When I think of Hannah Waddingham, it conjures an image of one of the West End’s most glamorous leading ladies. I think of her striking, elegant frame, her on-stage poise in A Little Night Music or her extravagant costumes in Monty Python’s Spamalot.
So I am as surprised as a small girl who finds a wolf where her grandmother should be when I turn up to interview Waddingham and find this Monroe of the London stage in a long green smock, boots that would make a builder blush and a hairnet. Glamorous it is not.
There is, of course, a reason for Waddingham’s unflattering attire. She is playing The Witch in the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods and has been rehearsing in costume.
Even dressing down in hairnet and smock, Waddingham is distinctly un-witchy. At no point during our chat does she cackle, she does not have a pointy nose with a wart at the end of it and there is no sign of a black cat hanging around, though she does make a point of saying hello to a rabbit as she made her entrance.
This witch, it seems, is very different. One glance at the production photos will show you that. The classic all-black outfit accessorised with fashionable broomstick has been disposed of and replaced with Waddingham’s green garb. This witch, it turns out, is under a “degenerative curse” and is “slowly returning to the earth like a tree”. This involves Waddingham scuttling about, hunched over on all fours using crutches as arm extensions. For an actress of such statuesque physique, it is playing havoc with her back. She has been a regular face in the physiotherapist’s waiting room during rehearsals, “but seeing as it’s a five week run I thought ‘Just get on with it.’”
“When you learn a Sondheim song, you can listen to the accompaniment and know what you’re meant to be feeling”
The Witch is, Waddingham says, “a honey of a role”. She likes to think of the character – who has cursed one family, kept the daughter she stole locked in a tower and has a distinctly cavalier attitude to other people’s lives – as “unhinged”.
“She was given a garden by her mother and her mother said ‘Don’t lose any of the beans.’ Then this man comes into her garden and takes those very things. It’s not her fault, she had to get him back, so she makes his entire family barren. What’s wrong with that?” Waddingham smirks.
This malevolent mischief-maker marks Waddingham’s second London Sondheim outing in a row; the actress was last seen playing Desiree Armfeldt in the Trevor Nunn-directed Menier Chocolate Factory production of A Little Night Music. That experience really ignited her interest in musical theatre’s most lauded composer and, as she describes it, sounds like one of the most important and enjoyable jobs in her career to date.
“I absolutely fell in love with Desiree and never wanted to stop playing her,” Waddingham enthuses. “Working with Trevor Nunn was just the most thrilling and perfect synchronicity I’ve ever had with a director. To go from that to this is a brilliant stretch.”
Waddingham puts her newly discovered affinity for Sondheim down to her childhood following her mother’s operatic career. “I grew up with beautiful, detailed, intelligent music,” she explains, “and Sondheim is, without doubt, in that operatic vein. I love it when the accompaniment doesn’t remotely help you. It should be another voice. When you learn a Sondheim song, you can listen to the accompaniment and know what you’re meant to be feeling or know how you’re meant to say the words. It’s so detailed that even if the audience don’t realise what they’re feeling, he is making them feel it. It’s so clever. Every comma is there because he wants it to be there. As much as people go ‘Oh God, Sondheim’s so difficult,’ it’s actually not if you just say the words, sing the songs, don’t bump into the furniture and get off.”
“We used to get together and have roast dinner and watch Antiques Roadshow on BBC1”
It all sounds so simple when she describes it, the intricacies melting away like a wicked witch who has had an unfortunate accident with a bucket of water, leaving only emotional truth. That is, of course, how it should be, but not everyone can achieve it. Waddingham “just gets it”. Sondheim agrees. He was reportedly delighted with A Little Night Music, which he praised as the production of his musical whose first act moved him more than any other. After seeing the show he apologised to Waddingham for adding his own accompaniment of sniffles to her rendition of the show’s most famous song, Send In The Clowns. “That’s more important to me than anything,” she says. “I’ve never had any desire to be a household name in terms of television or people recognising me down the street, I’ve never needed any of that. For somebody like him or Lloyd Webber to say I knew you’d be right for that job, that’s what it’s about. It’s all about the work.”
