Joanna Riding’s West End credits include Ruth Condomine in last year’s revival of Noel Coward comedy Blithe Spirit (for which she was nominated for a Whatsonstage.com Award), her Olivier Award-winning performance as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, her Olivier-nominated performance as Jane Smart – a role she originated – in The Witches of Eastwick, Sally in Me and My Girl at the Adelphi and No Way to Treat a Lady at the Arts Theatre.
At the National, Riding’s credits include the musicals A Little Night Music, Guys and Dolls (for which she was also Olivier-nominated) and Carousel, for which she won her first Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1993 for her role as Julie Jordan.
She starred as Bertrande in the UK tour of Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Martin Guerre, and has appeared in repertory theatres around the UK including Liverpool, Blackpool, Worcester and Chichester.
Previously best known for musicals, in summer 2003, Riding starred opposite Cold Feet's John Thomson in the Manchester Royal Exchange revival of Harold Brighouse's 1915 play Hobson's Choice. She returned to theatre later that year for another play revival, John Dighton's The Happiest Days of Your Life.
Riding’s television credits include Jeeves and Wooster, Casualty, Wing and a Prayer, The Royal and Holby City. She has also appeared in concerts, including Some Enchanted Evening and Hey Mr Producer, as well as her own cabaret show alongside Martin Crewes at the Prince of Wales Theatre’s Delfont Room, and Jason Robert Brown’s concert at the New Players Theatre.
In Playing for Time, Riding puts her musical talents to good use as she’ll be singing and playing piano on stage in the story about an orchestra in Auschwitz. Miller’s play is based on the book by Holocaust survivor Fania Fenelon, who was recruited to the orchestra. In the original 1980 film version, Vanessa Redgrave played Fenelon, the part taken in the UK stage version by Riding.
Date & place of birth
Born 9 November 1967 in Longridge, Lancashire.
Lives now in
Blackheath (south London), but I’m about to move to Surrey.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. I was probably one of the most inexperienced there, it seemed everybody else had been to the National Youth Theatre and I felt somewhat lacking and very frightened for most of the three years. It was a scary time and many times I asked myself “Oh God, am I doing the right thing?”
What made you decide to become an actor?
When I was little, I used to do lots of singing festivals. It was clear I was never going to become an opera singer, but I enjoyed the dramatic side of singing. It was always just a hobby until my mid-teens when I won a competition that took me to the New York School of Performing Arts for two weeks. I was at a very musical school but they didn’t do drama, so that competition was the first real introduction I had to it and I came away thinking “maybe I can do that”.
First big break
My first break was getting a job at the Worcester Swan straight out of drama school - that got me my Equity card and an agent. Following on from that, I got Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and the co-director and choreographer of that, Gillian Gregory, happened to be choreographing Me and My Girl. I owe it to Gillian that I found myself, less than two years out of drama school, playing Sally opposite Brian Conley in the West End. And then Ian Talbot took the time to see the seventh Sally in the seventh year of Me and My Girl, and he cast me at Regent’s Park. By the time Carousel came up, I had already done two West End leading ladies, and accumulated a little bit of experience and confidence, without which I probably wouldn’t have got Julie in Carousel. Which is what really put me on the map.
Career highlights to date
It would be easier to say what I haven’t enjoyed! I’m really fortunate and have had a really good time. The downlight, if you will, was playing Hank the dog in Italy for two weeks in Turin for a language video for little girls and boys. That was shortly before I did Carousel. I arrived thinking I was going to be a girl narrator or the scarecrow or something - I never thought my role was to be the dog!
What do awards mean to you?
They do seem to add to any career and they’re often quoted. It’s nice to be recognised by the profession and by the public. But you can’t rest on your laurels when you win. You’re only as good as your last role. If you were somehow recognised for that, it’s lovely but I don’t think it’s definitive about how good you are. There’s an awful lot of work out there that goes unrewarded.
Again, I’ve really had a good time in most shows. I have a special place in my heart for Brian Conley and my fellow Witches, Rebecca Thornhill and Josefina Gabrielle, we had a really happy time in that show. And I guess fairly recently Alex Jennings and Malcolm Sinclair in My Fair Lady. They are both divine men and wonderful actors, and the show became everything I hoped it would be. I do hope I get to work with them again.
I’d have to mention late Mike Ockrent who directed Me and My Girl. He was really good to me and nurtured me. There’s also a special place in my heart for Richard Eyre, who was running the National Theatre the whole time I was there. Also Braham Murray. And I also thoroughly enjoyed working recently with Thea Sharrock. She’s an amazing wunderkind, brilliant. It’s amazing to find someone so young so good.
