From Horndean to The National, it’s been quite an adventure, laughs Portsmouth-born former EastEnder Emma Barton.
Emma – Honey Mitchell in the soap from November 2005 to September 2008 – first got the acting bug when she appeared as Mrs Squeers in a Horndean Junior School production of Nicholas Nickleby.
Now, with plenty of other successes in between, she’s heading out on tour in the National Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, which plays Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre from June 2-7.
Sitting in rehearsals at The National Theatre on London’s South Bank, she admits she sometimes finds it all just a little bit difficult to believe.
‘Pinch me! Pinch me! Just walking through the stage door here, I felt so privileged. I always have a wish list of things that I want to do, where I would like to travel, where I would like to perform.
‘As an actor, you have to say the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Old Vic, and now I can tick off the National.
‘I first saw the show at the Haymarket and was completely bowled over by it. It is so much my sense of humour, my sense of style. I was totally born out of my era.’
Now seen by more than a million people worldwide, the production is offered as a glorious celebration of British comedy – a laugh-out-loud mix of satire, songs, slapstick and glittering one-liners, moving way beyond its starting point, The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni.
Fired from his skiffle band, Francis Henshall becomes minder to Roscoe Crabbe. But Roscoe is really Rachel, posing as her own dead brother – who’s been killed by her boyfriend Stanley Stubbers. Francis spots the chance of an extra meal ticket and takes a job with one Stanley Stubbers – but to prevent discovery, he must keep his two guvnors apart. Simple...
And also great fun, says Emma: ‘It’s very cheeky – seaside postcard cheeky. But it is not offensive. It is just very clever. There are such wonderful lines where you hear them and then take two beats before you realise what has been said.
‘It’s set in 1963, and there is just such a lovely cheekiness to it, the sort of Carry On-style humour, the “Oooh errr, Missus!” type comedy. If you think of who was on the box at that time, people like Norman Wisdom, it is that kind of thing.
‘It is just very, very funny. There is a lot of physical stuff going on.’
And a very happy latest chapter in Emma’s on-going story, one which began with that slice of Dickens, one she clearly enjoyed so much that her teacher brought in her parents.
‘My teacher said to my mum “Emma is really enjoying this. It would be a good idea if she could do some amateur dramatics.” Mum and dad sent me to Bedhampton Arts Centre.
‘I just loved the interaction with other people and the vocalising. I have always had a very vivid imagination. I was always making things up, and now I was learning about productions.
‘We did Annie, we did The Boyfriend, we did so much. It opened my eyes. I was brought up on the Kings (in Southsea) and the Mayflower (in Southampton). We would go to the pantos. It’s lovely to go to the pantos if you can’t go to every production, and I suppose I just carried on from there.’
Emma went to secondary school in Horndean: ‘I was the only one that wanted to act, and my careers advisor really encouraged me whereas some careers advisors might have said “Emma must really focus on her studies”.
‘And nor did my parents say that either, though I didn’t do too badly at GSCEs, but I was just really driven by thoughts of acting, of television and of film.’
Emma went on to train at Guildford School of Acting. More doors opened up. She became Honey Mitchell on EastEnders, and the doors flew open wide.
‘I know that I would never have got the part of Roxie Hart in Chicago if I hadn’t done EastEnders. EastEnders can be so helpful in that way.’
Her years on the soap went by in a flash, she recalls: ‘It was wonderful, and you learn so much. You have to work so quickly, and you think you are never going to learn your lines, but the memory muscle kicks in. There are no rehearsals really, just a read-through, and then you are going for it. It really was full on. But we had such a great story.’
The show showed Honey struggle with her baby daughter Janet’s Down’s syndrome. At one point she wants to put her up for adoption; at another point she considers smothering her.
‘We did so much homework on that storyline to try to make it real and believable.’
But the three years were enough, Emma says, looking back. ‘It’s always hard, but you are never going to be able to go forward if you don’t move on.
‘You have got to take the risks with the choices that are made, and you have got to see what is possible. If I had not left, I would not have done Chicago. You think of all the things that come from it, and if I can keep on doing what I am doing, all the different things, then I will feel very blessed in my work.’
As for One Man, Two Guvnors, Emma will play Dolly: ‘She is a feminist, but she is like a big sister. She is everybody’s friend.’
The cast also features fellow former EastEnders Shaun Williamson and Jasmyn Banks, as well as Gavin Spokes from the One Man, Two Guvnors West End cast.
One Man Two Guvnors is at The Mayflower in Southampton from June 2 to June 7. Tickets cost from £18 to £31.
Go to mayflower.org.uk or call the box office on 023 8071 1811.