20 Questions With...Anna Francolini
Date: 30 June 2003
Actress Anna Francolini - who this week takes the title in the UK premiere of US musical The Ballad of Little Jo at the Bridewell - explains how to play a woman masquerading as a man & why Stelios should be in charge of London theatre.
Anna Francolini trained at the National Youth Theatre and after an initial tour with Godspell and a run as Aladdin at the Derby Playhouse she was cast as Martha in Sam Mendes' acclaimed Donmar Warehouse production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, Company starring Adrian Lester.
Her musical career continued to blossom with parts like Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, several Bridewell productions including Cutting Edge, Helen in Saturday Night and Nellie in Floyd Collins and Michael Grandage's multi award-winning production of Merrily We Roll Along, again at the Donmar.
Francolini's other stage credits include Ronald Harwood’s Mahler's Conversion with Antony Sher and last year’s revival of Daisy Pulls It Off, both in the West End, as well as A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest and, at Soho Theatre, Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight.
On screen, Francolini has appeared in Jonathan Creek, Being Dom Joly and Down to Earth for the BBC, Mike Leigh's feature film Topsy Turvy and the televised version of Mendes' Company.
This month, she takes the title role in the European premiere of The Ballad of Little Jo at London’s “new musical laboratory”, the Bridewell Theatre. Based on the film of the same name, the musical tells the story of Jo Monaghan, a young woman who lived as a man in the silver mines of Idaho in the 1890s.
Date & place of birth
I was born Chertsey, which is in Surrey. I don't think I'm going to tell you when. Let's just say the early 1970s.
Lives now in...
Kilburn in north London. Well, between West Hampstead and Kilburn.
I did Theatre Studies at Warwick University and then was a member of the National Youth Theatre.
First big break
I don't think I've been broken yet!
Career highlights to date
Working at the Donmar Warehouse twice. To be working there, with such amazing people, was an incredible experience. Working with Antony Sher on Mahler's Conversion - which was directed by Gregory Doran (Sher's partner) - was a very exciting job, too.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Well, Merrily We Roll Along was probably the one I'm most proud of. Also Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight at Soho Theatre because it was just the funniest play. And my very first job - a tour of Godspell - because it was just a bunch of 20-year-olds touring the country, doing a venue a week and having a blast. That was great.
Samantha Spiro and Daniel Evans from Merrily We Roll Along at the Donmar. Also Jenna Russell, who's currently in the TV drama Born and Bred. Jenna and I have worked together at the Bridewell before - she's amazing. I suppose they're all my favourites because they're better than me but I still like them!
Sam Mendes, for obvious reasons. I didn't find him intimidating at all. I was completely in love, I had a huge crush on him. But Michael Grandage is my all-time favourite. He's good at serving up shit sandwiches. That's when he says lots of nice things about me but then slips in that I'm doing terrible job and I'll be out if I don't get it right! He did wonders.
Favourite musical writers
Stephen Sondheim is a master with lyrics. I've done four or five of his musicals. There are some nice matronly roles of his I'd like to play when the time comes.
What other roles would you most like to play still?
I don't know really. I always fancied playing Kate in the The Taming of the Shrew. I don't really hanker after anything, though. I just see what comes up. Basically, anything that makes me look sexy and clever is the role for me!
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
It's been a while since I went to the theatre. One of the last things I saw was Timothy West's King Lear. I must have been the only person in that theatre who didn't know the play at all. But I understood every word, which is a bonus. It was wonderful.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of theatre?
That's easy - you hand it over to that guy from Easyjet, Stelios. You see, it just has to be cheaper and needs to be less elite. So Stelios is your man. You'd be booking online and collecting tokens from the Daily Mail to get free tickets. He'd get it sorted.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
This is so difficult because nothing else was an option. I'd like to have been a member of the royal family, preferably the one down in Monaco.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I'd be Victoria Beckham. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays I'd be Jennifer Aniston. And Sundays I'd have a bit of me time.
Dave Eggers is the writer and it's a book called A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It's a true-life story about a guy whose parents die of cancer. It's so human and funny - it makes you laugh out loud. I also like Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series.
Favourite holiday destinations
Brighton, New York, Paris and Edinburgh.
Why did you want to accept your part in The Ballad of Little Jo?
It's unlike anything I've ever done, completely unglamorous and really hard work so I have to use that word "challenge". My character gets raped, has a baby out of wedlock and pretends to be a man. It's a huge part with lots of beautiful songs. Ultimately, it was the music that sold it to me.
What are the challenges of acting in a musical rather than a straight play?
The problem with musicals, even really good ones, is that the dialogue scenes are underwritten, so you have to cram loads of information into a very short, spoken scene. In a straight play, your journey takes place through the dialogue, whereas in musicals you get to go on your emotional journey through song, which is beautiful, but you feel like a mute because you can't speak what you feel.
How difficult do you find playing a woman who lives as a man?
It's not that different from how I behave now. Remember, this piece is set in 1890. If someone from that era saw me now - the way I dress, walk, sit - well, I'm not particularly feminine. I'm enjoying being one of the lads.
What's your favourite number from The Ballad of Little Jo?
There's a beautiful song, which I don't sing, called "Listen to the Rain" and it's just heartbreaking. It's all about giving up your past and living in the moment. It's sung by an actor called Phong Truong.
What, if anything, is special about working at the Bridewell?
I love working at the Bridewell. I've done so five or six times before. Carol Metcalf and Clive Paget are so committed to new and interesting musical theatre. They find all these amazing writers, a lot of them American, and produce interesting and challenging pieces of theatre. They take chances - and as a result have no money, which is a shame.
What are your plans for the future?
I don't know, just to keep on working. I'd like to earn some money, enjoy myself and have a laugh.
- Anna Francolini was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
The Ballad of Little Jo opens at the Bridewell Theatre on 1 July and continues until 26 July 2003.
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