Her other stage musical credits include Cats, Les Miserables and Chess in the West End, A Little Night Music at Leicester Haymarket, Evita at Manchester Opera House, Honk! in Singapore, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on tour, Personals at the New End Theatre, Victor/Victoria at the Bridewell Theatre, and Nine at the Donmar Warehouse. She has also appeared in productions of Godspell, Romance Romance, A Twist of Fate and West Side Story.
Jones is also a prolific concert artist, and has recently performed in The Best of Broadway, Black Goes with Everything, The Wonderful World of Rodgers and Hammerstein, A Night Under the Stars and Miss Leading Ladies, which she co-devised with her brother. On television, she has appeared in The Life of Debt.
Jones is now starring as Mrs Overall in the tour of Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques - the Musical!, the role made famous by Julie Walters in the 1980s television sketch and more recently in the West End musical adaptation by Wood at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. For the tour, Wood herself has redirected the show, after the original West End production by Trevor Nunn.
Date & place of birth
Born 8 March 1967 in Swansea, South Wales.
Lives now in
Clapham, south London.
First big break
My first proper musical was Bill Kenwright’s production of Joseph and I played the narrator on tour. And then I was the alternate Eva Peron in Evita in Manchester when I was 19 and from there I went into Chess in the West End with Elaine Paige and when eventually took over and played her for about a year. Then from that I went into Cats, and it was a whirlwind of one show after another for six years. That was such a great time.
Career highlights to date
I played Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard at Sydmonton (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s private festival at his country estate). I was very proud of that, that was a big thing - I got to sit next to Lloyd Webber on the piano. Unfortunately, at the time I was too young to play Norma in a full production, but I got him to make me a promise that I will play Norma if they ever do a revival - and I’m going to hold him to that! I also did a workshop with Stephen Sondheim, working closely with him for a week and that was just fabulous. And singing at Buckingham Palace for the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme was rather exciting. There have been quite a lot of highlights really.
I loved doing Joseph with Philip Schofield. He was such fun and it was a really happy show. I loved High Society. Strangely, I actually enjoyed that more on tour than I did in the West End. As great as it was to be in the West End and live at home, with touring you get a sense that the company are really together because everyone’s away from home together and that comes onto the stage, that closeness. I always wanted to work with Ian Talbot, too, and then I worked with him twice in a row – both in Cole Porter musicals - which was wonderful.
Philip Schofield, he’s fantastic. Michael Starke. And Angela Rippon, I really loved working with her and I learned a lot from her. And Sara Crowe, who’s playing Miss Babs in Antiques.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed? And the first?
I remember years ago going to the West End on a trip from Swansea to see Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. I think it was at the Apollo Victoria, and I absolutely loved it. Then a few years after that Catherine Zeta Jones was in Annie with Sheila Hancock as Miss Hannigan and I loved that so much. I wanted to audition for the show but I was too tall, you had to be under 5 ft. I recently saw Avenue Q, and every cast member was just brilliant and it was so witty and funny. And Wicked was fantastic. I didn’t know if it would live up to expectations, but it did. I loved the music and the choreography and the lighting - I thought it took the West End to another level. I really want to see Porgy and Bess, which I haven’t got round to yet.
If you hadn’t become an actress, what might you have done professionally?
At one point I wanted to be a Welsh teacher, and then I suddenly got paid for something I liked to do, which was singing. But I’m also very interested in property so maybe something in that line of work.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
When I was very young and had just missed out on winning a talent contest, my dad said “there’ll always be someone better than yourself”. I think that’s very good advice, because if you remember that you keep things in perspective. And I think you’re only as good as your last performance.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
The Queen. Because of all the hype at the moment with the film and the Oscars, I think it would be really interesting to see what it’s actually like to be the Queen for a day. Or maybe Julie Walters. I’ll spend half the day as the Queen and the other half as Julie!
I love reading autobiographies. I’m reading Joan Simms’ at the moment, which is fantastic.
Favourite holiday destinations
Asia. I really like Asia and Thailand in particular. I’ve worked there quite a lot and whenever I go there I love it.
Favourite after-show haunts
My own living room with a nice cold beer and an episode of Desperate Housewives.
Whatsonstage.com. Seriously, I read it all the time and love getting all the news and gossip.I’m hooked!
Why did you want to accept your role in Acorn Antiques?
