Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph performs in both Annie and Calendar Girls

Lesley Joseph as Miss Hannigan. Picture by Matt Crockett
Lesley Joseph as Miss Hannigan. Picture by Matt Crockett

Birds of a Feather star Lesley Joseph is performing in two superb shows at Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, this August.

First up is Calendar Girls – The Musical, which runs from Tuesday to Saturday, August 6-10. This is followed the week after by Annie from Tuesday to Saturday, August 13-17.

Lesley Joseph as Miss Hannigan

Lesley Joseph as Miss Hannigan

As Lesley says, the workload is “quite full-on” but she’s not the slightest bit worried.

“At the end of Eastbourne I will have left Calendar Girls and then when I do Annie that will be the next stage on my adventure.”

“It will just be a mental thing really,” she states, thinking about the switch-over from one show to the other. “But I’m having to rehearse Annie at the same time as I’m doing this.”

In Annie Lesley will be returning to the role of the wicked orphanage caretaker Miss Hannigan, a part she’s played twice before.

The cast of Calendar Girls the Musical. Picture by Alastair Muir

The cast of Calendar Girls the Musical. Picture by Alastair Muir

“It’s a great musical,” she enthuses. “I did this character first back in 1997 at Victoria Palace. It’s a great villain role but it’s also a great comedy role.”

The play is full of fabulous tunes too, including ‘Easy Street’.

“That’s an amazing song to sing, because you dance it as well,” says Lesley. “Well...Hannigan’s not a dancer, she dances in a very rough way. But it’s just one of the most exciting roles to play, especially as an older actress because you can run out of wonderful roles like that.”

The original Broadway production of Annie opened in 1977 and quickly gained ‘classic’ status, joining other such beloved family musicals like Oliver! and The Sound of Music.

It’s endured to this day, a perennial favourite of both professional and amateur groups across the UK and America.

“When I did it originally I did it with the original writers Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan,” Lesley explains. “They’re American and they came over and directed it. It’s a family show with very iconic numbers and it’s just one of those shows, you know?

“It’s very difficult sometimes to work out why some things take off and some don’t and I think this particular one took off because it’s extremely well-crafted.”

Lesley points to the beautifully written and gloriously optimistic song ‘Tomorrow’.

“Let’s face it: at the moment we could all do with some optimism with everything that’s going on.

The story of Annie is famously set during the Great Depression of 1930s America where many people had to find the strength to keep going.

“There’s a little girl (Annie) who’s going through a rough time who actually suddenly gets given a chance,” Lesley explains. “Even now so many people are going through a tough time and Annie just sort of elevates them and says ‘there are good things that can happen’.”

“I also think it’s one of those things that little girls love to go and see,” Lesley adds. “They want to be Annie, always, so it’s a great family show.”

But, before Lesley can sink her teeth into the villainous Miss Hannigan role, she’s playing the decidedly more virtuous school teacher Jessie in Calendar Girls.

For those who don’t know the true story – which inspired a film, award-winning play and now a musical – it is about a group of mature ladies in Skipton who posed nude for a Women’s Institute calendar to raise cash for a settee in a hospital in memory of one of their husbands.

“This was before social media but it went ‘viral’,” Lesley says. “They’ve raised, so far, five million pounds for Bloodwise, which is a leukaemia charity. It’s an incredible story.”

“The character I’m playing in this is an older person,” she continues. “The song she has is all about age and ageing. It’s not so much about charity, the whole thing, it’s about this group of women who get together to do a calendar. It’s female empowerment, it’s how they get persuaded to do it in the end.”

Like Annie, Calendar Girls has become an iconic story (in its own not-so-family-friendly way) and Lesley is thrilled to be in it.

And having played the character of Chris in previous non-musical version of the show, she’s delighted at the tunes that have been added to it.

“The music is amazing because it’s Gary Barlow and it’s not a musical where you have song and dance. It’s more like a play with music.”

“There’s no choreography in it other than the choreography of the photoshoot. And, of course, in the photoshoot you get women of a certain age taking their clothes off on stage.”

But, Lesley assures everyone, this is all done very wittily.

“Some people are more naked than others,” she continues. “It’s quite a challenge for an older person to do but it’s very empowering for the actors and for the characters. You see these characters go an incredible journey from absolutely not wanting to go anywhere near a nude calendar to where you see the photoshoot and they all do it.”

Before our phone-call ends, I have to ask quickly about Birds of a Feather and whether the show could return to TV screens next year.

“It may, I don’t know,” Lesley muses. “I’m in the hands of everybody as far as that’s concerned. I mean, I think we’ve done very well with it. We had 30 years and I think it may or may not come back. But if it doesn’t then, you know, it changed my career and it’s been fantastic.”

“And there’s a lot I want to do still,” she adds. “So I won’t bemoan the fact if it doesn’t come back.”

For the meantime anyway, Lesley has these two excellent shows to keep her busy.

“They’re two very different experiences,” she says. “But both Calendar Girls and Annie are fantastic productions. If people want a good night in the theatre they won’t be disappointed with either of them.”

Tickets for Calendar Girls – The Musical cost £19.50-£48.50. Call 01323 412000 or visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.

Tickets for Annie cost £21.50-£47.50 (concessions available). Visit www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.

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