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20 Questions With… Helen Hobson

Actress Helen Hobson, now starring in Abba musical Mamma Mia! in the West End, talks about promoting yourself as a business, how she became a dancing queen & why she’s great mates with Cliff Richard.

By • West End


Helen Hobson’s West End stage credits include Rose Vibert in Aspects of Love at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre, Chess at the Prince Edward Theatre, Alithea in Lust at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and Clara in Passion at the Queen’s Theatre.

Her other London stage credits include Is There Life After High School? at the Bridewell Theatre, Closer Than Ever at Jermyn Street Theatre, Minerva in Mr Cinders at the King’s Head Theatre, and Cathy in Heathcliff alongside Cliff Richard at the Hammersmith Apollo and on tour.

Hobson has starred in touring productions of Blood Brothers, My Fair Lady and Cats, and she appeard as Mrs Walker in the European première of Tommy in Germany. She has also been seen as the Fairy Godmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Bristol Old Vic, Pauline in The Lady In The Van and Vera in Stepping Out at West Yorkshire Playhouse, the title role in Educating Rita at the Palace Theatre, Westcliff, and Anne Elliot in Persuasion at Northcott Theatre, Exeter.

Her concerts include a solo performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the National German Radio Orchestra (NDR) and the Kammer Spiel Trio with musical director Paul Bateman.

On television, she has appeared as Mrs Leroy in EastEnders, Sue in Down To Earth, Jane in Judge John Deed, Tess in Doctors, Elaine in Where the Heart Is, The Bill, Revelations and Rosemary and Thyme.


Date & place of birth
I never give the date in any interview, but I was born in Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire.

Lives now in
Chislehurst in Kent.

Trained
Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, under the directorship of the late Peter Coxhead.

What made you decide to become an actress?
I was a member of the Weston Super Mare Youth Orchestra and it was led at the time by Ned Sherrin, and it was his wife who suggested I should try drama. I hadn’t really been into it up until then, I was more into horses. I worked as a catering assistant for BT for a year between finishing school and going to drama school, but it was when I was at Mountview that I really thought I could make a career out of acting and singing. At the end of the first year my name was on a list of names of people who I think were going to be chucked out, and Peter said to me if I tried really hard and actually got serious about it then I could be a West End leading lady – so I did and managed to stay on.

First big break
Probably I’d say my first big break was my first role in the West End in Chess at the Prince Edward; that was my first foray into West End theatre. My next big break came when I was in Les Mis and Bill Kenwright bought me out of that to play the leading role of Mrs Lyons in Blood Brothers; it was that balance of knowing when to make the move. I was ensemble in Mis and would play the lead in Blood Brothers so I thought I had to just go for it, despite the fact I had to break my contract with Cameron Mackintosh at the time, and I played Mrs Lyons for nine months. Another big break was the first time I created a role, which was in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion.

Career highlights to date
My Fair Lady directed by Simon Callow was wonderful. To play Eliza alongside Edward Fox was a great opportunity and a big job for me. The first play I did was Persuasion, based on the novel by Jane Austen. I worked out all the maths for that and rang Bill Kenwright who was producing it and said we could take it to Windsor, which is one of his theatres, and that’s what we did! We played there for three weeks.

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actress?
When I was a teenager I was very keen on the idea of becoming a beauty therapist. But when I got Chess I went back to college at Middlesex Poly, which I think is Middlesex University now, to gain a certificate in teaching speech and drama. So I think that’s what I’d be doing now if I wasn’t acting – well, I do now anyway, I sometimes teach at Mountview and at the London School of Music Theatre. Otherwise, I think I would have become a flautist.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Peter Coxhead told me “this is a business, this business we call show, and you have to be able to market yourself like a product.” That is very good advice, it’s so true. You go to so many auditions as an actor and rejection is such a big part of that process that thinking of it like a business can help you to keep a clear head and save the emotion for the roles you get. You have to be the business manager, and your agent is your assistant manager, and the two of you can make a sell.

Favourite co-stars
Cliff Richard, we worked together in Heathcliff, which was universally slated by the critics, but we’re still friends. He’s come to see me in nearly all the shows I’ve been in since, and he’s coming to see Mamma Mia! soon. We had such a laugh together in that show, it was really great fun.