I wonder, then, if not transferring to Broadway with A Little Night Music hurt. The show enjoyed the same success Stateside as it did in London, but with British Hollywood export Catherine Zeta-Jones playing opposite Waddingham’s London co-star Alexander Hanson. “It was meant to be both of us,” she says, confirming that Nunn had always wanted the pair to recreate their partnership on Broadway, “but then, understandably, the American money men, the producers, said ‘We have to have a massive star because of the current climate on Broadway’ and I understand completely. I’m not a little girl, I understand what it’s like. Maybe at some point there’ll be a time when I get something and somebody else doesn’t and that’s just the way it goes.”
It is not like she hasn’t done Broadway before. Back in 2008, Waddingham treated New York to her Laurence Olivier Award-nominated, vocal gymnastics-performing, fabulously extravagant rendition of Spamalot’s Lady Of The Lake. As luck would have it, she was in New York at the same time as the transfer of another London production, Sunday In The Park With George, in which Jenna Russell, who beat Waddingham to the Olivier Award, was performing. “We were like a little ex-pat community,” Waddingham laughs. “We used to get together and have roast dinner and watch Antiques Roadshow on BBC1 and think ‘Oh, blimmin’ Americans.’” The pair are reunited in Into The Woods – Russell plays The Baker’s Wife – and, by all accounts, had to be split up like naughty schoolchildren during rehearsals.
While the Union flag-waving, tea-sipping stiff upper lip British spirit seemed in full force during her Broadway sojourn, there was a time when Waddingham broke with the British mould and expressed her dissatisfaction rather than quietly seething behind a fixed grin. It was reported that when Spamalot failed to convert any of its seven Laurence Olivier Award nominations into wins in 2007, she was rather vocal in her annoyance. Understandably, she does not want to go back over old ground and has left that firmly in the past. “People win, people lose and that’s the way it is,” she summarises. “The right people win and the right people lose until it’s your time.”
It is a distinctly sensible attitude to approach awards season with, and her two Laurence Olivier Award nominations, as Waddingham points out, have given her more acknowledgement than many hard-working performers ever achieve.
“[Kids Week is] like an adventure playground of theatre”
She has a very special role model when it comes to hard-working performers. Her mother was, until very recently, a professional opera singer. “I saw her very last performance in The Pearl Fishers at the Coliseum the other day,” she tells me. “She is 67 and it was her very last show and she was still giving it full welly, 100%, totally focused, totally in the moment and that’s the benchmark for me.”
It was her exposure to the stage from a young age that got Waddingham hooked on the idea of performing, which is why she is so excited by the prospect of Kids Week, the annual event – which actually runs for three weeks – that gives young theatre fans the chance to go to the theatre for free and get involved with a host of theatre-related activities.
“I was always sitting in the stalls at the Coliseum watching rehearsals that my mum was in, from the age of eight,” she says, “soaking it up like a little sponge, so I got it first hand that way. But these kids are getting to actually come and see backstage and meet us or do a dance class or a singing class, come and see how everything’s done. That’s like an adventure playground of theatre, really, and they can come and see a show free too. How cool is that? It’s amazing. It’s almost worth being on my knees, putting on a little school uniform and going and having a look myself.”
“I always knew I wanted to do this,” she continues, “ever since I saw Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters and Carol Burnett doing Easy Street in the film Annie. I just thought ‘Yep, that’ll do me, that’s what I’m going to do.’”
Hopefully some of the children taking part in Kids Week will be similarly inspired by what they feel and experience, making them regular visitors to, or even new talents in, London’s theatres. For all Waddingham says, however, it might take tempting of gingerbread house proportions to entice her back inside one of the many roofed venues taking part in Kids Week. “I think I’ll feel very claustrophobic when I go back into a theatre,” she laughs. “For the auditorium ceiling to be the sky is just…” She drifts off daydreaming about Regent’s Park and the fairytale world she is allowed to inhabit until the end of the summer.
For more information about Kids Week visit www.kidsweek.co.uk