Tuesday, 12 January 2016

INTERVIEW Jenna Russell

She's sung the theme tune for TV series Red Dwarf, appeared in Dr Who and was a doctor's wife in TV series Born And Bred. Now Jenna Russell is back on stage playing two American women and she couldn't be happier.

JENNA Russell is no stranger to musical theatre. The London-born actress has graced the stage in a multitude of award-winning productions most notably Merrily We Roll Along, Guys And Dolls and Sunday In The Park With George.
And although she is a versatile actress, having also starred in numerous TV shows she says it's the buzz of a live audience that keeps her coming back to the stage - and Sondheim in particular with whom she has a particular fondness.
Her latest foray sees her tackle not one but two roles - those of Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beale.
Grey Gardens, which opened last week at the Southwark Playhouse, tells the story of these remarkable women, who in their heyday were part of America's aristocracy.
The show, which is based on a 1975 documentary of the same name by film maker brothers Albert and David Maysles, is split into two parts.
The first is an imagined setting in 1941 in which Edith manages to ruin the engagement party of her daughter Little Edie to her intended, Joseph Kennedy.
Edith, who wanted to be an opera singer but never quite managed it, decides to sing at the party and has put together a show for the guests. However when her mother's meddling results in Joseph leaving, Little Edie decides to break free and heads to New York to seek her financial and career fortune.
The second is set around 30 years later and is perhaps a more truthful account of their lives. Little Edie has come back, though for reasons that aren't clear and she appears in a much more fragile mental state.
They are also now penniless, living in squalor and as reclusive social outcasts, in their sprawling 28-roomed house in the Hamptons in Long Island, which is overrun with cats and racoons, and where they eat liver pate in bed, sing, dance and reminisce about the past.
To play both women - Edith in Act 1 and Little Edie in Act 2 - is no small undertaking.
Barely off stage, Jenna sings an incredible 16 numbers, but if she's exhausted she doesn't show it. Indeed she is taking it in her stride and when we chat she tells me it was an opportunity she leapt at.
"I know the composer Scott Frankel and the music," she tells me. "It's such a beautiful score and an extraordinary story with two amazing female parts - and there aren't that many of those to be had so I couldn't turn it down!
"Here we see women in extremis - they are women of a certain age, who hold grudges, have fun and do things on their own terms. We see them warts and all.
"Edith had a beautiful voice and a great talent but when she met her husband she had to give up on that dream.
"Little Edie didn't have the talent her mother had but Edith encouraged her and like a lot of parents, wanted her to have every opportunity to follow her dreams. I think people will relate to that.
"Edith kept her own dream alive through Edie and in her own home with the people she chose to let in.
"Of their time they were extraordinary women, brought up to be political wives who were supposed to sit there and look pretty and give scintillating conversations.
"However they just didn't adhere to that. They were very intelligent and loved the arts and life but on their own terms.
"How they chose to live was no one's business but their own.
"That was what was so extraordinary about them.
"It's exhausting but you get so much back from the audience," she adds. "There is something glorious about powering through a show like this.
"It's the two hour commute to and from the theatre that's the stressful bit - being on stage is a joy and playing such great meaty roles as these two incredible women is fantastic. I'm very lucky."
She acknowledges that the documentary had its critics with some voicing concern that the fragile mental state of Little Edie was being exploited. However it's not something she necessarily agrees with.
"When they did the premiere of the documentary, Little Edie was there and loved the attention," she says.
"She obviously had some kind of mental health issues though we don't know what they were. We also don't know why she left New York to come home to her mother - did she fall into trouble or did she have responsibility to come back and look after her mother? It's not explained and no one knows.
"Maybe her fragility didn't allow her to live in New York in the way she had imagined. I get the feeling she needed to come home and didn't have the strength to break away from her mother.
"They were very close - maybe too close - but they were very protective of each other and loved each other despite the bickering. I think a lot of people will relate to their relationship on some level.
"They may have been very eccentric but actually they were really strong women and I love that about them."
Jenna shares the stage with Sheila Hancock who plays Edith in Act 2 and she says it's been a dream working with the actress who she describes as “stunning and elegant”.
It's not the first time the pair have worked together but Jenna says Grey Gardens has cemented their friendship.
"Sheila is amazing," she giggles. "She's nearly 83, is stunning, elegant and graceful. I think she's ravishing and it's an honour to work with her.
"We met 10 years ago when I was in Peter Pan with John [Thaw, Sheila's late husband] who was Mr Darling and Sheila was the narrator. Now here we are together again and it's a joy.
"Edith and Little Edie were so fiercely protective of each other and became like two peas in a pod which is what we've become - it's lovely.
"I adore her and she's been a tower of strength and a great playmate.
"It's been such a privilege to be part of this show," she adds. "It's the first time I've performed at the Southwark Playhouse and I love it. It's such a great space with a lovely friendly atmosphere.
"Also it's great to work with Danielle [Tarento, producer] and Thom [Southerland, director] who both have great vision and ambition.
"It's a gift and Sheila and I just want to tell Edith and Edie's story in as honest a way as possible so that we honour them."
So what does she think Edith and Edie would say about it?
"I'd love to have met them and ask them all those questions about what their lives were really like," she says.
"I would love to see them sitting there and enjoy it and I hope they would nod and say yes that was us."

Grey Gardens is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway until Saturday, February 6. Tickets cost £25. Visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/ or call the box office on 020 7407 0234.  

No comments:

Post a Comment