The actress Lesley Nicol hasn't been on the stage for eight years. Which doesn't seem like much, until you realize it represents more than a half-century in dog years.
Nicol is set to star as the unlikable orphanage matron Miss Hannigan in the 40th-anniversary West End production of Annie when the musical makes its way to Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre in April, 2018. Unless one's been living under a rock since 1977, one is aware that Annie (based on the Harold Gray comic strip Little Orphan Annie) tells the tale of an adorably optimistic ginger and her kindred-spirit mutt named Sandy.
And only by living under a rock could one avoid the unlikely television phenomenon of Downton Abbey, the outrageously popular post-Edwardian British drama in which Nicol starred during the show's six-season run on ITV and PBS. The Manchester-born actress portrayed the shouty and volatile (but caring) Mrs. Patmore, head cook of the mansion.
The 64-year-old Nicol, who hung up her Abbey apron and moved to Los Angeles in 2015, was in town to promote Annie on Wednesday. Asked about playing a child-despising villain after playing a more loveable character in such a popular TV show, the actress pointed to her recent experience as the witchy matriarch of a nasty mob family in the now-cancelled ABC series The Catch.
"I've been down the evil route," she says, "and it's quite fun."
As for exposure to the song-and-dance world, Nicol's first major theatrical gig came in the West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970s, upon her graduation from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. "It was a huge experience," she says of the rock opera.
Other than catching Annie on Broadway, Nichol has no history with the Depression-set charmer made by book-writer Thomas Meehan, lyricist Martin Charnin and melody-maker Charles Strouse. With its freckled-faced protagonist, catchy tunes and a canine co-star, Annie is cat-nip to the kids and attractive to adult audiences too. "What could go wrong?" asks Nicol, whose own dogs answer to "Bertie," a Tibetan terrier, and "Freddie," a rescued miniature poodle.
What could go wrong? Well, Toronto audiences might have an answer to that. And if they don't, past and present Globe and Mail reviewers absolutely do. A Young People's Theatre production of Annie in 2013 (starring Tony nominee Louise Pitre as Miss Hannigan) was deemed "emotionally empty" by Globe critic J. Kelly Nestruck.
In 2007, a 30th-anniversary touring production wowed the moms in the crowd at what is now known as the Sony Centre. They would have been kids during the musical's original six-year Broadway run at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre). That Annie nabbed seven Tony Awards and spawned a 1982 film. Replacements in the Tomorrow-singing title role on Broadway included then-child actor Sarah Jessica Parker.
In 2001, a Globe review of a touring version of the 1990s Broadway revival mentioned sound-system issues at the Pantages Theatre, currently known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre, which is where audiences will no doubt crowd to see Annie this spring, April 24 to May 27.
As for Nicol, she'll soon head to London for a two-month revival of Peter Gill's The York Realist at Donmar Warehouse. Beyond that and Annie, she hopes the rumours of a feature film version of Downton Abbey will come true.
But that's for another day – tomorrow, as the song goes.