Abbey star has Plenty of time for David’s play

Abbey to be in a different role - Laura Carmichael prepares to be Louise and Dorcas in Plenty
Abbey to be in a different role - Laura Carmichael prepares to be Louise and Dorcas in Plenty
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THERE’S something to be said for making your name in an Edwardian costume drama – you are less likely to be recognised in your civvies.

THERE’S something to be said for making your name in an Edwardian costume drama – you are less likely to be recognised in your civvies.

Unless you’re with one of the other actresses who plays your sister, that is.

“The severe haircut is quite a disguise,” says Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith alongside screen sisters Michelle Dockery and Jessica Brown-Findlay in ITV’s recent hit Downton Abbey.

“But when I’m with Michelle and Jess that’s quite funny.

“People will look at one and then the other.”

British TV’s most expensive period drama, Downton was also the most watched since Brideshead Revisited.

After seeing her national profile soar thanks to that, 24-year-old Laura is beginning to reap the rewards. Later this year she appears in a film of the ’70s series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But from Thursday she stars in Plenty, the first of three David Hare plays at Sheffield theatres in February, including The Breath of Life and Racing Demon.

Directed by the acclaimed Thea Sharrock, who boasts Equus with Daniel Radcliffe and The Misanthrope with Keira Knightley among her credits, it’s a stark contrast to the lavish setting of Downton.

“Thea has done something really clever and is really stripping it back, very minimal props and furniture,” she says.

“The scenes feel intimate anyway. You will see the characters’ every move. It is quite a grand play and a big cast so it will be exciting to see that in the Studio space.”

Hare’s play spans three decades as a potent comment on post-war England through the journey of Susan Traherne (played by Hattie Morahan). Previously stationed behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France, her home life is a destructive mix of unchallenging jobs and sorry relationships.

Laura plays two girls who meet her, namely Louise and Dorcas, who Laura describes as “very sweet, both simple, and stupid in different ways”.

“They’re such fun girls to play. Louise is from Liverpool in her late teens and has come to London in 1952 when we meet her.

“Young and fresh, with a heart of gold, a good time girl looking for excitement, she comes across Alice, a key character who is wild and fun. She crosses paths with Susan through that.

“In the second half we meet Dorcas. Very posh, she’s another stupid lass who is at a posh grammar school which Alice is teaching at and she comes to meet Susan for help.

“Dorcas seems so much younger than Susan, more sophisticated in some ways and more adult in other ways but naïve and clueless about taking care of herself. She is incredibly unaware socially to how everyone is reacting to what she is saying.

“It’s a fascinating play as you see the different and changing ideas and values of women,” says Laura, who features in 1952 and 1961.

“David does something very clever with crossing different decades and writing these really brilliant women. You get a very clear sense of following Susan’s journey.

“I’ve never done a play that felt so much like being a detective, really deconstructing scenes and figuring out throughout the course how long each character has known each other because it does skip on a bit. Actors really enjoy doing that.

“David gives you a lot of information. It’s very rich but then you have to dissect it and the dialogue feels so real, not like he is feeding the audience information, and yet it is so full of facts that make it interesting. It’s all there.”

Besides watching Michelle play Ophelia in the Crucible’s Hamlet last year, Laura is a first timer in Sheffield. “It’s exciting to be coming back and working. As much as Michelle and I are rivals in Downton, we’re very good friends. She’s been telling me where to go, all the nice restaurants. I look forward to exploring.”

Laura returns to film series two and a Christmas special of Downton Abbey when Plenty finishes its run.

“It has been great and exciting to have this come after Downton, but I’m in no way trying to run away from Lady Edith, I love playing her.

“I’m not sure I could have anticipated how fantastic the response has been. It’s an original period drama so it’s great to be part of.

“I feel very new to the world of acting, so it has been a really positive change for me. But it is a very different skill, theatre and TV work. People are watching, you can’t get it wrong, but it’s what I trained to do so it’s lovely to be doing some theatre, part of a cast relying on each other.”