As Follies returns to the National Theatre, the Olivier-winning Joanna Riding is taking on the role Imelda Staunton played in the hit 2017 production. Riding tells Mark Shenton of her regard for Staunton and the NT, the time Judi Dench made her tongue-tied and her anger at how she was treated in the West End while she was expecting
Joanna Riding has long been celebrated by musical theatre audiences as a star turn in productions from the West End to the National Theatre. Yet the Olivier award-winning performer’s career could have gone in an altogether different direction.
She loved biology growing up and – rather unusually for a seven-year-old child – was delighted to receive a real stethoscope as a present. Good thing too. “I discovered my brother’s heart defect that the doctors missed,” she reveals before adding with a smile. “There’s still part of me that thinks I’m in the wrong theatre.”
Luckily for audiences, the down-to-earth Riding – known to everyone as Jo – went instead to drama school and burst on to the scene at Worcester’s Swan Theatre before a season at Chichester Festival Theatre and the West End.
During the 1990s she had an extraordinary run at the National, winning an Olivier in 1993 for Nicholas Hytner’s landmark revival of Carousel, and starring in shows including Guys and Dolls, A Little Night Music and Oh What a Lovely War. That show in 1998 was her most recent run on London’s South Bank – literally, as it was performed in a tent outside the NT – until now.
“It’s nice to be back,” she says as we settle into the dressing room she will use during her run in Follies, whose 2017 revival is returning to the National.
“I’ve been trying to get back for more than two decades. I feel so at home here – just coming in and seeing Linda at the stage door,” she says, referring to the long-serving stage door keeper Linda Tolhurst. Later, after we part, I find them outside in the cold sharing a cigarette break.
“It’s not just the memory of the place and how special it feels, it’s the way you are treated here. When you move away and work in the commercial theatre, you find you don’t get that voice or dialect coach, or there aren’t rooms to go to where people are available to help you with the text.
“You get the most astonishing team around you here. I know it’s a cliché, but here it’s about the art, and the whole building reeks of that. I know they’ve got budgets and constraints, but it doesn’t feel like that. When you’re a performer, you get what you need and then some.”
But when she made her debut at the NT in 1992, Riding had no idea of the theatre’s status and what it meant to be working there. “I was ridiculously green. I didn’t have any sense of how special the job was. Of course, my agents said it, but they say that every time, it’s agents’ talk.”
She continues: “I’d done only four shows when I got Carousel. No one in my family has worked in the industry, and I had deliberately avoided going to a London drama school because I have that Northern chip on my shoulder, so I didn’t even audition for one. So I missed being in London as a student and I’d barely come to London even to see a show.”
I had no right to come into this profession, it wasn’t anything I knew about. But I just burned with this want to do it
Then she says something surprising: “I had no right to come into this profession, it wasn’t anything I knew about. But I just burned with this want to do it.”
As well as that drive and talent, her career needed something else. “I was very, very lucky. I have a daughter who is 12 and is determined to enter the profession; she’s about to play Annie at school. I’m not going to say don’t do it, but I’m so aware of how much luck is involved. When it comes along you’ve got to be ready for it and seize it and you’ve got to be up to it. But how many other girls didn’t get that chance? I think it’s very important to hold on to that and maintain how bloody lucky I’ve been.”
After graduating from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Riding got her first job – and a then-essential Equity card – by appearing in Happy As a Sandbag at Worcester’s Swan Theatre. Agent Scott Marshall, who’d clocked her in her Bristol graduation showcase show at London’s Fortune Theatre, made the trip to Worcester, and signed her up. “I’m one of those really weird actors who’s still with the same agent now,” she says. “I have a profound sense of loyalty for what they did, getting the ball rolling for me in such a spectacular way I will be forever grateful.”
The catalyst was a Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz at Chichester Festival Theatre that then-artistic director Michael Rudman was directing. He wanted a “name” to play Dorothy, but Marshall told him: “You’ve got to see my girl.” As Riding tells it: “He harangued and harassed him and wouldn’t let it drop, until he finally conceded to see me for five minutes in his lunch hour. The best auditions you give are either when you’ve already got the job, so there isn’t the pressure; or there’s no bloody way on earth you’re going to get it, so you don’t care.”
A stroke of luck was that in the last term at drama school she had played Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. “So I had a young American girl inside me already and got every song in the show ready. It was one of those glorious things where I got home after the audition, the telephone rang and I got the job.” It was also the first of many times she’d find herself following in the footsteps of Imelda Staunton, who had played Dorothy in an earlier Royal Shakespeare Company production. “That girl. I get so jealous sometimes,” she quips.
More luck followed. Gillian Gregory was the choreographer on The Wizard of Oz, and also the choreographer on Me and My Girl, then in its seventh year in the West End and coming up for a cast change. “They’d run out of actresses from Hi-de-Hi!, and they had Brian Conley, who was already huge, signed on to play Bill Snibson. So they thought maybe they didn’t need a name for Sally,” Riding says. The show’s director, Mike Ockrent, got them in for a day to work together “and we hit it off – we had such a great day”.
