Hayden Thomas meets Haydn Gwynne at the Playhouse


This week we sent our reporter Hayden Thomas (Twitter: @WestEndReporter) over the verge and down to the Playhouse Theatre to catch up with 2015 Olivier Award nominee Haydn Gwynne, who is currently starring in the West End premiere of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Read on to find out about her thoughts on the upcoming Olivier Awards, taking Billy Elliot to Broadway, playing Margaret Thatcher opposite Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II and what it is exactly that makes watching women undergoing nervous breakdowns so appealing...

Hayden Thomas: Congratulations, first of all, on your nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in a Musical for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown at the upcoming Olivier Awards!

Haydn Gwynne: Thank you very much. It's my third nomination. I've failed to convert loads of awards (laughs) and for the Oliviers, this is my third go!

HT: I just heard you were having a bit of trouble picking out a dress. How are you feeling otherwise?

HG: Yes, I haven't sorted my dress out yet. And I have to say there is so much pressure on us women. I just really envy the blokes. They just get the suit out, with either a bow tie or a long tie. And the flat shoes! That's the thing I'm most envious of. I've been looking at pictures of high heels and think to myself: "I can't wear those!" I'm already 5'10" - I don't need to add another 5 inches on top of that! So I will be excited eventually, but the whole preparation thing is a little bit mad. You do feel very fortunate and lucky to be noticed because there are lots of good performances going on out there, so if your name comes out of the hat, you have to be grateful for that.

HT: Did you get a chance to see any of the shows featuring your fellow nominees - Lorna Want in Beautiful, Nicole Scherzinger in Cats or Samantha Bond in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?

HG: I did get to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but sadly not with Sam Bond in it. She had already left and I was busy shooting something last Summer and I didn't realise she was going. Of course Scoundrels is by the same composer/writer team of Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek, although they're two very different shows, so that was interesting. I did go with my best mate who had seen Samantha way back when they were in Manchester and she said she was fantastic! I know she gave a great performance. I have seen shows in other categories. I saw 'A View from the Bridge' and 'The Crucible' which have both been nominated, so I do go and see things when I can. Obviously when you're doing theatre, you can't get out to other shows a lot.

HT: So you're almost four months into the run of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown since the first preview now. Are you all still 'on the verge' or are you already in full nervous breakdown mode?

HG: I was in full-on nervous breakdown mode already, when we started rehearsals! That's one of the reasons why women respond to the title, even though what I'm talking about isn't necessarily the same nervous breakdown that is going on in the show. The weekend before we started rehearsing, my aunt, who was lovely but ancient - died. She didn't have any children, so I was sort of responsible for her with another cousin. So I went into rehearsal having to deal with all that organisation - the will, the funeral and all that - and at the same time, I've got very young children and my mother is also old and needs attention. So I'm that classic woman who is juggling balls all over the place and feel like they're on the brink of a nervous breakdown all the time and that was a particularly difficult thing - to be doing a six-day week show on a very short rehearsal period. I think what I do feel now about the show, joking apart, is that there are less nervous breakdowns going on now. People were very ill over the preview period and it was very hard. Now the show is hitting its stride and I think it's in good shape. There's less crisis management going on than there was!

HT: Well, I saw the show last week amidst the West End crisis of the fire breaking out at Holborn and so many West End shows having to close. There was a power cut just into the second act, but commendably we only had to wait about fifteen minutes and everything was up and running again with no further interruptions. Have you experienced other mishaps on stage over the years?

HG: Well, yes there's been lots! The bigger the show, the more technical things there are which can go wrong. Billy Elliot had a huge house going up and down. They had to excavate below the theatre to fit it in. Sometimes that didn't work. We did the whole show once without various bits of set working. But more dramatically and more dangerously, talking about that bit of scenery, one night Billy was doing his angry dance towards the end of Act One and jumped off the bannister of the set not quite at the right moment and fell down the hole. He caught himself by his fingers and one of the miners strode forward and yanked him out. Scenes with big pieces of machinery can be dangerous and you do hear of these awful stories and thankfully that wasn't one of them. He didn't do the rest of the show, but he was OK.

HT: It must have been so wonderful to be part of the original cast of Billy Elliot. You also earned an Olivier Award nomination for originating the role of Mrs. Wilkinson. What was it like for you to then take this very British show to Broadway in 2008?

HG: Yeah it was amazing! I felt very privileged. I didn't expect to go, but in the end, they did make it possible for me to go. But the rest of the cast were all American, although it kept the original British creative team. I was a bit worried I might be a bit flat as I'd done the show for over a year in London, although it was a couple of years later. But actually having another go at it with a different cast in a different theatre, I think I was able to make it a little bit deeper. So that side of it that I was worried about on a personal acting front didn't come to pass. I didn't feel like I was giving a stale performance. I was able to come to it freshly again. It was also fascinating to bring something so British - its content, how it was directed, just everything about it was different to an American style of musical. So little was changed. We slightly modified the accent. We made the accent a little bit clearer and didn't use the dialect of Geordie words, but otherwise it was still set in the North East and the swearing was still there! It was still very much the show you know from London. So it was so moving to see it triumph as it did that year on Broadway. Billy Elliot is now part of Broadway history and will have had its influence over there now on other musicals.

HT: You've had a very successful career not only in musicals, but also in plays. The last time I saw you on stage before Women on the Verge, you were playing Margaret Thatcher opposite Helen Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II in 'The Audience.' Is it daunting for you as an actress to take on such well-known characters?

HG: Well, I haven't done it a lot before. I hadn't spent a lot of time playing real-life characters, so that was a first for me. The problem with playing Margaret Thatcher is that everyone is going to come with such huge expectations around what they think of her and what she should look like or sound like or how they want her represented. As we know, she polarised people greatly. But it was quite fun! The most fun part of it was telling all my friends and family what my next job was going to be. That was pretty hilarious. I never dreamed in a million years I'd be spending so much time reading about Margaret and listening to Margaret. I mean I was vastly over-researched for my needs for that role. The Queen was the main event obviously. Nevertheless I stopped having the relationship I used to have with Margaret Thatcher and it became more like she was a subject under a microscope. You become like a scientist examining a curious specimen very closely. It was an unusual one and quite difficult for my partner to cope with. He would come up to bed and hear Margaret barking out of my laptop.

HT: Yes. It is indeed a very different role than your current one. So finally, what do you enjoy most about playing Lucia in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and why do you think folks should come down to the Playhouse Theatre to witness it?

HG: Well, I love Lucia! And I think people enjoy Lucia because she behaves outrageously! I think people should come to Women on the Verge because it is a very different show. It's a very original show. Obviously it's billed as a musical, but it's not a typical musical at all. It's very intimate. It's a chamber piece. The band are on stage and it's very funny. It's a farce really. Tamsin Greig is a wonderful comedienne, as well as a wonderful actress. At the same time, some of the comedy is outrageously silly, but the themes that are going on underneath are very touching and moving. There are serious themes there. The experience as you go through it is actually rather rich and feeds you in a way that you don't expect. My character has been in a mental institution for 19 years. We're set in 1987, but she is stuck in 1967 and I get to wear all these glorious Sixties outfits that are huge fun in and of themselves. I think people love watching people behave outrageously because we wish we could too, but we feel too inhibited to do so. I think it's a rather unexpected and unusual show, but a rather joyous one.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is currently booking through to 22 August 2015 at the Playhouse Theatre.

- Edited by Tom Millward

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