Janie Dee leads a busy life. When her six-month run of My One And Only finishes at the Piccadilly on Saturday she will kick off the Divas At The Donmar season next week. As she prepares for her one-woman show singing jazz, opera and musical theatre, the dynamic Olivier-Award winning actress tells Laura North what it takes to juggle Gershwin with Chekhov and Ayckbourn.
"I love working." "I couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning." Phrases you don't often hear first thing on a grizzly weekday morning in England. Who is this extraordinary woman who would voluntarily leap out from under the covers to embrace the new day? It's Janie Dee, and she positively gushes natural exuberance and a passion for what she does. "I get thrilled, upset and emotional on stage." She wowed audiences and critics alike with her sparkling performance of a robot actress in Alan Ayckbourn's Comic Potential, gathering a hat-trick of prestigious awards – an Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics Circle all for Best Actress. She's almost finished playing the role of Edythe Herbert, a champion swimmer who falls head over heels for a handsome aviator in My One And Only, and her hectic schedule takes her straight into the week at the Donmar.
So why is work such a pleasure for her? At a guess, it's not Excel spreadsheets or the glare of a computer screen. For Dee, her overwhelming love of singing, acting and dancing drives her to keep working exhaustively. The Diva season presents her with an ideal opportunity to indulge in a collection of songs that are significant to her – whether particular favourites, music that shaped her career or numbers from her previous productions. It would be no surprise if Gershwin cropped up in her selection; she jumped at the chance of doing My One And Only and has been inspired by the music of George and Ira Gershwin since she was a child. "The first piece of music that ever moved me was Rhapsody in Blue. I couldn't move and I eventually cried. It was too amazing – it filled me up." She especially loves "the great big stuff", like Porgie And Bess and An American In Paris. She picks out the humanising instinct of the Gershwin brothers as one of the most exceptional elements of their music. "They make everyone human – they bring the posh and the underdog together, marry black and white, mix black jazz with classical brilliance." But Dee's reaction to the music is striking in itself – her incredulous admiration of George Gershwin's achievements is infectious. "Do you know Gershwin was only 38 when he died?" she asks. "I think he was put on the planet to do it – you can't do that much and carry on living."
"I'm my own harshest critic. I always think I'm shit – literally, always."
The Gershwin musical, with choreography that's "part Fred and Ginger, part rediscovered", gave her a real playground for her love of dancing. Dancing with her co-star Tim Flavin was apparently a magical experience: "This was like flying, floating as I danced with this man." She had worked with him before but, she explains with a sigh, there was no excuse to dance as it was for radio. So when the opportunity arose she grabbed it with both hands and immediately felt that "the partnership might be there." The choreographer behind My One And Only, Mykal Rand, is also working with Dee on the Diva performances; perhaps some of the impressive dance scenes, such as the desert island number where anyone in the first three rows gets soaked, might be transferred onto the Donmar stage.
Singing and dancing demand energy and physical stamina, especially when performed at the highly dynamic level that is typical of Dee. But this tremendous and sustained exertion of effort is what she thrives on. Does it follow that she prefers musicals to acting in plays? The answer typifies her whole attitude: "I enjoy everything equally." Yet she does admit that the physical restraint of a straight play is demanding and requires a different set of skills. She found no problem with Comic Potential as she was still able to dance and be very physical. But when she played Masha in Chekhov's Three Sisters, translated by Brian Friel (at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August of last year, directed by Loveday Ingram, who also directed My One And Only), she encountered a few more obstacles. "It was a completely different experience. I found it very difficult – there was no requirement for physicality. It took me into my head, and into Chekhov which was another world." But as soon as she had acclimatised to this world of provincial Russia, adultery, death and alcoholism, she found it to be an exhilarating challenge and an equally fulfilling experience.
"Do you know Gershwin was only 38 when he died? I think he was put on the planet to do it – you can't do that much and carry on living."
So she likes many things, but one thing she dislikes is compliments. She is particularly hard on herself. "I'm my own harshest critic. I always think I'm shit – literally, always." And as for other critics, she has established a procedure of routinely ignoring them. It is not because she is fearful of adverse criticism, but precisely the reverse. If the review is good then she feels the necessity to live up to the high expectation. She picked up the habit from Alan Ayckbourn when she worked with him in Comic Potential at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. He told her he never read reviews and she followed suit. Then, when the reviews emerged after press night (the critics praised her rigorously), he broke his cardinal rule and read her a bit from one of them – apparently she was "the sexiest woman on stage". Dee says that the thought distracted her all evening. "That night on stage I was more worried whether people were thinking I was sexy or not." Apart from the obvious difficulties of maintaining sexiness whilst pretending to be a robot, she feels the existence of a standard to live up to reduces her ability to give her best performance.
So bin all the papers but what about the personal commendations? Gershwin's own nephew saw both the original Broadway production of My One And Only in 1983 with Tommy Tune and Twiggy, and the revival. He commented that Dee and Flavin had 'natural chemistry' and she was better than Twiggy. What a tribute, coming from the descendant of the man himself! But she brushes this off, and obviously feels uncomfortable with the 'natural chemistry' remark that many have repeated. "I hate it when people say that – we worked bloody hard on those steps." But it's the praise itself that clearly troubles her, rather than a lack of recognition for hard work.
Conversely, if a bad review comes along, then there is always something positive to be drawn from it. "There's always an up side. If a review is bad then there is an amazing coming together of the company. And if the reviews are very bad then the show obviously isn't any good and it won't run for very long anyway and you don't have to do it." She thinks that bad reviews are useful: instead of setting a high expectation that is hard to consistently sustain, it gives you something to work on. And, as can be seen from her frantic schedule, she is a very hard worker. Previews are for her a valuable testing ground if you are determined to "make it the best version." There were three new versions of Comic Potential – first at Scarborough, then London and finally New York, and Dee feels that each time it improved. "If you keep working at something it must get better. Every performance can bring something new to the show."
So merrily she'll keep on working and enjoying it. Only someone who really loves their job can say with such unmitigated and contagious enthusiasm about a particularly exhausting scene in a musical: "We tap dance 'til our feet are sore!"