INTERVIEW: Diana Vickers tells us what audiences can expect from her new play The Entertainer

Diana Vickers is a multi-talented and versatile actor, singer and songwriter. Diana rose to fame during the 2008 series of The X Factor where she reached the semi-final thanks to some iconic and beautiful performances. Following her success on the show, she was cast in the West End revival of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Diana is also a successful recording artist with her debut single Once and debut album Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree both reaching Number 1. Diana has enjoyed a varied and diverse career with her stage credits including The Duck House and The Rocky Horror Show; she is currently starring in the UK tour of The Entertainer alongside Shane Richie and Sara Crowe. We chatted to Diana during her week at Milton Keynes Theatre about what audiences can expect from the show and what she loves about her character Jean.

This revival of The Entertainer is a major departure from the original. Can you tell us a bit about the show and what audiences can expect? The show is a classic by John Osborne and is about a struggling entertainer who is played by the fabulous Shane Richie. Some people define it as a kitchen sink drama because it’s centred on one family and their subsequent trials and tribulations. It’s set in the family’s living room during the Falklands War and what emerges is an incredibly multi-layered story about family politics and how their differing beliefs cause conflict amongst them. You’ve got Archie a washed-up, racist, homophobic and sexist 80s entertainer who treats his wife very poorly. You also have Archie’s father Billy who is very stuck in his ways politically; Then, on the other hand, my character Jean is very forward-thinking and liberal and tries to change her family’s opinions. It’s a story about family divides and politics but at the same time, it’s very funny and heartfelt but also quite dark. It’s a classic multi-layered John Osborne piece. The original play was set in the 1950s and our fantastic director Sean O’Connor has adapted it and bought it forward to the 1980s. In doing that, I think he has made it more relevant and more accessible because it’s cheekier and funnier. I wasn’t born in the 80s but as an era, I feel more connected to it than the 50s. So I think his adaptation has been spot on.

What attracted you to the role of Jean? I love jean, she’s such a great character to play. She’s so passionate yet she’s quite lost as she’s just broken off her engagement to her fiancé who she absolutely adores. The break up is driven by her discovery that he doesn’t value her career as much as he does his own. Jean’s journey very much resonates with the whole Me Too movement and she is kind of realising that she her hopes, dreams and aspirations as just as valid as his. Due to that she’s confused and going through a rite of passage and kind of finding out what her political beliefs are. I think sometimes she loses focus and becomes quite emotional but I think that is probably down to her age. She doesn’t really articulate what she’s saying that well at the beginning because she’s so passionate and her views are clouded by emotion. I just really admire her passion; she gives up her engagement and goes back to her family. I think she also feels a responsibility for them and a hope that she can maybe change their antiquated beliefs. As a character, I really connected with her and I think it’s probably fair to say that the audiences will connect with her the most. She’s the voice of reason and represents the more liberal views of the younger generation.

What has playing her taught you? Playing Jean has taught me a lot and from an actor’s point of view, she’s been very interesting to play. As an actor, I really enjoy doing comedy and there is something very comforting about the instant gratification you get from a comedy role. When people laugh there’s immediate relief and that lifts me and I think yes I am doing alright, I am getting the laughs and I’m feeling really comfortable. Jean isn’t a funny character and I have to hope that I am doing her justice and putting her point across in the correct way. I have to believe that the audience is seeing that passion and that I am articulating it as well as I can. As an actor she’s taught me that I have to believe in the choices I make in my performance and I can’t rely on audience gratification when I’m out there. That has helped me a lot as a performer because I have played a lot of ditsy and silly blondes so for me Jean has been very challenging and I have to trust my instincts and what I’m doing out there.  

What do you hope that audiences will take away from this version of The Entertainer? The Entertainer is quite a sad and emotive play and because of that I really hope that people take away the message to seize the moment and just be happy. I hope that it makes people go home and tell someone that they love them and that it makes them want to be the absolute best version of themselves. You only have a certain amount of time on earth and you’ve got to make the most of it. I also hope that it reminds people of the importance of family and that life is too short to have regrets. It’s all about remembering that you won’t live forever so tell people that you love them! Gosh that’s a bit depressing, isn’t it?!

Your work seems to naturally vary between stage and TV, is this intentional and do you have a preference? I really love both but I’ve wanted to do theatre all my life. There is nothing quite like going on stage and being in front of a live audience. Having said that I stand backstage and I think why am I doing this, it’s absolutely terrifying! You can go out on that stage and anything can happen but it’s so fantastic and there’s nothing like it. It all began from theatre and I absolutely adore it and can’t imagine ever not doing it. That said, I do really love doing television and I find it amazing how you work all those long hours and do shoot all those scenes and they don’t feel magical at the time but you look back at the edit and it’s incredible what they can do! I love watching TV and I’m obsessed with The Handmaid’s Tale. I also go to the cinema a lot and I definitely want to do more TV work. I think it’s always about the project though, I think it’s better to be completely invested in what you’re doing whether that be on stage or on camera.