Favourite directors
That’s a hard one… Simon Callow was very careful, that sounds odd, but he was very careful with me as Eliza, he was really kind and considerate and really helped me. Jeremy Sams was great in Passion, he and Sondheim himself directed that, which was an amazing experience. And in the international tour of Mamma Mia, Paul Garrington was great – as Peter Addis is here.

Favourite playwrights/ musical writers
Stephen Sondheim. His music is so difficult, and it’s the type of music you hear for the first time and think hmm, I’m not too sure about this, but then you listen again and it just hits you how fantastic it is. There’s so much depth to it.

Favourite after-show haunts
My dressing room at the moment! We take it in turns to host wine parties after the show in our dressing rooms, the dads and the Dynamos as we call ourselves. We get kicked out by 11pm, though!

Favourite holiday destinations
I recently went on holiday to St Lucia and it was fantastic, I’m going to go back the next chance I get. I went on one of those Body Holidays, and did yoga and Thai Chi and water skiing, and I met some fabulous girls who were there as well and they’re going to come and see the show, which is great. It’s nice sometimes to go on holiday on your own, it’s more relaxing and you can meet new people.

If you could swap places with one person, who would it be, and why?
I think I’d like to be Barbra Streisand for the day; she’s really someone who markets herself as a business, she’s very savvy. I’d like to see how my ambition and drive compares to hers; that would be so interesting.

What made you want to accept the role of Donna in Mamma Mia!?
She’s so feisty and she does get angry and definitely has a shorter fuse than I do, which makes her very fun to play. But there’s also a vulnerability there at the same time so she is a very complete character. She’s independent and a feminist and the people she works with really respect her; she’s great! I’ve always wanted to be in Mamma Mia!. I auditioned for the role for the original cast and I just thought it was fantastic, and since then I’ve always wanted to do it.

You were involved with the international tour of the show before coming to the West End. How has the show changed in that time?
I started in the international tour in 2004 and then we were playing to stadiums of 3,000, and here the theatre only seats 1,000 so we have lost about 35 per cent of the audience I’ve been used to, but this is such a beautiful traditional West End theatre and I love it here. I was in Aspects of Love here and that was another lucky break for me, so I think this theatre has a positive sort of jinx for me. The stage is smaller here than at the stadiums on tour, obviously, and the staging is so different because of the size of the house, but its good being more compact in a way, there’s a more intimate feeling to it.

Were you a fan of Abba’s music before you were offered the role?
No, pop music completely passed me by in the Seventies, I was far too busy riding horses and things! I am more of a fan now, though, I have lots of the tunes on my I-Pod and I do enjoy the music; although when I was abroad they kept playing the songs in lifts and things, and they were really bad arrangements, so that was quite grating!

What are the biggest challenges of this production?
The dance routine in "Voulez Vouz" at the end of Act One is a challenge, it’s quite hard!

How do you think the show compares to other catalogue musicals, such as Our House and Tonight’s the Night?
I think what makes Mamma Mia! stand out is the care and attention to detail that goes into it at every level. All the wigs are just right, the costumes are wonderful, and there is nothing that gets overlooked in terms of the overall quality of the show.

What’s the funniest/oddest/ most memorable thing that’s happened in rehearsals or performances so far?
Well, luckily it wasn’t a performance, but on my last dress rehearsal right at the end after the wedding scene I’m supposed to get into my lycra gear, but the zip on the dress got stuck and as it’s silk there’s no way of manoeuvring it; you can’t pull it over your head or over your bum, so they were going to stop the show but I said no, I’ll just go on in this. So the other women were wearing the lycra Abba outfits and there I was in this wedding dress with the big silver boots that I had managed to get on, looking stupid. But at least I know I can do that in future if necessary, as I managed to get through the dance. My dresser Charlie was very helpful, and said it didn’t look too bad.

What are your future plans?
I’m very happy here, thanks! I’m contracted to Mamma Mia! for a year, and then I might well stay on, I don’t know yet, it all depends on what comes up and how things work out. But I’m really where I want to be, I’ve wanted to be in Mamma Mia! for so long, I’m loving it.

- Helen Hobson was speaking to Caroline Ansdell


Mamma Mia! opened at the Prince Edward theatre in 1999 and, after five years, moved to the refurbished Prince of Wales in May 2004.


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