Jenna Russell: Centre stage

She wowed musical fans in 'Sunday in the Park with George'. Now Jenna Russell is switching to theatre in a revival of 'Amy's View'. Matt Wolf meets a true multi-tasker
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The Independent Culture

With the end of the theatrical year nigh, it's the time when pundits start pondering awards. And in no category is there more competition than in the race - at this season's Oliviers and elsewhere - for best actress in a musical, which could well pit Elena Roger (Evita) against Idina Menzel (Wicked) and Tonya Pinkins (Caroline, or Change). But amid the lineup is one performer from a much-loved production that has come and gone. The show was Sunday in the Park with George and the performer Jenna Russell, who had scarcely cleared out her dressing room at Wyndham's Theatre before re-installing herself at the Garrick in this month's revival of the David Hare play, Amy's View.

These are busy times for Russell, who recently turned 39, but good ones, too. Russell attracted attention some 18 months ago for holding her own against a rather more famous co-star - Ewan McGregor, making his musical theatre debut in Guys and Dolls. Russell was cast as Sister Sarah, a salvationist as deliciously improper as she first seemed prim. Russell brought a thoroughgoing West End song-and-dance knowhow to a disparate cast - not to mention a glimpse of the heart waiting to melt beneath Sarah's missionary zeal.

But after nine months at the Piccadilly Theatre, Russell was drafted into the West End transfer of a more contemporary American musical: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George. Here, Russell had the unenviable task of stepping into a production that had been highly acclaimed during its Southwark run, her services required simply for the cast recording of a show in which she hadn't yet appeared.

In fact, Russell only amplified the sense of occasion of a production capable of taking its place beside the musical's 1984 Broadway premiere. Russell is being sought for next autum is playing the eponymous Amy of Hare's play - the daughter to a celebrated actress, Esme (Felicity Kendal), a thespian egoist who challenges Amy's "view" that love conquers all.

A busy time? You bet, and a good one, too, says Russell. "It's lovely to have not done theatre for so long and then to come back and get to do three class pieces: a very, very popular musical [Guys and Dolls], another musical that has always been a lifetime ambition [Sunday in the Park], and a great play with a great role and another big emotional journey [Amy's View]."

So why has everything now seemingly converged for Russell, who has been acting since she was a teenager? With experience comes bravery, muses Russell. "I feel now like I know who I am," says a performer who in her early 20s found herself playing second banana (or lower) to Elaine Paige in an Abba-themed extravaganza called Abbacadabra. Subsequent gigs included Sondheim's Follies; the replacement cast of Martin Guerre; and more than two years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But nothing to date has had the sheen of the Sister Sarah/Dot/Amy trio - she even played dual roles in Sunday, as the pregnant, illiterate Dot and the wry nonagenarian, Marie. (It's Marie who gets arguably that show's most haunting number, "Children and Art".)

"It's so wise and so true," she says of that song and the musical, whose run finished on 2 September. "It used to upset me, and sometimes I really had to grab hold of myself. Life really is 'children and art'; what else is there? And it was lovely to finish a job when you're not ready to say goodbye to it. It sounds dramatic, but I have a great sadness to the extent that these parts don't come along that often. It doesn't happen very much that you're a part of something which is so special." And where, among the musical theatre addicts who populate internet chat rooms, you put very much to one side that role's seemingly eternal association with its creator, Bernadette Peters.

Amy's View doesn't have quite such forbidding associations, even if Samantha Bond got a Tony Award nomination when Richard Eyre's production transferred to Broadway in 1999. "Sam's a friend of mine and said it was a great role and that I would be mental to not consider doing it," says Russell. Amy's View charts a particularly intense relationship between a mother and a daughter, terrain with which Russell, an only child, has more than a passing acquaintance. Born in 1967, the result of "a weekend tryst that so many 17-year-olds have at a party", she didn't identify her biological father until she was 21. Instead, she had a quite enjoyably unorthodox upbringing, being moved from pillar to post, at one point living in a Hackney squat. "We never got a washing machine until I was about 22, and we would wash our clothes in the bath and boil our small whites." Lest this all sound like the plot of a Ken Loach movie, rest assured: "I never felt like I was being dragged around for no apparent reason," Russell says of life with her mum, a Scot who recently moved back to Dundee. "I always knew that we'd make the best of it, and we did; mum is a fabulous woman and a great character. I feel lucky that I've had an interesting childhood because it's made me who I am."

Who that is, is someone on the notably short list of London musical theatre talents with an ever-expanding range - not to mention a CV that includes On the Up, with Dennis Waterman and Sam Kelly, when she was 22: "They ended up giving Sam and me a kiss, which was very odd; it was the very first time Sam had ever done a kiss on camera." The knock-on effect was recognition at bus stops, and other series like Born and Bred. "My husband died at the end of series three, so I got to play the grieving Lancashire widow looking after our four children." In Peak Practice, she played a postie who goes berserk at series favourite Gary Mavers. "I got rid of one of that show's most popular doctors, so I don't think I'm very popular with the ladies."

For now, Russell and the actor Raymond Coulthard, her partner of 10 years, are renting in south London so as to avoid a daily commute to their home in Whitstable and leaving her time to get to grips with a straight play. "You can't have a decent life and do a musical, I don't think, or you can if you're prepared to live like a nun. I love musicals but I couldn't do them all the time, and it's the same thing with plays. I love plays but sometimes you want to do a cartwheel." In which case, given the quality of Russell's work of late, she should leave the cartwheels to us.

'Amy's View' is previewing from 14 November at the Garrick Theatre. Box office 08708 901 104