You’ve played a range of diverse women. Is there a common quality that you feel you’ve given to or taken from them? I love doing comedy, so no matter the character I always naturally try to find a humorous side to them when I first look at a script. Whenever I look at a role I try to connect my own experiences as much as I can to give each character as much truth as possible. It’s funny what you get out of characters. When I did Little Voice, a job that I absolutely adored, I actually became LV. I bought a record player and loads of records and totally embodied her. I used to lie on my floor and listen to them and I still do that today. There are certain pieces and characters that really stick with you and I think you do carry them with you. Even with this, I am not very into politics, but this role has actually made me think I really need to see what’s going on a bit more and has definitely made me more politically aware myself.

Which of your roles was the most challenging for you to capture? And how did you overcome it? They are all challenging in their own way. I did The Duck House and had to be on stage in suspenders spanking Simon Shepherd and rubbing cheese on him! That was really challenging especially as I knew my mum would be watching! I always go back to Little Voice but that role was so challenging especially taking it on after Jane Horrocks, who the role was written for. I knew I would have to impersonate all these people and that my performance would be scrutinised so that was really challenging for me. I am a perfectionist and I go through a really weird process. I get the part having worked really hard for it and then I go in and freak out on my first read-through; I literally go bright red and get really nervous. Then I go into rehearsals and do this whole self-loathing thing where I think, am I good enough? Why did I even get this role? What am I doing? Why am I doing this everybody hates me! Then within a couple of weeks I settle into it and we pull the script apart and I get close to the actors and I start to feel really comfortable, I’m like this is great why did I ever doubt myself! It’s a completely weird process that I go through every time but now I am more aware of it. It’s only really once I have my costume on and I have completely embodied my character that I truly let go of that. It’s classic me!

If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be? With most careers, there is a natural path and progression as you step up the ladder in any given profession but in this industry that doesn’t really happen. I went for an audition in town last week, got recalled five times and got down to the last two. By then I was so emotionally invested, I had put my heart and soul into it and it and in the end, it didn’t go my way. When that happens it’s so unbelievably disheartening and very difficult to let go of. Sometimes I just wish there was a system in place that meant this industry wasn’t as unpredictable or unstable – it’s really hard. Conversely, the unpredictability is what makes the industry exciting but it is really hard that you can go from doing your dream job to not working for months or years. Not knowing where the next job is going to come from can drive you a little bit crazy. I just feel so much more centred, peaceful and happy when I am in work.

You became a household name when you hit our screens on The X Factor in 2008 aged 16. Do you think that experience has helped or hindered your career and does that time in your life ever inform any of your professional decisions now? In many ways, it’s been a godsend and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I think I went on it at the right time. People really cared about Saturday night TV, it was still a really big thing and it was such an exciting time. It opened an awful lot of doors for me. That’s where Nica Burns and Jim Cartwright saw me and after the show, they called me in for my first meeting in theatre. It really was an incredible start to my career and has stood me in good stead. I was able to buy my house and I wouldn’t change that experience at all. However, often when I start a new job I get (a few months in), “do you know what, I didn’t know if you would be very good but you’re actually really good” or “I didn’t realise you would be this professional, you’re a really hard worker!”  Those preconceptions come from the stigma attached to The X Factor. I don’t really mind having that X Factor label now but obviously I hope that I’ll get that big Hollywood film one day and that will be what I’m known for. It is so refreshing when someone comes over to me and says I’ve got both your albums or are you Diana from Little Voice rather than are you Diana from X Factor. That means that they know my body of work and what I have been doing since then, which is over 11 years! Having said that when I go into a new job it’s actually quite fun for me because it’s always interesting to see what preconceptions people might have of me and I quite enjoy the reaction when they are proved wrong.

What was the most recent show you saw and what do you wish you’d seen but missed? The most recent show I saw was Emilia at The Vaudeville which was absolutely fantastic – I sobbed! Something I wanted to see and I’m absolutely devastated that I didn’t was Grief Is A Thing With Feathers with Cillian Murphy. It’s one of my favourite books and it’s something I turn to a lot and I was so gutted that I missed it.

The Entertainer is touring until the 30 November. Dates, venues and ticket information can be found here: https://www.theentertainerplay.co.uk/tour/

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