How the Hell Did She Get Here? Lesley Nicol — Downton's Mrs. Patmore — Debuts Her New Show in NYC

Nicol stars in this new solo production at the McKittrick Hotel.

TV audiences know the delightful Lesley Nicol as her turn-of-the-last-century alter ego, Mrs. Patmore, on the beloved Downton Abbey. Theater audiences are about to get to know Nicol for herself, though, in the New York premiere of her solo show, How the Hell Did I Get Here? Running at the McKittrick Hotel, through May 8, the show is a journey through her life and career, with some fun detours along the way. Here, she tells us how she got here.

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

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Where did this show come from?
I was living with my husband and our two dogs in Los Angeles for five years. During this time, I got to be friends with a songwriter named Mark Mueller. I hadn't worked with him, we were just friends. One day, I said to him, "I've got this thing in my head. I'd like to do a show, but it won't be a cabaret, because other people do it better and I'm an actor who sings." And he said "That's really vague." In the back of my mind, I did think, "Wouldn't be amazing if he'd maybe write me a song?" We sat down and started talking about it, it ended up seeming to be my story, but it is designed to be something you will watch and say "That has happened to me." He got so enthusiastic that he couldn't stop writing. So I've got 10 songs, written by him, for me. I would tell him a story and he'd turn it into a song. He couldn't help it. That's what happened. Once we got going, we couldn't stop.

What made you and your team to do it as an American tour instead of starting in your native England?
It's a practical reason. We had to wait to get the right team around us. There is nothing cynical about the show, so we had to get the right kind of producer and director, which took a little while. The right kind of producer showed up, and he's English, actually, but he's working out of New York. So we started with his instincts, which was to try Chicago, and then New York, and then San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Then we'll see where it goes.

I feel like it's already exceeded your expectations by even existing!
Yes! Well, you know, you just have to be patient. It's really interesting. I believe this show has a purpose. I think it's something that's intended to give people a good evening, but also make them look at their own lives and make them laugh and maybe cry. There's never been a better time for that then now, when people are just so relieved to be back inside a theater. The timing feels kind of right.

And it surprises the audiences that know you as Mrs. Patmore.
I don't know what they think they're coming for! I have a feeling they might go "Is she talking about food?" Because they don't know anything about me. It's quite hard to explain to people before they come.

You did Mamma Mia! as Rosie in the West End. Is that show as fun to do as it looks?
It's totally great fun. I went into it for a year, having never done anything that long, and then I got to the end of the first year and they asked me to stay and I had no reason not to. It made people beam. And that's just nice. If it had that effect on people, why wouldn't you want to be part of it? And it was early days. People couldn't even get a ticket. It was great. I was at the physiotherapist every week, because of the platform boots and the stage rake, but so was everyone else in the West End. You'd run into half the cast of The Lion King.

It's a similar situation with Downton Abbey. It's a show that makes people happy.
I know. Life is so tough for people, and so many people are saying "I'm just rerunning Downton because it gives me a little of comfort." I don't see anything wrong with seeking distraction, and that's our job, to bring light and comfort for a minute. Someone once said to me that it feels like a nice warm bath. It's about decent people, and that's reassuring. We're all quite blown away to have been part of that.

I know you can't say anything about the new movie, but what can you say about the new movie?
I'm afraid my line on it is that it's packed with stuff and it made me laugh a lot. And it also made me cry. The feedback we're getting so far is very encouraging, but we need the public to see it. We hope people will go to the theaters and see it. The first movie, they were worried because people had always watched it at home. But they went to the movie theater, repeatedly. These times are slightly different, so we hope people will be confident to see it on the big screen.

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