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Scouser Jodie McNee is keeping comedy in the family

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Young actress Jodie McNee is appearing alongside her famous uncle in the JB Priestley farcical comedy When We Are Married and makes the return to her home city next week. Michael Hunt finds out more.

The 24-year-old from Huyton, who is comedian Les Dennis’ niece, plays maid Ruby Birtle and has already been generating plenty of praise since the co-production between Liverpool Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse opened in Leeds at the start of April.

McNee said working with her uncle has been a long time ambition and she is benefiting from the experience. “I’ve always wanted to follow in the footsteps of my uncle Les,” she says.

“He has been an inspiration to me and is someone who is constantly challenging himself. He’s very versatile.”

Dennis plays down trodden Herbert Soppitt in the play and is making a return having last appeared at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2003 in a production of the comedy Art by Yasmina Reza.

When We Are Married is JB Priestley’s sharp observation of marriage, social standing and petty snobbery set in a small Yorkshire town in the early 20th century.

“It’s a good night out for anyone wanting to come and see it. The play questions marriage and even though you’re thinking about the issue at the same time you are laughing along with it,” the former Broughton Hall High School pupil tells me.

McNee is joined by a strong cast which includes Polly Hemingway, Tom Georgeson and Eileen O’Brien amongst them.

Three couples gather to celebrate their silver wedding anniversaries but as the day unfolds some truths surface and all are put in a scenario they totally unexpected.

West Yorkshire Playhouse artistic director Ian Brown has revived the satire, who has kept to JB Priestley’s original intention according to McNee.

“Ian has done it the way it says to do,” she says. “I don’t think you can make it a post-modern play because it may start to over complicate it, so he’s looked at what the play is asking - such as ‘what is marriage? Or why is marriage important?’ - and kept it true to what Priestley has written.”

McNee’s character Ruby is representing the serving class from the period the play is set and she says the young character is someone she’s taken to heart. “Ruby is a little gem really. Full of joy, youth and innocence – lives in the moment – and intuitive. She keeps asking questions all the time which isn’t socially good for the times I suppose, but it’s refreshing.”

McNee last appeared in A Taste of Honey at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, playing pregnant teenager Jo, which followed a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in King Lear as Cordelia.

She trained at London’s Drama Centre and has since taken residence in the capital. Since turning professional, McNee has never done a comedy professionally before but is enjoying a return to her roots.

“It’s funny because when I was at the Drama Centre I was doing a lot of impressions and stand-up,” she explains.

“But when I finished my training I went in a different direction and I’m in my forth year out of the Drama Centre now and, particularly since my first real theatre role as Antigone in The Burial at Thebes and with Imogen in Cymbeline, they’ve all been mostly tragic leads.

“Most of the work has been tragedies which I’ve loved doing, but I’ve been thinking it’s about time I did some comedy!”

And McNee need not turn much further than to her uncle for advice on theatrical comedy. “I was quite scared going into comedy but Les knows all about it and is very knowledgeable and knows how to play with the audience.

“It’s funny because I was even scared when people started laughing, but he would always say to use your instinct and always be aware the audience is a fourth wall – but you’ve got to wait for them to laugh.

“There have been times when the audience have laughed when I wasn’t expecting them to and it is a bit of a shock because you’re wondering why are they laughing? But Les has said it’s as much about the audience feeding the play as it is about the play feeding the audience.”

When We Are Married arrives to the Liverpool Playhouse for a three-week run from Thursday 30 April.

*Photograph taken by Keith Pattison


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