It is no overstatement to say that if you’re a fan of British musical theatre, the name Frances Ruffelle is probably near the top of your list of people the mere mention of whom would make you leap to your feet and sing On My Own with delighted gusto in the middle of a crowded shopping centre.
The actress – daughter of theatre school legend Sylvia Young, mother of rising pop star Eliza Doolittle – created the role of street urchin Eponine in Les Misérables, originated the role of Dinah in the original London production of Starlight Express, donned the famous fishnets of Chicago and even represented the UK at Eurovision, singing Lonely Symphony in 1994.
Later this month she returns to London theatre, playing the mum of London mapmaker Phyllis Pearsall in The A To Z Of Mrs P at the Southwark Playhouse, where she stars opposite Peep Show’s Isy Suttie. The new show features a book by Kindertransport writer Diane Samuels that delves into the story of why a Bohemian artist chose to swap painting for pacing the streets of the capital, detailing every intricacy of London’s thoroughfares.
Before previews kick off on 21 February, Ruffelle took time out of rehearsals to answer our questions, sharing a festive childhood memory, reminiscing about Les Mis and explaining why working on this brand new musical is so exciting.
How would you describe The A To Z Of Mrs P?
It’s the story of a family and their relationships, and of course the creation of the A to Z of London. It’s a unique piece like no other.
Who do you play and what are they like?
I play the part of Bella, Phyllis’ deranged but vulnerable mother.
What attracted you to the production?
I had already heard great things about the piece from other actors who had worked on the workshops of the show and then when I read the script and heard the incredibly original songs I was hooked.
Is there something extra special about doing a brand new musical?
Yes, we are all in on the creation of the show and the rehearsal process is magical. We work in the room with the writers, with daily script changes and we all get such a great buzz from developing a new unseen show.
What is your favourite place in London?
Primrose Hill Park, especially in the early morning, with its great view of London.
Have you ever been hideously lost?
Often, but not hideously.
What helps you find your way in life?
My lovely family.
What is your fondest childhood memory?
My dad dressing up as Father Christmas every year and me pretending to him that I really thought he was Santa.
What is the finest performance you have seen?
I have seen many but when I saw LaChanze star as Celie in the Broadway version of The Color Purple I was blown away by her performance like never before and I cried for days.
Do you have a pre-show routine or any rituals?
I try not to speak much in the daytime so that my voice is rested and I think a warm-up is important. I do a vocal warm-up that vocal coach Mary Hammond gave me. It’s quite a long one, some people think you only need ten minutes but I need a good 25 minutes and I always do some yoga.
How do you look back on your time creating the role of Eponine in Les Misérables?
I am very grateful for the opportunity to create such a wonderful role and Les Mis will always mean a lot to me and my family. It gave me a great start to my career and I was extremely lucky to travel to Broadway with it which was a dream come true.
What was representing the UK at Eurovision like?
I was honoured to be asked to represent the country. I had my doubts at first and then once I had decided to take it on I really had one of the best times of my life.
Who or what has inspired you?
Lots of people but mainly great entertainers like Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Elvis Presley and Barry Manilow. It’s all about the charisma and the individual personality.
What will always, without fail, bring a smile to your face?
A good organic chocolate or a very decent glass of red wine.
How did you feel about your daughter [Eliza Doolittle] following you into the music industry?
Every parent worries but Eliza has a good head on her shoulders and is so incredibly talented I feel quite relaxed about it.
What ambitions would you like to fulfil?
I just want to keep giving myself challenges. I have realised as I have got older that I am not really all that ambitious but I find myself to be the happiest when I have a full schedule and I am testing myself.
What would you choose as a last meal?
Ooh how depressing… Er… Smelly cheese, French bread and a good glass of rouge.
Do you have any advice for young actors?
Don’t moan if you have a job, cherish it and enjoy the challenges it brings. And do try and have something else you enjoy to earn a living with; it’s important to see other worlds and financially useful. I am a trained yoga teacher too.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
I’d probably have become a make-up artist or hairdresser.
"We all get such a great buzz from developing a new unseen show."