INTERVIEW: Archers actress Sunny Ormonde on her solo show

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Actress Sunny Ormonde pictured at her Stratford home. Photo by Mark Williamson S3/01/23/17

Stratford-based actress Sunny Ormonde is well known for her role as man-eater Lillian Bellamy in The Archers, but she is playing an old bird of a very different plumage in a her one-woman show Dorothy (The Airings of an Archers Actor’s Aunt). She tells Gill Sutherland all about it ahead of its opening at the Bear Pit Theatre on 11th February

Doing a one-woman show is knackering but also invigorating. Years ago I did Shirley Valentine and you are on your own doing a 32-page monologue. It is terrifying but it’s also probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. With all one-person pieces, you are so involved in it you don’t have time to be nervous. That’s one of the things I love — you plug in and you’re off. It’s exciting, and easier doing it than watching it!

I think I developed nerves of steel when I did Shirley. I remember getting the part and feeling elation: ‘Oh wow they’ve given it to me!’ and then quickly followed by the realisation of what I was taking on: ‘Oh my God!’. My agent at the time said to me ‘You’ve gotta have balls to do that’ — and yes you do. It is daunting but you do it. I do like testing myself — you grit your teeth and get on with it.

Standing in for writer Louis de Bernières led to my one-woman show An Evening With [which Sunny also tours with currently]. He was fronting the Antonius Players, which was made up of parents from Sibford School, where my son went, and they were due to take play A Roll in the Hay to the Edinburgh Fringe, but Louis had to pull out, and I went instead. Anyway after a show we were messing about with the raucous audience up there, and they asked me lots of questions about The Archers, and I answered as Lillian, and I really enjoyed it — I hadn’t realised how comfortable I was being her spontaneously. Anyway a producer friend suggested I could do a one-woman show and that’s how An Evening With came about – it’s not all Lillian though, I wouldn’t be allowed to do that. Doing that stand-up format has given me confidence as a performer. It has broadened me; and I think that particularly when you get to my great age, 103 [she jokes], to continually be learning about performing is great.

Archers’ anecdotes always go down well during An Evening With. The audience love insights into how we do things on radio. So they always enjoy stories such as how the sound of a calf being born is recreated — the yoghurt in the squelchy glove, all that sort of thing. Or like while you are reading the script, you have a spot with you who acts as your twin — picking up a tea pot, putting it down with a plonk, rustling the newspaper … they are fascinated with how we create those pictures in a radio audience’s mind.

I give a prize for the best Archers question at the end of the show. I was asked recently who I would play if it wasn’t Lillian, which I thought was interesting. It used to be Molly Button or Freda Fry before she died. Now it’s probably village busybody Susan Carter — another opinionated lady and very funny.

Dorothy first appeared in a show called Wigs and Wideboys. Jane James wrote it and we performed it about ten years ago at the Attic Theatre in Wimbledon and Dorothy was one of the characters in the show. People said she is such a fascinating character it would be interesting to do her as a one-person show. So ten years later Jane finally got round to writing it and we did our first performance in June at the Northwich Literary Festival, which I’ve got a long association with. It was fantastically well received, and the performance at the Bear Pit will be our third.

Jane’s writing is superb; the play is like a cross between Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. When the piece starts you think it’s one thing — that you’ve got her — and then it turns out to be something else. One of the sure-fire things is it just makes people laugh. It is so witty. Dorothy is so different from Lillian: she is a Northern lady in a care home in Knutsford. She’s a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Mrs Bouquet — very opinionated! She’s decided she is going to have this media company and broadcast from her old folks’ home. She is a joy to play and from the get-go it’s so funny.

People won’t recognise me as Dorothy — think glasses and possibly wigs. It’s great to be doing something so far removed from Lillian.

Although I’m from Knutsford in Cheshire like Dorothy she is not me — she is not based on any one person but different influences. When I was 16 one of my holiday jobs was in a bell factory in Macclesfield. It was peppered by lots of Northern ladies who had worked there a very long time; and there was a forewoman who took no nonsense and spoke in plain terms. I think a little bit of that lady could be at the nub of Dorothy, but really she is an amalgamation.

From corsets to computers, Dorothy has an opinion on absolutely everything… including all the folk in the home: like Barmy Frank and One-armed Annie. She’s Sunny’s aunt who plays Lillian in The Archers, but she doesn’t think much of her niece: she’s always been “difficult” and “took her clothes off in a mucky play in rep”. Dorothy had hoped that when she got the part of Lillian things might improve, but then she heard that awful laugh…

I want to leave the audience having had a jolly good evening, a lot of laughs and thinking what brilliant writing it is! Although the show is poignant as well as humorous: Dorothy has an emotional vulnerability.

Where and when: Dorothy is on at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford, on 11th February – the show is sold out, but tickets are still available for the show 24th March on for tickets call 01789 403416.