Interview: Hetty Feather’s Phoebe Thomas

Posted on 29 July 2014

Adapted from Jacqueline Wilson's popular novel, Hetty Feather transfers to the West End for 40 performances only from Tuesday 5th August until Saturday 6th September at the Vaudeville Theatre. The West End transfer follows the production's critically acclaimed and hugely popular run at the Rose Theatre, Kingston and a smash-hit international tour.

The story has been brought to life on stage by script writer Emma Reeves and director Sally Cookson. Jacqueline Wilson’s tale of fiery and feisty Hetty Feather runs until Saturday 6th September with a family-friendly performance schedule, making it the perfect summer holiday treat.

Stage and screen actress Phoebe Thomas stars in the title role. Phoebe’s previous West End credits include: Little Women (Duchess) and Annie Get your Gun (Prince of Wales). As well as playing Maria Kendall for four years in Holby City, her television credits include: Death in Paradise, Vera, Outnumbered, Cheryl in Teachers and Night and Day.

I recently spoke to Phoebe about what it’s like to play such an exciting role, training for the circus skills which are showcased in the production and what happened when she met author Jacqueline Wilson for lunch…

What were your first impressions when this incredible show and role first came to your attention? Had you read the book or did you have to read it?
When I heard about the role I went away and read the book and quickly fell in love with the story and the character. You always want to get the jobs you try for but this was one where I thought, “I really want to play that part!” I was very excited and fired up by the idea of playing her and absolutely thrilled when I got the part.

It looks like Hetty Feather is more than just a family show. What do you think is the secret to its wide appeal?
Jacqueline Wilson always deals with issues that are bigger than issues that just appeal to 10 year old girls. She always deals with quite complex and mature issues despite the fact that she writes children’s books. The overall theme is of independence: a person wanting to speak out in a society or environment where they are being told they can’t, and that spirit and yearning to get more out of life than she’s been told she’s allowed to.

There are also themes of the importance of family and friendship and the underlying theme is all about Hetty trying to find her mother and the importance of the parent/child relationship. I think whatever age you are everyone can associate with that parent/child relationship. We are finding that there are many adults who bring their children to see the show and they say afterwards that they weren’t expecting to enjoy the show so much themselves and that they even shed a tear at the end!

The circus element looks astounding and you are very much involved! What has that been like for you?
It’s been a completely new challenge as I’ve never done any circus skills before. When we got into the space we had a week of intensive circus training which was absolutely brilliant. Two people in the cast – Nikki Warwick and Matt Costain – are trained aerialists and we also had a circus consultant coming in to train the rest of us, particularly me. So it was all new for me and quite intense. We did a week when we were training every day and then, while we were rehearsing for four weeks and devising the show, we had to do an hour of conditioning at the end of every day… we certainly got into shape! It’s been an amazing set of skills to learn and I loved it. 

You must feel totally exhausted after a two-show day?!
Yes, I do feel quite tired after a two-show day, a little stiff and quite hungry. We’re all eating a lot of bananas to get us through the show! They have been brilliant skills to learn; things such as rope climbing – when I was at school I would look at a rope and think there was no way I could ever reach the top! I would like to continue with circus skills and learn more things.

Jacqueline Wilson has been very supportive of the production and has said you perfectly capture the spirit of the character. What has it been like to work alongside her?
She’s been brilliant. A few weeks before I started I had the realisation that I was bringing a popular kids’ character to life as well as it being a character Jacqueline had lived with for so long – it’s a trilogy. I met her for lunch before rehearsals began and she was so supportive and enthusiastic about me having been chosen for the role which was very reassuring. I asked her what she felt were the important things to bring from the book including, of course, the character of Hetty. This was really useful as it helped me to understand the most important aspects of the character which I tried to bring to the stage. 

It’s been brilliant for all of us to have her involved. When you are adapting a book you can’t transfer everything to the stage because it would be far too long. So much happens in Jacqueline’s story which couldn’t all be included, so having her present to give her blessing on the adaptation which we all created was really joyous and important to us all because we know that if she’s happy with it and thinks it captures her book and the story, then the fans will be as well.

Are you excited about bringing the show to the West End?
Oh yes, I’m really looking forward to being back in the West End. I went to see Handbagged at the Vaudeville a few weeks ago so I could see the theatre in action and that always gets me excited because I was thinking about how I would be opening there in just a few weeks’ time… who doesn’t love being in the West End?! After all, it’s theatre world and what we all aspire to. Also, the lovely thing about going on tour first was having the reward of transferring to the West End – that’s really special because you feel that the hands-on creative devising process has all been so worthwhile… we have become a little Hetty family! We’re all very excited about it.

What can someone who knows absolutely nothing about Hetty Feather expect? How will they feel afterwards?
They can expect a spirited fiery story set against a colourful backdrop of the circus world. It’s fast-moving, it’s very emotive, it’s very funny - the audience will be laughing and crying. The main thing is the audience are encouraged to use their imagination; one of Hetty’s biggest things is that she can imagine and transport herself to a different place and the way in which the show has been devised encourages the audience to do the same. I think people will be creatively inspired and have their imagination fueled. 

Photo Credit: Donald Cooper