Musical theatre star Janie Dee’s keen to keep hold of her ‘triple threat’

janie dee

janie dee - Credit: Archant

The versatile performer tells Bridget Galton why she refuses to be pigeonholed.

Janie Dee’s award-strewn career gives a whole new meaning to the word versatile.

Not only is she a bona fide musical theatre ‘triple threat’, but she’s equally at ease playing Shakespeare, Chekhov, Pinter, and an Alan Ayckbourn comedy.

Aware that few musical stars get a crack at Greek tragedy, Dee’s agent once sternly advised her to “stop singing and dancing if you want to be taken seriously as an actress.”

The determined performer thought about it and replied: “I have sweated and cried a river of tears over all those dance lessons, done my exercises every morning and transformed my mediocre voice into something I am really proud of. I am not going to stop doing what I Iove. Either I am good enough or not.”

The agent, now her “dear ex-agent,” was duly ignored and Dee has gone on to forge an extraordinary career that has indeed taken in Euripedes’ Trojan Women as well as gaining Olivier awards for both Carousel, Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential and an Olivier nod for a Lucy Kirkwood play at the Royal Court.

“I approach my musical theatre roles as I would approach Shakespeare,” says the 52-year-old mother-of-two.

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“It’s all great, rich material to create something the audience will connect with. Just as when I go to the theatre I want someone to move me, make me feel good, inspire me.”

Dee is taking time out from her latest acting role in 84 Charing Cross Road to perform a morning cabaret set at King’s Place this Sunday. (c8)

The song list will take in some of her past triumphs in work by Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, Noel Coward, Jerry Herman and Cole Porter.

“I recently did a concert performance of A Little Night Music so I will definitely do something from that, and last year I was in a Sondheim revue Putting it Together so there is plenty of scope there. It’s important to mix your comedy with your slightly more serious pieces.

“It’s a morning event – a different vibe to evening cabaret – so I’ll choose songs they can listen to while having a cup of coffee and mostly just give everyone a wonderful morning.”

Between numbers, Dee is delightfully at ease talking about herself and her career.

“I have done cabaret for a long time and I personally can’t see the point if it’s just you singing some songs. You have to speak to the audience, lift the fourth wall.

“Of course it has to be rehearsed and carefully put together, but it should have a feeling of spontaneity – we are all in the room, let’s be honest and see what happens.”

Dee also tells stories that might have a musical memory connected to choosing a song - like on a recent tour to China and South East Asia with The Globe’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she had a run-in with a dancing octopus in an aquarium.

“There was this motionless octopus in the tank. I said ‘maybe he is intelligent enough to hear our thoughts’ and sent him a mental message. Then a tentacle reached out to touch the glass, then another until he flattened himself against the glass like a flower.

When the music started to play he started to dance. It was just beautiful. There are lots of unexpected things in life. I felt I had connected with this creature.”

Not only does Dee take inspiration from performers like Doris Day and Meryl Streep whose careers have embraced singing and acting but after working with Angela Lansbury in the recent West End revival of Blithe Spirit she’s added the veteran actress to her list of muses and mentors.

“The last year has been really exciting and extraordinary. Working with Angela was an amazing experience. To meet an 89-year-old who can still touch her toes and chat to you about anything. It’s so inspiring to work with people who have a lifetime’s experience but the energy and curiosity of an infant.”

Wake up with Janie Dee is at King’s Place on February 8. Bookings: