John Partridge: The Case of the Frightened Lady Interview

Celebrity Masterchef and West End star John Partridge talks about his upcoming appearance in Edgar Wallace's thriller The Case Of The Frightened Lady - here at Derby Theatre from Monday 17 to Saturday 22 September.

What attracted you to The Case Of The Frightened Lady?

I love a whodunit, I love a murder mystery, I’ve always been a fan of that style of play and that style of writing, love a Poirot, love a Marple, and this is cut from that cloth in a way so it’s very exciting.

For people who are new to the play, what’s the basic premise?

It’s really difficult to say without giving too much away but I play Inspector Tanner. There’s a murder, obviously, and it’s at the annual fancy dress ball. I’m called in to investigate and there’s another murder. All will be revealed! There are many twists and turns in this plot and it deals with an old family so it’s got great characters. It’s got your lords and your ladies and your scullery maids and your detectives and your suspects. It’s got it all. It’s one of those great period pieces set in the 1930s, which I love, and it’s a classic thriller. If you love a good thriller and a good whodunit it’s definitely for you.

How would you sum up the character of Inspector Tanner?

He’s fastidious, he’s thorough, and he tries to throw you off the scent slightly with his nonchalance. He makes you think he’s not really paying attention when actually he’s listening to everybody. He doesn’t suffer fools and he has a good sense of humour. He’s your typical detective, I would say.

What challenges does the role present?

There’s a lot of exposition so I need to know what’s coming next, especially because the story jumps around a lot. I really need to know where I’m going and I haven’t had much rehearsal time, which tends to be the way I’ve been doing things lately. When I did Chicago I had, like, four days. With La Cage Aux Folles it was a week, the same with A Chorus Line, so I’m staying true to form. But I’m really looking forward to be part of this company. Deborah Grant, who I saw in it down in Brighton, is wonderful in it. She plays Lady Lebanon and she’s fabulous. Tanner and Lady Lebanon are sparring partners throughout the play and I’m really looking forward to acting with Deborah.

Why do you think thrillers continue to be so popular?

We’re all armchair critics, aren’t we? We love to sit there and work it out. When I watch a thriller I’m usually quite good at working out whodunit but I have to say that wasn’t the case when I first saw this. It twists and turns and I was thrown off the scent. I think that’s what we all like. It’s something for our minds, isn’t it? We can sit there and try to work it out. You’re not passive when watching a thriller, you have to participate in it, and that makes for really good theatre. Thrillers are more immersive, I think, than other forms of plays.

This far into such a varied career, which roles are you most recognised for across stage and screen?

People know me from many things. You might know me from theatre or from Christian on EastEnders or from reading out the National Lottery numbers on a Saturday night. I’ve just started on Celebrity MasterChef so you might now know me for baking and cooking. People know me for lots of different things. I’ve been really lucky in my career that I’ve been able to be quite diverse. I started as a classical ballet dancer with the Royal Ballet Company, I moved into musical theatre, I’ve done television and presenting, I’ve done reality TV… I’m really lucky in the sense that I’m able to cross over all of those genres and I continue to do so. To me that’s what this business is all about. It’s what I love about my working life.

It must keep things fresh for you…

It absolutely does. This year alone I’ve appeared in The Real Full Monty, I’m doing Celebrity MasterChef, I’ve done my one-man show in Edinburgh, I’m going on the road with The Case Of The Frightened Lady, I’ll be doing the Christmas season in Plymouth, next year I’m back on TV with another drama… That’s what it is for me, being able to have that diversity, and therefore I love it that people know me from lots of different things. It always surprises me. A couple came to my one-man show and said ‘We saw you on The Real Full Monty and had no idea you could sing’ yet that’s something I’ve been doing for 30 years. I love that about my career - that I’m still able to surprise people. I always seem to be able to find a new audience. I’ve never done a play like The Case Of The Frightened Lady before so once again I’m doing something new and I’m so grateful for that.

What do especially like about stage work?

I love the instant gratification of it. For somebody like me it’s a real thrill. When you do TV or film you’ve got to wait an awfully long time for people to see it and by the time they do in some ways the moment’s gone. But when you do live theatre or anything live you walk out on that stage and you know pretty much straight away whether the audience is with you or against you - whether you have them or whether you don’t. There’s nothing more powerful than standing on stage and being able to hear a pin drop in that auditorium, knowing that that audience is fully engaged with you and your colleagues and your performance and the story you’re trying to tell. It’s magical. That type of buzz is, I think, what makes an actor an actor; it’s what makes you want to do it. People say ‘I could never get up on stage, I’d be too nervous’ but actors are nervous. But that feeling, that thrill, is wonderful and it’s what makes a person like me wish to perform live. Applause is a wonderful thing because you know then and there that people have enjoyed it.

What do you have to have in your dressing room?

I am very basic. I’m not the sort of person who puts up loads of photos. A lot of people make their dressing room a real home from home but I very much see it as a transient thing so I’m very sparse. You come into my dressing room and there’ll be my costume, the clothes I’ve taken off, perhaps a hairbrush and that’s about it. I travel really light because I’ve been doing this for a long time and next week is another town and another dressing room. Also whenever I’m touring if it’s within 200 miles then I go home every night. I do a lot of driving and I’m probably last in and first out. I’m very much a homebody so my dressing room is just somewhere I go to work. I come in, put on my costume, and I’m a Manchester lad so if there’s a kettle for a cup of tea - if there’s a milk brew for me when I get there - that’s all good.

Doing The Real Full Monty seemed very emotional for you. What did you take away from the experience?

It was monumental for me in many ways. I was very newly sober when I agreed to take part in the show and talking about having cancer 14 years ago was something I hadn’t told anybody. Only my husband knew; even my family didn’t know about it. So it was a very personal story for me and it allowed me to become open about other struggles I’d had in my life. I found it liberating and life-affirming and extremely powerful. It prompted me to go forward and to be able to make many more changes since then. By the time I open in The Case Of The Frightened Lady I will be one-year sober  and I’ve changed my lifestyle and eating habits completely. I joined a men’s testicular cancer group and have learned so much about nutrition and have lost over 17 kilos. I feel fabulous for it. I’m in the shape of my life.

You act, dance, sing and we now know from Celebrity Masterchef that you also cook… What are you rubbish at?

[Laughs] I’m rubbish at so many things. I’m rubbish at returning phone calls, I’m terrible at answering emails, I’m a horrible technical person… There are lots of things I’m terrible at. I’m just trying to be a better version of me. That’s what I’ve been focussing on this year. My mum passing away last year was very painful but it’s given me a new perspective on life. I’m so grateful for it and so excited to be going on tour with this play because, as I say, it’s something new for me. My professional life is extremely important to me and I’m very proud of my career. I’m really looking forward to the challenge and I hope to do a lot more straight plays in the future.

What significance does Derby Theatre have for you?

Derby’s not that far from my home town of Radcliffe. I’ve never actually played there before but it means I’ll get to see some of my family. I’m staying with my sister but [laughs] she’s just moved and her place is being renovated so I’m staying in a caravan on the driveway. If I look a bit crumpled on stage it’s because I’ve been sleeping in a caravan!

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