I was actually going to be cast as Bonnie originally and then I was recalled and they asked me to read for Mrs Overall. I asked my agent to check it was definitely for Mrs O as she’s so different to Bonnie, but and I went back for my recall and got the part. My first reaction was wow! I was thrilled, obviously, and then the panic set in and I thought, “oh my God, now I’ve got to come up with the goods”. I wanted to accept the role because I was looking for a change after doing two Cole Porter musicals in a row. I thought this would be a bit of a challenge, something to scare me and to test me. I had vowed not to tour again so soon after doing two touring productions in a row, but this was such a fantastic opportunity I had to take it.
Were you familiar with the original TV series?
Oh yes, I was a fan. I watched it all the time and I used to do impressions of Mrs Overall, just messing around, quoting some of the lines - little knowing that years down the line I’d be playing her! Julie created such a fantastic character. I try as much as I can to bring my own stamp to the role, but you can’t stray too far from what she created because that’s what everyone wants to see. Mrs Overall is a brilliant character, an iconic one like Hilda Ogden, and you just couldn’t imagine her being played any other way. When I play Mrs Overall, I’m not impersonating Julie, but I am impersonating the character she created.
How does it feel stepping into Julie Walters’ shoes?
I’ve admired Julie Walters for years. I feel really honoured to be given the opportunity because they saw so many people for the role and I never had any idea I would wind up as Mrs O. I was just thrilled to get an audition for the show at all. It took me a few days to let it really sink in. I find something different every night to play on. I’ve never done comedy before – well, Reno in Anything Goes is funny, but it’s not quite the same as being in a comedy – and I’m loving people making laugh. When the audience are with you, there’s such a buzz. Apparently Julie and I are the same size, so I’m wearing the actual costumes she wore in the West End, which I think is a good omen! It was a big concern of mine stepping into such big shoes. She hasn’t been in to see it yet, but I hope nobody tells me when she’s in because I’ll be far too nervous!
How does the touring production compare to the West End one?
I didn’t see it live in the West End because I was on tour with other shows while it was on, but I watched the DVD. As I knew I had an audition, I ran out and bought it and watched it again and again. We’ve actually cut quite a lot from that version. Victoria’s written a few new songs for it, the opening number is a pastiche of “All That Jazz” and a lot of musical parodies come into it. I think the tour is an hour less than it was in the West End. It will definitely still appeal to people who didn’t see the TV show because everyone knows what those daytime soaps can be like, and that’s what it’s satirising. Victoria Wood based the original on Crossroads, which used to be filmed live, and there were all these shaky sets and actors fluffing their lines, which she brings out in Antiques.
What’s your favourite line from Acorn Antiques?
I love the line Mrs Overall says about a man being impotent: “It’s God’s way of getting men to decorate the spare room.” And I talk about painting condoms on with gravy browning during the war - that’s the scene I had to read for the audition, and that really makes me giggle. It’s especially fun when there’s an older audience in, they appreciate it.
How involved has Victoria Wood been with the tour?
She’s such a hands-on director. She wrote the music, the lyrics and the script, starred in it herself in the West End and is now directing it. I think there are only two venues she hasn’t been to during the 12 weeks we’ve been running so far. She watched every show in Manchester, and the only reason she hadn’t made it to the others is she’s been working. She’s really good with production notes, I’ve learned a lot from her, particularly about not playing for comedy but playing it real. If you play it as though it is funny then it just comes across as less amusing, but if you play it dryly and completely for real then the audience picks the humour out of it themselves and finds it much funnier. There is such a rhythm to Victoria’s writing, it’s almost melodic. You can’t change a single word or syllable, because it flows so well and there’s such a strong rhythm to it that if you change anything about the script – including pauses and punctuation – it just sounds wrong, so she’s very precise!
What’s the oddest/funniest/most notable thing that’s happened in rehearsals or performances to date?
The thing about a show in which people are “going wrong” on purpose is that you can get away with things if the revolve doesn’t work or something, and people find it hilarious. It’s not always funny, though. I nearly fell in the pit last night, and if it wasn’t for one of the boys grabbing me, I’d have gone in. The audience were roaring with laughter because they thought that it was meant to happen - and I felt as though I’d almost died!
- Ria Jones was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Acorn Antiques - the Musical! is in Warwick this week, after which it continues to Liverpool, York, Preston, Leeds, Sheffield, Darlington, Richmond, Nottingham, Reading, Bournemouth, Southend and Cardiff, where it will conclude on 7 July 2007.