Lion-hearted Francesca in good company

COMPANY Francesca Annis as Joanne - credit Ellie Kurttz
COMPANY Francesca Annis as Joanne - credit Ellie Kurttz

ONE of the show stopping numbers in Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Company, is Ladies Who Lunch delivered by the sardonic and sozzled socialite Joanne, the part played at the Crucible by Francesca Annis.

One critic liked the way she performed it “with a snarl like a lioness,” while, another said that “though missing some of the musical notes…(she) hits all the emotional ones”.

That should be music to the ears of the actress who admitted she was approaching her big number with a certain amount of trepidation for she has come to Company with virtually no experience of musicals.

“I appeared in a musical when I was 20 and was so terrified I didn’t sing again – anywhere, not even in the bath,” she explains. “When I started singing lessons for this and my teacher said what you need to do is sing songs out loud on your own, I realised how traumatised I was because I didn’t know a single song.”

It seems a rather extreme reaction. “I was too young for such a big thing in the West End. I didn’t have the confidence and probably shouldn’t have accepted it. It was Passion Flower Hotel and at the time it opened Barbra Streisand was at No 1 with the song, How Much of the Dream Comes True, so anyone would have suffered in comparison. Actually the character was meant to be a young girl so I was more suited to it than Streisand. Apparently it’s fetched up on YouTube and people have told me it’s not that bad.”

So what changed her mind? “ Jonathan (Munby, the director) had to ask me a few times before I agreed but it’s so flattering that someone thinks they want to employ you so much they will keep asking, especially as he didn’t know whether I would be able to sing.”

Annis has a long career of straight acting in classical theatre from Juliet to Ian McKellen’s Romeo at the RSC to Gertrude opposite Ralph Fiennes’s Hamlet (and we won’t go there) and she was previously in Sheffield when she toured to the Lyceum in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Recent screen roles include Lady Ludlow in Cranford on TV and playing a crackhead in low budget thriller Shifty (as a favour to a friend of her daughter’s).

There’s not much song and dance there. Ah, yes, had she done much dance before Company? “I enjoy dancing but it’s one thing saying you like a bit of a dance and quite another getting into the spotlight and whizzing round,” she observes. “But here I am singing and hoofing.”

Annis says she doesn’t even go to see musicals at the theatre. “I didn’t know anything about Company, I thought it was about a theatre company.”

She has been converted to the show which she thinks will resonate more with people than it did when it premiered in the Seventies for in those days people didn’t talk as much about relationships and had a narrower view of marriage. “Then it was seen as attacking the nuclear family whereas now I think everyone is caught up in the irony of this and the sense of love in it.”

Truth to tell, Annis seems quite exhilarated by the opportunity afforded by the Crucible. “It’s interesting when you have lived a life and had children and taken some risks and I am being asked to do something that’s still a challenge. I think it’s fantastic.”

Company continues at the Crucible until January 7.