of this, I don't just want to go back; I want to go forward. I hope that's the same for our industry too. There's been so much creativity with digital work.

You're doing your upcoming Crazy Coqs show both for a live, in-person audience and streamed online?

Yes, Crazy Coqs said they'd love to do this, but there might not be a live audience. I initially said, "Gosh, the whole point of cabaret is no fourth wall and interacting with everyone". But then I thought about it more and said "Let's have a go - if it comes to it, I can talk to the cameras and still have that dialogue".

Thankfully, it seems to be selling well. They're selling set tables where people come with friends or family, whoever's in their bubble. And it helps that I'm singing into a mic, so I can keep it controlled - it's not a big, spitting sing! There will always be concerns, but at some point, I think we just have to move onwards. Be as careful as we can, but not stop.

Would you like to do more producing, or perhaps directing, in future?

Absolutely. This enforced pause has really made me think very profoundly about how I do things. I'm going to be 60 in a couple of years, and I want to start to think about doing my own projects more - directing and producing. I love performing, and I'll never say no to a good project, but I want to do other things too, like look after young performers, and give the public wonderful experiences. You know those inspirational shows where you leave dancing down the street because it's so powerful?

After Follies, I did produce a little thing with Underbelly called On Reflection - it's a line from "Who's That Woman?", the mirror number. I thought, wouldn't it be fun to have our Follies cast telling a story and doing a song? It was a great success, so I'm thinking about doing that again. Something like reflecting on life after lockdown. It really does feel like theatre will help us all make sense of things - that's why it's so vital we get it back.

A Little Night Music is at Opera Holland Park on 15 August, and Janie Dee: New Life is at Crazy Coqs on 1-3 September

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