They say never work with children or animals, but Lesley Joseph is doing both in Annie.
The Birds of a Feather actress will be bringing the shrill of Miss Hannigan to Sunderland Empire later this month in a tour of the family favourite.
And she says she’s loving every minute of playing the wanton tyrant who rules the show’s orphanage with an iron fist.
“The kids in it are amazing, phenomenal really, I can’t praise them enough,” she said. “And we have the dog, little Amber. We have some great chaperones too, who tour with us.”
Lesley, who’s most well-known for playing lovable diva Dorien Green in ITV sitcom Birds of a Feather, said: “It’s the second time I’ve done the role, and I just love it. It’s a good, active part with singing and dancing and nitty gritty, something to get your teeth into.
“The challenge is not making her a cardboard cut out, a challenge I face with Dorien too. It’s easy to play her as a funny person who comes on stage, makes you laugh and goes off, but the challenge is making her vulnerable and human.”
Set in 1930s New York during The Great Depression, Annie tells the story of a spirited orphan girl who’s tormented living at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage.
Determined to find her real parents, her luck changes when she is chosen to spend Christmas at the residence of famous billionaire, Oliver Warbucks.
Spiteful Miss Hannigan, however, has other ideas and hatches a plan to spoil Annie’s search.
With its award-winning book and score, this new production includes toe-tapping songs including: It’s the Hard Knock Life, Easy Street, I Don’t Need Anything But You and Tomorrow.
Lesley, who played the same role in the West End’s Victoria Palace, said she deliberately steered clear of the famous 1982 film.
“I knew the film, but I didn’t want to play it like someone else does,” explained the actress. “When someone does an iconic performance, you get that in your head and the rhythm of how they speak. But I wanted to start afresh. There’s also stuff you can do on film, which you can’t on stage. But I prefer the stage version, it’s more visceral and exciting.”
Lesley says the show’s family appeal is what’s helped it become perennially popular.
“I think that’s why it’s lasted so long, because it’s such a great show for kids,” she said. “It’s a classic American musical and young kids just love it.
“Miss Hannigan is such a fun character, a classic musical comedy role with two great songs: Little Girls and Easy Street. I believe Easy Street is the best song in any musical.”
She added: “I’m not a dancer, as such, I did ballet when I was little. But it’s character dancing, not lifting my leg over my head, so it’s something I can do. “It’s a role that ticks so many boxes for me.”
It’s another comic role which brought Lesley fame. Alongside Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson, she recorded over 100 episodes of Bird of a Feather over a period of nine years in the ‘90s.
Lesley and her co-stars returned to screens in 2013, with a second series which follows the lives of the Chigwell friends, airing earlier this year.
The actress, who’s also appeared in tours of Calendar Girls and Hot Flush, says she enjoys juggling treading the boards with the small screen.
She said: “I think that’s why my career has lasted as long as it has, because I just love doing both. I love TV, and live TV, and Birds is fantastic, but my heart is on the stage. Anything can happen, and you get that immediate reaction from the audience. There’s a different audience every night and that makes it a different show.”
Speaking about Birds of a Feather’s popularity, she said: “I think people realise that the three of is get on in real life like we do in the show, and that shows. Underneath there’s a big bond with Pauline, Linda and myself and people buy into that. Plus, it’s funny and it deals with real life issues. We’re so pleased it’s come back to screens. Hats off to ITV who’ve really got behind it and publicised it and it pays off.”
As well as her quick wit, Dorien is famed for her short skirts and Lesley says she has great fun with the costumes.
“I get to keep a lot of them,” she said. “I actually wore the Like a Virgin dress (which Dorien famously wore in the show) in panto in Essex. The song was a mix of Bang Bang and Like a Virgin. I took off a leopard print coat and had the dress on underneath, the crowd absolutely loved it.
“She’s so visual and I love that. I love being able to fall into dustbins one minute and out of a herse the next.”
•Annie is at Sunderland Empire from March 28 to April 2. Tickets from 0844 871 3022 or www.ATGtickets.com/Sunderland.