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Janie Dee: 'I love what I do, but it can't be everything'

Currently rehearsing 'Hello, Dolly!', the actress known both for musical and straight roles talks of juggling family and work. Susie Mesure meets Janie Dee

We're about half-way through lunch when Janie Dee's face suddenly crumples. Everything so far has been "such a laugh", but quizzing the actress about her lead role in next year's new musical by Tim Firth – he of Calendar Girls fame – has opened a wound.

It turns out that Dee, queen of the stage for her ability to switch from a musical part to a straight role in an instant, had somewhat jumped the gun when it came to Firth's new show, This Is My Family. Somewhat ironically, the mother of two had forgotten to take her own nearest and dearest into account before giving him the nod. The problem is that the show will premiere in Sheffield next May, just when her daughter is doing her A-levels in London, forcing her to withdraw.

"I realised I didn't want to be doing this musical about how great family is while I leave mine at home," Dee, 50, tells me, in between mouthfuls of hummus and halloumi salad. "You've asked me the day after I've written the letter. It's going to be amazing and I'm really sick. But it's important to keep the balance. When I had that little girl, everything fell into perspective. I love what I do, but it can't be everything."

Today, though, work comes first. And how! I catch up with her one act into the first full run-though of Hello, Dolly! which opens at the Leicester Curve next week. Handily for Dee's family, which comprises the actor Rupert Wickham, Matilda, 16, and Alfie, eight, she's rehearsing in London, so she can make it across town in time for curtain-up at the Royal Court, where she has been starring in Lucy Kirkwood's NSFW as the editor of a woman's glossy.

"It's all a blur," admits Dee, who is make-up free and dressed in her rehearsal garb of well-worn navy dance trousers, low-heeled dance shoes and a cable-knit light blue polo neck jumper. Happily, Wickham is able to hold the fort while she's in Leicester: the pair, who met during a 1993 production of Romeo and Juliet at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, have always juggled work and kids but she tries not to take too many parts outside London. "I check with my children every six months or so whether they're OK with me working. Matilda says the problem is, 'If you give up work, then you'll be here all the time, Mummy'."

Dee, who is one of the few people to have won Olivier Awards for performances in both a musical and a straight play, is hoping the special circumstances of Hello, Dolly! will make up for her being away in the run-up to Christmas. She took the part of Dolly Levi for her father, who unwittingly set fate's wheels in motion when he asked her last summer when she was going to do the part because he'd love to see it.

"I said, 'Daddy! Where did that come from? It'll probably never happen'." Four days later, she was on the phone to the director Paul Kerryson to back out of something that clashed with NSFW when he suddenly asked her to play Dolly. "Paul said, 'I've had such an awful day. I've just come to the end of my discussions with who I'd had in mind for Dolly. You wouldn't do it for me, would you Janie?'"

She jumped at it – "after checking with Rupert, the boss" – adding: "I'm thrilled that Dad has got a little bit of something he wanted from all those years of paying for my schooling." The only sting in the tail is that her father, who lives with her mother in southern France, has to have an operation mid-way through the run. "I'm praying he'll be able to make it." She's mulling splashing out on hiring a "rock'n'roll bus" so he can get to Leicester in comfort. "I don't know where I'm going to get all this money from. I'm having some kind of mad dream about it all."

With all those shows under her belt – she started out on the chorus line of Cabaret, before performing in Nicholas Hytner's legendary National Theatre production of Carousel – she has friends dotted around the business, so may be able to call in a favour on the bus front from a producer on Mamma Mia! She even has friends dotted around the restaurant we're sitting in, Café 171 at Southwark's Jerwood Space, in south London, which is home to several rehearsal studios, so is something of a magnet for actors.

"There's Simon [Russell Beale]," she says gesturing to the next table, before reeling off several other actors' names I don't even catch. She's renowned for knowing the late Harold Pinter well: they met nearly 10 years ago when she played Emma in his play Betrayal and he helped her with some of her anti-war projects, such as the London Concert for Peace to protest against the Iraq War.

"I'd invited him and Antonia [Fraser, Pinter's wife] round for dinner; they lived round the corner. And I said, 'I've just seen Tony Blair on TV and I've just got to say, I know it sounds silly, but he seemed a really nice guy. He was talking such sense.' And he said," making her already husky voice deeper still: "'Janie, let me make one thing absolutely clear, Tony Blair is a cunt.'"

She smiles at the memory, adding: "The thing with Harold, is you always knew he could have backed it up with a lot of subtext and information. He was very well read, very well informed. It put me straight again."

Despite not having done much TV or film work thus far, Dee thinks that is something that will come in time. She has happy enough memories of her first film, Celebration, which involved another Firth: Colin. "That was a complete joy. Because he's completely drop-dead gorgeous. Although that was a bit overwhelming. I remember thinking, 'I don't know how I'm going to even breathe in that film let alone speak'."

For now, she likes the thrill of having an audience. All she needs is for her father to make it to Leicester to watch her play Dolly.

susie mesure meets janie dee