The accidental actress
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk born and bred, Myra Sands has been a dancer, singer and actor for more than 40 years. She is currently appearing as Grandma Georgina in Sam Mendes’ production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Frances Hopewell-Smith went to meet her
Myra Sands is the definition of a live wire. When I went to meet her at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane I was shown into the stage door waiting area, where I spent a fascinating few minutes eavesdropping (couldn’t avoid it) on the various conversations between actors as they hung about.
Suddenly the door opened and a bright, smiley face peered round. We said our hellos and then Myra led me through a maze of subterranean passages, past relics set in the wall from the fire, then up four flights of stairs. By the time we get to her dressing room I’m out of breath. Myra is still chirpy and not panting at all, which is rather embarrassing. But this woman is phenomenal. She does eight performances a week in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory playing Grandma Georgina. She’s superfit and cycles to and from the theatre and her home in Dulwich, nearly seven miles, every day except Sunday, no matter what the weather.
My appointment is timed between the matinee and evening performances and while Myra eats a salad supper I get stuck in with questions. We start at the beginning when she had her first ballet lesson at three. Aged 11 she went to boarding school in Lincolnshire where the regime was strict, but as well as her ballet lessons she learnt to play the violin and piano. Two years later she transferred to the Legat dance school, then in Tunbridge Wells, where she concentrated on her dancing. Her future seemed nicely mapped out and her talent and drive her route to success. What could possibly go wrong?
“My career nearly stopped before it started,” she says. “I was in a car accident when I’d just started work. I thought I’d only be in hospital for a couple of weeks, but I had broken my femur, and was in and out of hospital for nearly a year. It changed my life.”
Most people might be worn down by the relentless round of operations and therapy, but Myra is not most people. While recovering she took a correspondence course to get more academic qualifications, and trained as a singer at the Guildhall School. And on top of that she qualified as a music teacher thinking that she might not recover enough to perform as a dancer again.
So by now you have an idea of the sheer grit and determination of the redoubtable Myra Sands. Why let a major injury stop you doing anything? No sitting at home moping for her. And, she believes, it was this accident that led to the two biggest changes in her life.
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When she was about to take up a post as a music teacher she met her husband-to-be, with whom she has two grown up daughters and four grandchildren. Then her teacher at the Guildhall put her in touch with her very first agent, a contact which ultimately led her into show business.
That’s a quick run through Myra’s extraordinary background and since her first job she’s worked almost non-stop. Even Myra had to take time off to have her two children. She has appeared in most of the big London musicals including Cats and Grease and every time she thinks she may take some time off she lands another role and can’t resist.
“I just relish this work and can’t believe how lucky I am,” she says. “I can’t imagine not working and it keeps me going.”
We talk through her pre-show routine, which involves a half-hour warm up, make-up and costume assembly then her wig is fitted before she’s ready to go as Grandma. Of course I have to ask her about Sam Mendes who directs the musical. Is he sympathetic to work for? I ask.
“He’s a great director,” says Myra, “he’s accessible, very nice and flattering. What more can you ask for?” Not much, it seems, in Myra’s world, where she thinks herself one of the luckiest people around.
“Can you believe it?” she says. “I’m on stage in bed with a man every night, and when there’s a cast change I get a different ‘husband’.” We have a giggle about the strangeness of that. I reckon it’s quite a fun way to spend your evenings – although I can’t sing or dance so won’t get that particular job.
By now my time is up because Myra has to get ready for the evening performance and she shows me back to the stage door, which is just as well because I would never have found my way out otherwise. This time we’re allowed to cross the stage and I get a privileged close up view of the sets and the backstage workings. Another first for me and a momentary insight into the amazing amount of background effort and detail that goes into putting on a major West End show, particularly such a fast moving one with so many special effects, complicated costumes and dramatic scene changes.
As I leave the theatre I ask her the classic question, what next after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? ‘Well I don’t know, but I’m certainly not retiring.’ Of course she isn’t.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, until June 2016. Box Office: 0844 858 8877