By Grace Ferolo
It’s human nature to look back on one’s life and reflect on what went right and what could have been better. It’s in the artist’s nature, however, to live their life fully, to package up its lessons and deliver them to an audience eager to learn. In Lesley Nicol’s musical autobiography, How the Hell Did I Get Here?, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, Chicago audiences are warmly reminded that “on this journey, no one is alone—we all have a story of our own,” through music and lyrics by Nicol and Mark Mueller.
Best known as “Miss Patmore” on Downton Abbey, How the Hell Did I Get Here? takes us through Nicol’s life and career, when she was simply getting her footing as a person. Before the show begins, it’s clear audiences are in for a journey based on how the set is designed. Surrounding the center-stage baby grand are walls of luggage parcels, all painted white and used to screen Nicol’s personal photos and video as she walks us through her story.
Lesley Nicol was born near Manchester, England in a village that produced “steel, margarine, and [Nicol].” Her father was a doctor which prompted children to ask him for medical advice, all of which Nicol was happy to relate. Her mother had been a model and possessed a magnetism that Nicol both idolized and internalized as a shy little girl who, at one point, goes cross-eyed. Bespectacled and “bonnie” (read: chubby), Nicol found it difficult to fit in and preferred to keep to herself as a child. A far cry from the lady on Downtown, for sure.
To transport herself back to age six, Nicol sits center stage, puts on thick-rimmed glasses, and bemoans her stout stature and how she was forced to sit in the front-middle of class photos because of it. She breaks into song and begs to be “I-N-V-I-S-I-B-L-E,” rhythmically stomping her foot (directly mirrored by overhead light cues, designed by Anshuman Bhatia and Lucrecia Briceno). Her angst is palpable, but temporary, as she soon discovers the power of making people laugh when she performs at a school function for the first time.
Equipped with newfound confidence and the guiding “cause of applause,” Lesley becomes addicted to performing and knows this is what she wants to do for the rest of her life. A wrench is thrown in her path, however, when her mother decides to ship her and her brother off to boarding school, mostly to impress her own friends. Nicol finds boarding school to be enormously difficult and signals her emotional distress to the audience by switching out her clear, thick-rimmed glasses to specs with lenses entirely fogged up from crying.
Boarding school marks her mother’s slow and painful transition from “the love of [Nicol’s] life” to her newfound “enemy.” In the song “She Had a Great War,” Nicol humorously recounts her mother’s WWII service and how she genuinely enjoyed it by meeting new friends, flirting with soldier,s and getting engaged on three separate occasions. And yet, her mother’s constant fixation on Nicol’s weight, marked with comments like “I can lose this weight for you,” showed her that despite an undeniably magnetic exterior, her mother was fighting an internal war of her own.
Body image is a common theme throughout the production as Nicol learns to make peace with her “character actress” distinction, but not without some mental anguish. After an unsuccessful audition at age 23, Nicol mistakenly goes to the callback without being called back, to which the director tells her, “You’ll come into your own in your forties.” She looks out to the audience and wonders, “Am I to just step aside for twenty years while the pretty girls build their careers?” Around this same time, Nicol is forced to ask her father for financial assistance for the first time in her life. Typically her biggest supporter, he also wonders if she should be training for something else.
Thankfully, her luck changes and work comes flooding in. She’s cast in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar on the West End, she plays “Auntie Annie” in the stage play East is East which goes on to be made into a film and sequel, and she plays Rosie in the West End’s Mamma Mia for two years straight. Though her mother by now has passed away, but her father is always in the wings, supporting her and becoming an integral presence to every set she finds herself on.
The show comes to its end and we are brought to her time on Downtown Abbey, where all her dreams come true. At the Downtown Abbey movie premiere, she walks the red carpet and marvels at the droves of people who have come to support the cast. Her father has also since passed away and, as she watches the credits roll, she begins to sob: “I have never missed my parents more.” At this point, you can hear audience members start to cry, too, because the show has come full circle.
No matter how old we get or where life takes us, we are always, in some way, the childhood version of ourselves. As Lesley Nicol closes out the show, she is surrounded by pictures from the beginning of her life until now. She stands proudly at center stage, the living embodiment of these disparate images and experiences surrounding her. She smiles, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
How the Hell Did I Get Here? runs through April 3rd at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue. For tickets and more information, please call (773) 404-7336 or visit howthehellmusical.com.
Masks and proof of vaccination are required upon entry.
Photos by Michael Brosilow.