In the the current UK and Ireland Tour of An Inspector Calls, Frances Campbell is playing Edna, which is running at Bath until Saturday 20th, before heading to Glasgow for the last dates of the 30th Anniversary production from 23rd to 27th May. Previous work for Frances has included Victoria McFarlane’s new play The Memory of Rain, which is based on verbatim conversations on loss, playing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and she filmed in Romania for the Netflix Christmas film The Princess Switch. Frances is a performer of historical dance and is also an experienced Music Hall artist. Catching up with Frances, she answered our questions about playing Edna in the 30th Anniversary UK and Ireland Tour of An Inspector Calls, being a performer of historical dance and an experienced Music Hall artist and her time in The Memory of Rain.
You are currently playing Edna on the 30th Anniversary UK and Ireland Tour of An Inspector Calls, was there anything that drew you to the show and your character?
I’d seen the production of An Inspector Calls 30 years ago at the National Theatre, and had remembered it as being an astonishing piece of theatre with such an important message, so when I was invited to join this production, I was thrilled at the thought of being able to contribute to it and find my way into discovering what the silent, watchful maid, Edna, was prepared to disclose to me. I loved the ethos of how this particular production was going to play out – I could identify with its central theme and felt as if I had something to say. I also really love that the set is almost like an independent character and that we get to see the house change, develop and ultimately make a statement all of its own.
What is Edna like to play and how is it being directed by Stephen Daldry?
Stephen Daldry is immensely insightful and gave us really helpful and inspiring notes and guidance. He has the ability to draw forth what he wants from an actor without necessarily having to be too explicit – it’s almost as if you’re not being directed, but he’s been watching you quietly and then has a sudden suggestion based on something he’s seen you do on stage. It’s a lovely way to work a scene and the play comes together beautifully.
Playing Edna has been an interesting process of discovery: she’s on stage the whole time but has very little to say, though she is very present in every moment of the story, whether standing still or travelling across the stage. The audience might not notice this, but everything Edna does is very precise and time critical! She appears to have an instant connection with the Inspector, as they seem to see the world through the same lens. Edna often knits quietly in the background, and in playing her, I’ve come to feel as if this knitting might be seen as representing the thread of destiny of the characters around her, almost like a silent Greek Chorus. She’s an observer of events rather than someone who pushes the action forward but she’s important because, as a maid within the household, the way she’s treated is emblematic of the class differences in the play.
What is it like working with the rest of the cast and how are you finding the experience touring with the show?
I have much enjoyed getting to know and work with such a delightful group of gifted, amusing, and dedicated actors. Touring can be challenging and exhausting but it is very interesting in that it’s a good way of getting to know theatres, theatre digs hosts and, of course, a new town or city, on a weekly basis! I’ve made friends with some of my theatre digs hosts – which is a lovely bonus! I’ve also really enjoyed touring with our company manager, Brad, who is central to the success of the tour – he has time for everyone and manages to keep an eye on the small details as well as the large decisions.
How has it been returning to the stage with this production of An Inspector Calls and how is it seeing the audience respond to the play?
It’s wonderful being in a production which is sold out in every venue and which earns us such enthusiastic applauses! Many of our audiences are young people and it’s their introduction to J. B. Priestley. An Inspector Calls is part of the school syllabus so it’s great to see them enjoying a classic piece of theatre in such a memorable production. Our adult audiences seem thrilled by the production – the ingenuity of the set, the message which is very strong and the high calibre of the acting!
Is there anything you are enjoying most about performing in An Inspector Calls so far?
It’s lovely to continually uncover further aspects of Edna’s character, incorporating a backstory which gets richer and richer with every passing week. We’re kept a constant eye on by Stephen Daldry’s directorial associates – (Charlotte Peters and Xanthus) – so that the standard of performance remains really tight and truthful – truth is at the very heart of this production.
Why would you recommend booking tickets to the 30th Anniversary UK and Ireland Tour, which is running until 27th May?
Get in there fast otherwise you’ll find the performance you want to see is sold out! It’s a great production of a wonderful story which still has so much to teach us about truth, conscience, power and class and is as relevant now as when Priestley wrote it. The performances are terrific and the production values are just spot on – it’s a really entertaining and enjoyable show!
Can you tell us about your time playing numerous ensemble characters in The Memory of Rain?
The Memory of Rain by Victoria McFarlane is a new play based on verbatim conversations on the subject of loss. All of the characters I played were very different from one another. I love this kind of performance challenge of being able to switch characters within the same play. Ensemble acting has its own challenges compared to playing a single role and it’s wonderful being able to call on one’s imagination to help one shapeshift from one character to another and from one acting style to another.
We understand you are an accomplished performer of historical dance and an experienced Music Hall artist, can you tell us about this?
What I love about Music Hall is the communication with the audience – an emotion, a story, presenting an unusual character, managing to bring a moment of truth to light. I love finding new ways of delivering a song in a way that will be meaningful to the audience. Historical dance is a wonderful way to explore dances from different centuries from 15th Century Italian dance (when it was first written down and captured as choreography) right through to the present day. It’s amazing to see how each century has informed the subsequent century in terms of style, mood, gesture and social context.
What would you say are some of the stand-out highlights of your career so far and can you tell us about some of the other projects you’ve been involved with, which have included The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Princess Switch and commercials?
Playing the role of Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream has always been a highlight for me. She’s an amazing character – I have loved bringing out her elemental, fairy quality – she’s other-worldly but very much grounded in feeling and emotion. The language is so magical and the story, of course, is an all-time favourite of so many audiences.
A dance highlight was playing Queen Elizabeth II doing intricate dressage on a horse made from a crinoline petticoat and a broom handle at a Historical Dance festival, as part of the closing night’s performance! Of course, playing the role of Edna in so many important theatres across the country – this is a real highlight!
Regarding my role in the film The Princess Switch, it was very exciting being whisked away to Romania at two days’ notice to have such fun! Miss the start of the film and you’ve missed me, but it was all worth it! I really enjoy screen acting and this includes being in commercials. Who could resist speeding off to Paris to film for Eurostar in front of the opera or to a German forest to film for Ikea, certainly not me!
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I was taken to the theatre as young as three or four years old and was immediately smitten by the excitement and magic of that space called a stage and the characters which appeared from behind those curtains! Back at home I built my own stage at that age from old tea chests and put on little shows just for myself: I’d sing a song or try to say a few lines from the play I’d just seen, playing the characters which took my fancy. Occasionally I’d call my parents in to see me all dressed up, but largely I was so passionate about performing I’d just do it for myself.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from acting?
I much enjoy going to all genres of play and spectacle and am very partial to a spot of inspired panto! Away from the theatre, I much enjoy nice long walks in the country – I love nature and seeing how the land changes through the seasons. I love finding new walks by studying paper maps, getting to know the routes and all they have to offer and then guiding my friends through those landscapes. Of course, I love dancing and also watching it – the synergy of music and movement – being able to dance in a lovely space to beautiful music with lots of lovely dance partners! I love all the arts – painting, drawing and writing – it’s all about getting to express and know myself.
What advice would you give a young performer starting out in the industry?
Take every opportunity to perform and watch others perform! Get as much experience on stage and with other performers as you can – you learn a lot playing even the smallest part. Try and play as many different types of character as you can! Have patience, optimism and determination. Remember that ‘failure’ is important for progress. You will need staying power and a sense of humour to see you through the difficult moments. It is a wonderful profession.