When we meet just before the first dress rehearsal of Dick Whittington at the Hackney Empire, two-time Olivier Award winner and first-time principal boy Joanna Riding is so full of enthusiasm and so much fun to be around in spite of, or perhaps partially because of an unrelenting schedule of two-show days for the next six weeks. “I have two lives now”, she tells me. “The home and family and kids and this. I’m really grateful to be able to do both and I wouldn’t want either on its own now. I get so much out of acting that I feel that I’m a happier person and a better mother. And I get so much out of the kids that I think that shapes me and rounds me as a person and I like to think it makes me a better actor. I’m less concerned about making the ‘right’ career moves than doing projects that I enjoy because that makes me happier when I’m with my family”.
Last year, Riding was part of two consecutive commercial flops (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lend Me a Tenor), after which she was finally available to work with her long-time friend, Hackney Empire Creative Director Susie McKenna, on her annual pantomime, one of the evergreen staples of London Christmas entertainment. As the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella, “It was really liberating being so damned evil. Who knew that a boo could be so fulfilling?!” How did her children respond? “My daughter loved it, but my toddler son couldn’t even compute that I was the baddie. He’d see me in costume, but when I was on stage, his dad would ask him, ‘Can you see Mama?’ and he’d point at the Fairy Godmother, the lovely Sophie-Louise Dann. He had to think of me as the lovely, kind, good lady. So now I’m going to royally confuse him by playing a bloke!”
A chance to play the opposite sex has been a long time coming for this lifelong tomboy who grew up on a farm and was the only girl in her year at drama school to take her advanced stage combat award. Her first role after graduating was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, whom she played as “a really fiery, spunky little thing because that’s what I would like to see. I always try to bring something of myself to the roles I play”. A seven-year stint at the National followed, playing ingÃ©nues such as Julie Jordan in Carousel (the big break that shaped her career) and Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls, in whom she “would always try to find a strength, even if it was an inner strength. With Julie Jordan, many of the things she has to go through are to do with circumstances and the times she lived in, but she had inner strength in bucket loads. The hardest role for me was Anne Egerman in A Little Night Music because she really has to be a headless chicken. I’m not a method actor, but when I’m in rehearsals and trying to find out who this creature is, I end up not only putting a little bit of myself into the role, but a little bit of the character finds its way into me. I became bit of an airhead and whenever I spoke to my idol Judi Dench [who played Desiree in the production], I would make mincemeat of my words”.
Riding continues, “There’s nothing that upsets me more than oppression. I’ve always fought against the notion of women as being seen as weaker. As a child, I never got caught in kiss-chase. I wanted to know what it was like to be kissed, but I wouldn’t let a boy catch me. I took great pride in that. I had a very strong early sense of that imbalance so I think I was a feminist very early on. I don’t let my daughter have Barbie dolls. I don’t want her to think that that’s how women should present themselves. I loved Pixar’s first foray into the ‘princess’ genre with Brave – for once, there’s no romantic interest and the heroine could be a complete person without being married off”. The quintessentially Shavian emancipated woman Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was a dream come true in every way, and there was a similar message in The Witches of Eastwick (Riding created the role of repressed cellist Jane Smart), in which the three friends who conjure up their ideal man ultimately learn that they don’t need a man to qualify them.