Suddenly she was in the lead role in the West End in only her third job. “Because they’d had stars in the role before, I got a fresh bouquet of flowers in my dressing room every week – and my name swinging in the wind outside the theatre. I thought: ‘This is how leading ladies get treated.’ But I’ve never had my name swinging outside a theatre since!”
Me and My Girl led to another break: “Ian Talbot had come to see it, and he clocked me for Lady Be Good that he was directing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. And I don’t think I’d have been seen for Carousel if I didn’t have that under my belt first. It really started the ball rolling. Each job you do you learn a little bit more from; you’re constantly crafting. But if you don’t get that job, you don’t get that chance.”
Playing Julie Jordan in Carousel was Riding’s most exposed and exposing role to that point. She was working with director Hytner and choreographer Kenneth MacMillan in a cast that also featured Janie Dee. “She took me under my wing and I’ve adored her ever since. She sensed someone who was a rabbit in the headlights, and she looked after me. I made a complete tit of myself daily in front of Mr Hytner.”
But she also had a fresh-faced vivacity and innocence that made her perfect casting, too. Though she did not appreciate just what the National was and its standing at that point, she says: “Maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing at the time, because it might have been overwhelming. Then it was just another theatre and another job.”
She followed Carousel with another show at the NT: its 1995 revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music that starred Judi Dench. She played Anne Egerman, the young wife of Fredrik Egerman, a man still in love with his ex-partner Desiree Armfeldt.
“Anne is a headless chicken, the poor love is lost. This man has just married her, they’ve not consummated the marriage, and everything is done for her. She’s just hopeless. I always put part of me in the characters I play, but part of the character seeps into me somehow, too. And with Anne, I became her: Judi Dench is my idol and I got so tongue-tied I couldn’t speak, and it became such a thing that I started to avoid her.”
The role proved challenging in other ways. “I’d never played a role where it was so palpable that the audience hated me, not only in that she stands in the way of Fredrik getting his Desiree, but also that it was Judi Dench: I was in the way of Judi Dench getting her fella.” She confessed her insecurity to Sondheim when he came for previews: “He rebuked me, saying that is how it was written and was meant to be. It was a bit of Anne’s insecurity that had rubbed off on me.”
She’s since worked with the composer again on the film of Into the Woods – “briefly; drop your popcorn and you miss me” – and is now delighted to be playing Sally Durant Plummer in Follies. Again, she senses the character is rubbing off on her: “She’s bipolar and on a manic phase,” she says, adding that her talking 10-to-the-dozen could be a reflection of this. “There’s an engine going on inside her, she’s like a sprung coil. She comes to the reunion with an agenda, to get what she wants – which is Ben – and she’s going to get it.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I did a lot of barmaid-ing. In-between jobs, once I did telesales selling windows in Bexleyheath. I was really shit; I didn’t have the heart to sell people stuff they didn’t want, so I just used to chat to them.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Happy As a Sandbag at Worcester’s Swan Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
What the National Theatre was and how lucky I was to be here. But I also wish I’d been told to take more time to enjoy it all. You’re always in such a rush to the next job to prove yourself again, fearing they’re going to find out you’re not able to do it at all.
Who is your biggest influence?
Doris Day. She was an underrated actress and a terrific comedian, and I loved her voice. And Judi Dench. It was such a shame that when we worked together I couldn’t speak properly and tell her. At drama school we were told to see stuff and work out why something worked. So when I didn’t know how to do a line, I’d close my eyes and try to imagine how Judi would say it.
What is your best piece of advice for auditions?
Don’t apologise for being there. Remember that they need, and want, you to be good. So don’t go in apologising for yourself. I fail to do it myself half the time, but I know they’re hoping the next person to come into the room is what they need – and sometimes they need to be shown what that is. It’s a confidence thing, and much easier said than done.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Something in the medical profession. At school, the one subject I never had to revise for was biology.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions?
Absolutely none. I’m determined to stay that way. I have to be respectful of others – I’d be singing Macbeth at the top of my voice otherwise.
Once more, she is following in the footsteps of Staunton, who played the role when this production debuted in 2017. “They’re very big shoes to fill, even if they contained little feet. The thing about Imelda is that she’s one step ahead of me all the time – and gets there before I do.”
Riding couldn’t get a ticket to the original run, until she filled in for a friend who couldn’t go. “It was before I knew I’d be part of it myself. I don’t think I would have gone if I’d known. I’ve had to make a concerted effort to get her performance out of my head and make the role mine.”
Staunton and Riding worked together at the NT in 1996, on Richard Eyre’s revival of his own legendary production of Guys and Dolls, in which Staunton played Miss Adelaide opposite Riding’s Sarah Brown. “What’s amazing about Imelda’s career is how she’s broken out of musical theatre to do absolutely everything; there’s nothing she can’t do. The energy of the woman is amazing. She always brings something new to everything she does that you haven’t seen before.”
