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Review: Lesley Nicol — Downton Abbey's Mrs. Patmore — Tells Not-Quite-All

Nichol brings her autobiographical musical to several cities across the US, starting with Chicago.

Lesley Nicol in her solo show How the Hell Did I Get Here?
(© Michael Brosilow)

When Lesley Nicol was 22, a director told her, "I think you're going to do really well when you're in your 40s." They were devastating words for a young actor to hear, even if she was — by her own admission — "stout-ish" and a "cutie" rather than a "beauty." The director was on the mark: She was a born character actor. Everyone knows Lesley Nicol today, at least by sight if not by name. Her feisty, ginger image comes to mind at the mention of Mrs. Patmore in Downton Abbey or Mrs. Beecham in Beecham House.

How the Hell Did I Get Here? is Nicol's musical autobiography, which she co-authored with noted pop composer Mark Mueller and stars in as a solo show. Now receiving its world premiere at Chicago's Greenhouse Theatre Center ahead of a US tour, the show is a swift 80 minutes of facts, anecdotes, and projected photos, punctuated by 10 songs in which Mueller accompanies Nicol on a baby grand piano. The woman herself definitely seems to be engaging, pleasant, and unassuming, and so is this presentation.

Nicol was born and raised in Manchester, England, in comfy circumstances: Her kind and gentle father was a doctor and her loving but forceful mother was a model and TV presenter. A shy child, sensitive to her small stature and weight, she discovered comedy quite by accident when reciting a humorous poem at school, and "a lightbulb went on." As she notes in a song, "I magically, mystically know this/I'm gonna get a job working show biz." Soon after, she was working with a Manchester theater company before attending London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

The songs are commentaries and reactions to various situations in Nicol's life, rather than songs that further the story. For example, she recounts childhood with a child-like waltz, "Won't Someone Tell Me Why" with typical questions ("Why am I so wide?"). Or she expresses a merrily sarcastic view of her glamorous mother's wartime career, "She Had a Great War." There's even a love ballad recounting her mixed romantic results, suggesting love is for "a reason, a season or forever." Her comedy numbers are particularly effective: a cooking class assignment to make "A Light Supper for an Invalid" long before she played the Downton Abbey cook, and "Down Julie Walters," a josh at the actor who beat her out as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter film franchise.

Mueller's tunes are pleasantly mainstream without the flavor of rock, jazz, or any particular genre, accompanied only by acoustic piano. They suit Nicol's alto voice, a bit weak in the lower range but hearty in mid-and-upper ranges. Nicol has had several musical successes — especially Mamma Mia in London — but she is an actor who sings and not a singer who acts.

Obviously, we learn a great deal about Nicol: her Richard Chamberlain crush, finding romance, dieting fights with her mother, successes which established her career, and the global triumph of Downton Abbey, a role she landed without a sweat. The most heartening extension of that success, she tells us, has been the ability to promote worthy causes, specifically medical detection dogs and animal rescue. Not surprisingly, she mentions that the second Downton Abbey film opens May 20, and teases about a third, Downton Abbey, the Assisted Living Years.

Several additional runs of How the Hell Did I Get Hear? are scheduled, and the show should do well wherever Nicol has a fan base. It's designed for an intimate space — even a cabaret — with three low-rise, V-shaped, mahogany-colored platforms pointed at the audience. Side walls of white-washed valises serve as projection screens, and the piano sits center rear. Anshuman Bhatia designed scenery and projections, with lighting by Bhatia and Lucreia Briceno. Anglo-Irish director Luke Kernaghan is invisible in the best sense, giving Nicol a natural flow among the platforms and down to the audience several times for small interactions. During the song about cooking Nicol plays percussion on pots and pans, but otherwise there are no props or furnishings.

Nicol tells no tales out of school, reveals no scandals, and says little about her adult private life (she married late and has no kids), her lifestyle now that she's famous, nor what it took to create the role of Mrs. Patmore. Unlike many artists, she did not endure years of deprivation, starvation, and struggle (even if success came late), so hers is not a life of high drama. There's little here for those (if any) unfamiliar with her work, but there is the intimacy and pleasure of an almost-personal acquaintanceship for those who are.

How the Hell Did I Get Here? runs in Chicago through April 3 before moving to the McKittrick Hotel in New York (April 20-May 8) and the Pittsburgh Public Theater (July 20-August 7).