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Interview with star of The Governess, Jenny Seagrove

Jenny Seagrove is branching out again to play a governess in a forgotten play, as she tells Steve Pratt.

Jenny Seagrove plays a sinister Victorian governess in her latest stage role. Was it, I wondered, similar to any other role she’s taken? 'Yes, I suppose The Guardian a little bit. Though she doesn’t turn into a tree,' she replies. Ah yes, I’d forgotten that 1990 horror movie directed by The Exorcist film-maker William Friedkin. Seagrove’s nanny had a penchant for 'feeding' babies to trees and then turned into a tree herself (causing many a joke about a wooden performance). It sounds very silly (and indeed the film was) and quite unlike The Governess, a little-known thriller by Gaslight writer Patrick Hamilton that Seagrove is putting in the spotlight on a short tour before opening in the West End. Richmond Theatre is one of only three out-of-town theatres to see the production before the London audience.

When we speak, Seagrove is on a break before a full run-through of the production. She’s excited because the production is bringing an unknown play to theatres. It’s almost like doing a new play. 'I think it’s a little gem although we’ve yet to find out what the audience thinks,' she says.

'Patrick Hamilton also wrote Gaslight. He gets into people’s minds and it’s the same sort of thing here. It’s a really, really uncomfortable piece. It appears quite normal and then they become like the Addams family.' She discovered the play after approaching theatre critic and playwright Nicholas de Jongh and telling him she was looking for an interesting project.

He gave her a few play ideas as well as mentioning The Governess, the only copy of which was in the British Library. She read it and thought 'there’s something here'.

She doesn’t know why the play - which features the Detective Rough character from Gaslight - has been neglected. 'It’s one of the last plays he wrote. I don’t think he had quite finished work on it, so we did a little bit of editing,' she says. 'It was done once with Flora Robson during the war, but only played three performances. Either it didn’t work or wasn’t cast properly. Perhaps people wanted comedies at that time... But it’s a really, really interesting piece. The last play I did, Volcano by Noel Coward, hadn’t been done much. The reason was that it was too personal and his friends had asked him to shelve it. But it really worked, we took it to the West End and had a nice little run.'

The Governess also features Peter Bowles, from To the Manor Born and Only When I Laugh, as Rough, and Colin Buchanan from Dalziel & Pascoe, whose West End credits include Art and La Ronde. Director Roy Marsden is an actor too. 'I love him. This is my third production with him,' says Seagrove. 'It’s just that we click. I understand the way he works.'

In The Governess, Detective Rough investigates the case of a missing infant following the arrival of Seagrove’s governess Fry. 'She’s a woman of her time but there’s something about her that’s rather modern especially, I hate to say, in the light of the Jimmy Savile inquiry, the things people get away with. It makes it really uncomfortable,' she says.

Playing Emma Harte in the TV series, A Woman of Substance made her name, although now she’s probably best known as barrister Jo Mills alongside Martin Shaw’s Judge John Deed in the BBC legal drama. That series ran for six years and she has fresh TV projects 'bubbling away'. She was seen the other week as 'a right cow' in the Morse spin-off series Endeavour. She looks for 'something that’s going to challenge me' in a role and has her own production company, although nothing in actual production at the present. Theatre is her spiritual home. 'I started off in theatre and then my film career took off. I made some mistakes and bad choices, and it slowed down and I started to do theatre. I revisit television if there’s an interesting project, but not so much now.'

Away from acting she’s involved with the charity Mane Chance Sanctuary, in Surrey, which provides long-term care for abused, sick and abandoned horses and animals. The rescue horses are also used to 'bring joy into the lives of special needs children'. She became involved when a project run by a friend of a friend ran into financial difficulties. The animals would have been put down if Seagrove hadn’t started the charity. 'I have a love of animals and know the healing effect they can have on people, and wanted to share that knowledge and experience,' she says. 'It’s an awful lot of horses to feed and provide somewhere to live, but it’s worth it because I can see the beauty of it. I’ve seen the horses calming down and leading happy, healthy lives, and also the looks on children’s faces when they pat them.'

The Governess runs at Richmond Theatre from Monday 10 - Saturday 15 June.

Interview originally appeared in The Northern Echo.