You can learn a lot about someone just by looking at their office. Anyone perusing my desk, for example, would undoubtedly realise that I am just so creative that I don't have time to tidy anything; too much thinking to be done. Anyone stumbling into Jenny Seagrove's office, as I had the pleasure to do recently, will quickly realise that she is fond of animals, writes Matthew Amer.
Apart from the two very real dogs, Millie and Louis; one tucked under the desk, another casually dozing on the sofa, the walls are covered in framed etchings of all creatures great and small, while a sculpture of a dog sits atop a cabinet. As if to emphasise the point, Seagrove is wearing a Save The Monkey t-shirt. If you didn't know she was an actress, you would probably guess that she worked in some capacity with our furry cousins. This may, in fact, have been the case, had she not realised at the culmination of her A-levels that she was "too sentimental and would make an absolutely rotten vet".
This summer, Seagrove has returned to the West End, leading the cast of Somerset Maugham's The Letter. It is a tale set in colonial Malaya that begins with a killing, perpetrated by Seagrove's character. Whether the motive is self-defence or something more sinister is discovered in the course of the evening.
There are many reasons that some might think this an odd production to bring into the competitive London theatre scene, and Seagrove has already thought of most of them: "Yes, it's a creaky old period piece, and yes it is in places a bit old-fashioned, but we've addressed a lot in terms of some of Maugham's more florid patches; we've cut some of them. It is very racist, but I think that is rather good because you lift a mirror to the audience and say 'this is what we were like, don't let's be like that now.'"
"[Wyndham's] is probably my favourite theatre in London; it's just one big hug"
"We're doing alright," she says, being very honest about the show's economic success. "We're not doing huge, massive business, but we're generally breaking even and making a bit, which I think is remarkable at this time of year for a straight play."
Seagrove knows a thing or two about the West End. She has notched up enough credits in London's theatre district to merit being tagged a West End veteran. In fact, there are reports that she has performed in every West End playhouse. Disappointingly, it turns out that this claim is a touch premature; there are a few venues waiting to be ticked off her list. She has collected the full set of Shaftesbury Avenue theatres plus the Comedy, Duke of York's and current home the Wyndham’s, which, she says, "is probably my favourite theatre in London; it's just one big hug".
It is the intimacy of the 750-seat theatre that leads her to liken the building to a three-storey cuddle, and it is this intimacy that truly lends itself to The Letter. It allows the performers to focus on the "very intimate truth" at the heart of the story, rather than belting out lines as they had to do at some of the venues on tour, an experience Seagrove describes in an endearingly upper-middle-class fashion as "ghastly, absolutely ghastly".
One of the most striking things about Seagrove is her voice: refined, distinguished, naturally forceful yet never threatening. It is a voice that resonates with confidence, yet as we chat she sits slightly hunched and protective on a carved, wooden rocking-pig. Though this may seem defensive, she rarely balks under questioning and is more than happy to expose her own weaknesses.
"You've got to be the real McCoy or the audience will smell you"
Perhaps the slightly defensive body language is the result of a peremptory guess at an upcoming question. In taking the role in The Letter, Seagrove committed to working, once more, for her partner, the producer Bill Kenwright. I am not the first person to point out that this looks like an easy gig to land. Seagrove gives a quiet terse response when the subject arises, saying that she has done enough to prove herself as an actor to avoid such thoughts. She points out that Kenwright has a habit of using the same stable of actors – which include Martin Shaw, Judi Dench, Jessica Lange, Hannah Gordon and herself – in many of his productions, "and I just happen to be one of them. I used to be paranoid about it but I’m quite relaxed about it now."
She may not have fully understood her character, Leslie, Seagrove admits, were it not for the time allowed her by the tour. Leslie spends most of the play putting on a performance herself, which made it hard to find the 'real' character. But this discovery of the truthfulness of characters is part of the work that Seagrove adamantly believes in, and may be why her career has had such longevity. She doesn't take on characters lightly, but builds back stories to create every inch of the person she inhabits on stage. "The audience may not know what you have worked out," she explains, "but it means that every thought you have in every moment will have an attitude behind it and that makes it a much richer performance. I have to get very emotional in this piece, and if you can't feel someone, you can't get emotional; you have to fake it, and faking it doesn't work. You've got to be the real McCoy or the audience will smell you."
When it comes to talking about her beliefs, Seagrove is less forthcoming as she does not want to be labelled a "nutter". Though not a Buddhist, she subscribes too many of the religion's ideals, and does not believe in coincidence. The facts that she was brought up in Malaysia, where The Letter is set, until the age of nine, and that the only autograph she has ever had is that of Maugham – "Funny scratchy writing on a thin piece of paper" – signify to her that this production was meant to be, rather than that it was a lucky stroke of nature.
Though too young to have lived during the height of the colonial times as portrayed in The Letter, her life did "rub up against it", making a lasting impression. "I've always found that a source of huge embarrassment," she says, "that British colonial behaviour, but they thought nothing of it in those days."
"I wanted to prove to my parents that I was special"
The ingrained hierarchy of the time clearly had an effect on Seagrove and her choice of career: "Whether it's true or not, I always thought that our family was slightly looked on as second-rate in Malaysia, because my Dad was never a managing director, he was a manager and we weren't as rich as other people. I wanted the name Seagrove to be important and I wanted to prove to my parents that I was special, so I set about becoming an actor."
When you understand Seagrove's childhood, the quest for parental approval seems an obvious result; she was sent to boarding school in England aged just nine – though she was two years older than her brother when he was sent away from home. One of the effects of the separation, which left Seagrove staying with friends and family for all but one holiday each year, is that, for much of her life, she was overly polite and formal with everyone and, having always felt she was imposing on people, she was rarely relaxed and very shy. It is a nature she has battled with ever since, though today there is no hint of formality as we sip mud-coloured tea from Everton FC mugs that have seen better days.
As Seagrove's career has progressed, she has also had to battle her natural urge to be constantly busy. With two dogs to care for, numerous charity involvements and a film she is currently producing, she has to be careful not to pack too much into the day, for fear of leaving herself drained. "I realised that in order to give a great performance," she explains, "you have to be rested, otherwise you've got no energy to find extraordinary moments, you just give the performance, which may be good or good enough, and nobody from the public would know, but I know, and that's not good enough for me." It is a lesson she learned when trying to film Judge John Deed in the daytime while performing The Constant Wife in the evenings, a juggling act she won't be repeating.
For someone who has had more than their fair share of publicised hardship in their lives – separation from family at a young age, fight with eating disorders, acrimonious divorce – Seagrove is remarkably optimistic and cheery, preferring to take the positives out of every situation than dwell on the negatives, however weighty they are: "I think I've been blessed, I think I've been absolutely blessed. I think I've had moments of great s**t dumped all over me and I wouldn't have changed any of it because it's made me who I am now and I'm happy. I'm in a relationship that I love, I'm doing better and better work, my career is still with me and goes from strength to strength, I've got my health. I really do think I'm blessed. The things that were thrown at me were just to make me learn and to expand me as a human being. You look at anybody's life; who has an easy life? Life's about the ups and the downs and it's how you get through the downs that colours whether you'll be happy.”
Sitting on her rocking-pig, contemplating Everton's season in European competition next year – "you know what they say about new converts, we're worse than the ones who've been there for life!" – with her dogs lying around our feet and a show doing well in the West End, Seagrove is nothing if not happy.