I tend to fall in love a little bit with the playwright whose work I’m working on currently – so yes, Arthur Miller. I’m still a bit in love with Noel Coward (having appeared last year in Blithe Spirit), I love his biting wit and his wicked take on marital strife. Although they’re musical writers, I would also like to include Stephen Sondheim and Frank Loesser - their writing is extraordinary.
What roles would you most like to play still?
That I have no clue about. I’m a bit useless like that. I need other people to say, “I think you can play this”, and I say, “oh, do you think so?!” If I’m not familiar with the play already, I go and read it again and then see if I could do it. As for reprising roles, for a long time I wanted to do Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz again because it was such a cracking part and the way that production was done as well… But I’m well past that now! I’m also determined to play Maggie in Hobson's Choice again. I was brought up with Maggies and I felt very close to her, so I hope I get the chance to play her again.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
Medicine. For years and years right up until I decided to do a drama foundation course, I was reminded that I stood up in assembly at school at the grand old age of six and announced I was going to be a brain surgeon! I modified that slightly as I got older to any old surgeon. If I couldn’t act tomorrow, I probably would fancy veering towards something more complementary, like osteopathy or acupuncture. I wouldn’t join the family business (cheese-making, now run by two of Riding’s sisters) because I’m probably crap at making cheese and I’m a crap business woman. I have no sense for money.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I do believe that society needs the arts. It surely is a good thing to take the time out to reflect on the world, and the arts, particularly theatre, holds that mirror up and says “look” so effectively. But unless we encourage, nurture and find new young writers, I think theatre will become less relevant. There will always be room for storytelling - we all have old favourites - but we do need a new story sometimes. Manchester Royal Exchange is starting a new writers’ programme, and I think schools should be encouraged to do the same. People have to go to the theatre to know how to write for it so I hope the government funds more youth projects both locally and nationally because we’ve got to get them while they’re young. I feel the nation’s health depends on it. We need playwrights. There are lots of young performers, but we are really short of playwrights.
Favourite after-show haunts
My favourite has to be PJ’s in Covent Garden. Bill who runs it adores the profession, and he always makes you feel so welcome there. It’s like going to visit a favourite uncle and it’s a great atmosphere.
One of the first books I read that had a lasting impression on me is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s still one of my favourites, one of the few I keep going and reading again. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks also had a very profound effect on me.
Favourite holiday destinations
Anywhere were there’s a big mountain and wonderful scenery and clean air. I love being near the sea too. But I’m not particularly a spa girl - I’d rather be out and about with my tent on my back – although I do like the occasional massage.
What made you want to accept the role of Fania Fenelon in Playing for Time?
Firstly, as an actress, it’s a hell of a challenge. And secondly, it’s one of those stories that should continue to be told and I think Arthur Miller tells it very effectively.
What are the biggest challenges of this production?
Apart from having to adapt it from a screenplay - which I guess is as much the director’s job as ours - there are the practical problems of me having to play whole pieces of piano by heart. I’m no pianist, I only got to about grade three, but I’m supposed to be a pianist in the show. And I’m having to sing opera at the same time. Also trying to convey such a harrowing story is a big challenge - how do you get the horror of what happened across? The inclination is to play the horror of every scene, but you can’t possibly do that because you’d turn the audience off. You have to do what I guess they did in the camp, which is just live the moment. It’s a question of survival - you have to live one moment to the next and get on with it, however horrible things get.
Prior to his death this year, Miller was named the “World’s Greatest Living Playwright” by Whatsonstage.com theatregoers. What do you think makes him so popular?
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Miller, but in this and in other works, he manages to make big social and political issues into personal and domestic ones in such a way that you can no longer hold them at arm’s length - they hit you in the gut. He makes you think that, as an individual, you can’t step away from your responsibility you have to society and to the world.
How do you feel playing a character who actually existed?
Miller based his story on Fenelon’s memoirs. I think he’s used them to tell not just her story but the story of the orchestra. While I’ve read her memoirs, we’re not being strictly faithful to everything she said and wrote so the fact she was a real person doesn’t really change how I play the part.
Playing for Time is a very harrowing piece. How did you keep spirits up in rehearsals?
I’ve been told that during the war there was a rich vein of humour in the country. There’s a lot of humour to come out of the darkest moments. I think that in times of hardship it’s a great coping mechanism. In a similar way, we had a remarkable amount of laughter in rehearsals, and sometimes about quite horrifying and dark things. It’s back to the old adage: you either laugh or cry. Our job is to tell the story.
What are your future plans?
I’ve got a concert with Jason Robert Brown coming up, and I would like to resurrect my cabaret with Martin Crewes. We still haven’t managed to set a date for that yet. And I’m still trying to start a family, which is proving to be a bit more difficult than I hoped, so we’ll see what happens with that.
- Joanna Riding was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Playing for Time opened on 10 November 2005 at the Salisbury Playhouse, where it runs until 26 November before transferring to Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 29 November to 3 December 2005.