Monica Dolan: ‘I like to challenge myself. I don’t want to keep playing the same part’
With a CV that ranges from Shakespeare and W1A to Rose West, Monica Dolan has never been afraid to take risks. She tells Nick Smurthwaite about one of her riskiest moves yet: taking her one-woman show about the ‘pornification of our culture’ to the fringe
The first performance of Monica Dolan’s controversial one-woman show The B*easts was given to an audience of eight trusted friends, all theatre professionals, at her flat in west London.
“The night before, I was on the verge of cancelling it,” recalls the actor, best known for her BAFTA-winning performance as Rose West in the TV drama Appropriate Adult. She also wrote B*easts. “I’d read it through and decided it was terrible. Then, come the hour, the actor in me kicked in and I managed to sell it to them.”
Since then, she has performed it in London at the Bush Theatre, a few streets away from where she lives, and at Etcetera Theatre in Camden High Street. All these ‘previews’ were building up to a three-and-a-half-week run in Edinburgh at the Underbelly, Cowgate, which finishes on August 27.
By the time you read this, The B*easts will have been widely reviewed and Dolan’s cat will be out of the bag. Talking about it in the cafe at the Bush Theatre a week before Edinburgh, she is guarded about its delicate subject matter. Suffice to say, it concerns the moral issues around cosmetic surgery for children and young people.
“In America last year there were 3,000 girls under 18 who had breast augmentation,” she says. “Children can now go into places on the high street and get botox and fillers, no questions asked. The only legal regulations apply to tanning and tattoos.” The trigger that set Dolan running on The B*easts was a bizarre-looking statue by the side of a swimming pool in a Surrey hotel, which she says “looked like a toddler with breasts”.
Quite apart from its social and moral implications, The B*easts is also a colossal feat of line-learning, weighing in at 9,500 words. “It’s the most boring thing in the world, learning lines. It’s also quite confusing, being the author as well as the performer, because I sometimes get lines that I’ve cut popping into my head at the wrong moment.”
Does she have a contingency for drying? “Judi Dench always says ‘cancel and continue’, so I try to remember that. I just breathe, try to stay cool and keep it together. Luckily the nature of the piece is quite conversational and I interrupt myself a lot, so that helps you get away with the odd slip. The audience probably doesn’t notice you’ve fallen down a wormhole,” she says before adding: “I do say to myself quite regularly: ‘Why on earth are you doing this?’ ”
‘I’ve told my friends to stop me doing the next outlandish thing, to save me from myself’
Dolan’s acting credits show an actor unafraid to make risky choices and one who is impossible to pigeonhole. Her roles run from stalkers and psychopaths to Shakespearean tragedy and the BBC’s head of communications Tracey Pritchard in the acclaimed sitcom W1A.
“I get bored quite easily and it’s true I like a challenge. A couple of years ago I went on the Inca trail, and now I’m doing this theatrical marathon, which is insanely ambitious. I’ve told my friends to stop me doing the next outlandish thing, to save me from myself.
“Just before I was offered W1A, I remember thinking, ‘Okay I’ve done some Shakespeare and some telly, what’s next? How can I stretch myself in a different direction?’ Then I got the W1A job, which may look easy but is actually one of the most challenging things I’ve done. It’s so fast, you have to be constantly on your toes. Every member of the team makes mistakes and there is a lot of swearing off-camera, but very little corpsing because we’re all so frightened of tripping up. I remember going home after my first day on W1A feeling a bit shell-shocked.”
It has been a frantically busy year for Dolan, what with the third series of W1A; a leading role in The Silkworm, based on JK Rowling’s crime thriller series about the private detective Cormoran Strike; and the fourth series of the comedy drama series Inside No 9, with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.
Q&A: Monica Dolan
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working behind the bar at the Sovereigns pub in Woking.
What was your first professional theatre job?
A season of five plays at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Enjoy what you’re doing at the time and value it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Arthur Miller, Victoria Wood and Patsy Rodenburg.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
The combination of people has to be right. Sometimes it is better that you don’t get the job, because you may not be ready or, more importantly, they may not be ready for you.
“If I’d known in advance how much work there was going to be between January and May this year, I probably wouldn’t have gone ahead with The B*easts. I’m really glad I pushed myself to do it and I’ve been lucky to have a brilliant team supporting me.”
The child of Irish parents, Dolan grew up among scientists and engineers in Woking, Surrey, in the 1970s and 1980s. “We weren’t a theatregoing family although I do remember going to the school pantomime and wishing I was in it. When I did get a tiny part in a school production, I found that I loved being on stage.
“By the time I got to my secondary school, I was doing a lot of drama in and out of school. I belonged to a drama group in Guildford called Act One, run by a brilliant woman called Jane Walters. We did a lot of improvisation, which was helpful for my later training. Apparently I said to my mum, after I came back from Act One: ‘I’ve found my people.’ ”
‘I’ve been coming to Edinburgh as a punter since my teens, but it will certainly be different and scary being there as a performer’
Dolan’s parents were keen for her to go to university, so she went through the motions of applying for places, all the time knowing she was destined for drama school. Two years after leaving school (and enduring numerous dead-end jobs), she finally got into the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “It was absolutely the right place for me – eclectic, calm, earthy. It gave me a strong work ethic, and taught me about punctuality and staying centred. Guildhall actors are known for being adaptable and versatile.”
That versatility has been put to the test time and time again, including early on in Kathryn Hunter’s 1999 production of the chilling Rebecca Gilman play The Glory of Living, about a young couple on a rape and murder spree in America’s deep south. Michael Billington called the then-unknown Dolan’s performance “astonishing” in his review for the Guardian.
She went on to play a brittle and deranged Lady Macbeth for Max Stafford-Clark in his 2005 promenade production of Macbeth for Out of Joint. Dolan recalls: “I was absolutely astonished when Max asked me to play Lady Macbeth. I’d always seen myself as more of a Juliet or Ophelia.”
How has her attitude to acting changed in the 25 years since she left drama school? “I think I’ve developed my own approach. I was always quite picky about parts. If I really didn’t want to do something, my agent couldn’t persuade me it was a good move. It is important for actors to know why they are doing a job. If you’re just doing it for the money, don’t shy away from that, because every actor has to make a living. With every step you take, you’ve got to be happy with the decision you’ve made, otherwise it is difficult to make the next one.”
Was the BAFTA she won for her performance as Rose West, wife of Fred West, a big turning point in her career? “I think it probably made a difference. It certainly led to more meetings and offers of roles I wasn’t interested in. One of the things I was offered was a character almost identical to Rose West. I like to challenge myself mentally and emotionally with the parts I play. The last thing you want is to keep playing the same character.”
How does she feel about making her Edinburgh Fringe debut? “I’ve been coming to Edinburgh as a punter since my teens, but it will certainly be different and scary being there as a performer. But as an actor it’s always about taking the next step. I’ve always dealt with my low threshold of boredom by finding other things to do. It can be a positive thing, because it forces you to be proactive.”
CV: Monica Dolan
Born: 1969, Middlesbrough
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 1989-92
Landmark productions: Theatre: Henry V, Royal Shakespeare Company (1994); The Glory of Living, Royal Court, London (1999); Macbeth, Out of Joint (2005); King Lear, RSC (2007); The Seagull, RSC (2007); Birth of a Nation, Royal Court, London (2008); The Same Deep Water As Me, Donmar Warehouse, London (2013); Plaques and Tangles, Royal Court, London (2015). TV: Appropriate Adult (2011); W1A (2014); Wolf Hall (2015). Film: The Arbor (2010); Pride (2014)
Agent: Will Hollinshead at Independent Talent