Riding would go on to star in the West End world premiere of Cameron Mackintosh’s production of The Witches of Eastwick at Drury Lane. She speaks today of “a slightly uncomfortable dynamic between some of the leads, which led to some unfortunate shenanigans that I managed to stay well out of thankfully” – but when the cast changed and the show moved to the smaller Prince of Wales, she decided to stay on. “I loved the show and the role so much, and I just wanted to come into work and do it with no shit going on and just have a nice time.”
She had a rewarding time taking over the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady back at Drury Lane in 2003 – for which she won her second Olivier award – but says: “I came across some unfair criticism for playing her at that age. It made me realise that in my mid-30s, there weren’t that many parts anymore.”
So she took active steps to break out of musical theatre by seeking out a play at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. “Braham Murray [then co-artistic director] didn’t want to see me for Hobson’s Choice, he thought I was too musical theatre. At the time I was riding around London on my big Yamaha motorbike and wearing full leathers. I knew I could make a good job of Maggie [Hobson] and thought I had to go for this role. So to dispel any idea of a ‘twirly’, I arrived with my thickest Northern accent, my hair out here and my leathers on.”
She won the role, and would subsequently also appear at the Royal Exchange in productions of The Happiest Days of Your Life and An Ideal Husband. It was while she was staying back at home in her native Lancashire that an old school friend suggested a night out in Preston. “It was the last place I wanted to go,” she says. “But I met my husband Seb that night.”
After becoming a mother to Sky, she returned to the stage, which proved challenging. “I was playing Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband at Manchester and wore this beautiful green gown that revealed fabulous cleavage. But then I’d feed Sky in the interval, and I’d be strangely deflated afterwards. I’d see audiences wondering, ‘Where did she go?’ ”
After she returned to London, she actively sought a return to musicals. “I’d taken my longest period out of the industry, and it had been a huge change. Your world is turned upside down and the industry is a million miles away. So I asked to be seen for Billy Elliot to come back in. I remember the audition: I’d forgotten how to sing and dance, sweated like a bastard all the way through and I couldn’t string a sentence together.”
But she still won the role of Mrs Wilkinson. During the run, Riding had to take maternity leave when she fell pregnant with her second child. Today, she reveals another challenge she faced. “I wasn’t treated very nicely and I was made to feel like my pregnancy was a burden. I was really quite angry about it. Within the show, Mrs Wilkinson isn’t and can’t be pregnant, but at other times the audience was asked not to think about what was actually politically or socially correct.
“I remember putting it to this particular person on the production team: ‘So if that’s okay and you’re asking the audience to get over themselves, then why can’t you ask them to do the same thing with me?’ I was told it’s not the same thing. They just wanted me to go away. But I said: ‘I’m not ill, I’m just pregnant.’ I was still doing cartwheels on stage when I was five months pregnant.”
• Go to see as much as you possibly can. You learn so much from watching, and don’t be afraid to use you’ve seen. Even if you are plagiarising someone else’s way, as I did with Judi [Dench], you’re a different vessel – its coming out of you.
• Embrace the fear. If a role frightens the fuck out of you, then you should say yes to it. Scared is good. Don’t stay in your comfort zone, because you won’t learn anything.
• Don’t act, especially in musical theatre. I’m constantly being told ‘less, less’. I have one of those faces that shows everything. You need to trust in a good piece of writing, then it’s there for you: you don’t have to show, just be it.
She held on to the job and returned after giving birth to her son, now nine. “My dressing room became known as the ‘milking parlour’. I’d get to the interval and run hell for leather to the dressing room to get my pumps and bottles ready to express and keep milk for Seb to give to our baby.”
Becoming a parent has given her perspective, she says. “When you’re younger, the job is everything and you tear yourself out for it. But with a nine-year-old and a 12-year-old, I have other stuff going on now, which is healthy. I have a little bit of reserve now. At the end of the day, it’s a job.”
But parenting has not dampened her work ethic. In the last few years, she has gone directly from one job to another, to flops as well as hits: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Lend Me a Tenor to The Pajama Game to Stephen Ward, The Girls to Romantics Anonymous at Shakespeare’s Globe.
She’s on a winning streak again. As we part, she jokes: “God, I can talk. Maybe I need to play someone calmer next.”
Born: 1967, Longridge, Lancashire
Training: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1986-89)
• Me and My Girl, Adelphi Theatre, London (1993)
• Carousel, National Theatre, London (1993)
• A Little Night Music, National Theatre (1995)
• Guys and Dolls, National Theatre, London (1996)
• The Witches of Eastwick, Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Prince of Wales Theatre, London (2000-01)
• My Fair Lady, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London (2003)
• The Girls, Phoenix Theatre, London (2017)
• Oliviers for best actress in a musical for Carousel (1993) and My Fair Lady (2003)
Agent: Scott Marshall Partners
Follies runs at the National Theatre, London, until May 11