Dancing from the age of three, and appearing in her first production – Oliver – five years later, Francesca Mills is currently gracing the stage at The Old Vic, in Arthur Miller’s groundbreaking play, The American Clock.
Though she trained in musical theatre, Fran has mostly performed in plays and is currently relishing her time in this production about hope, idealism and a nation’s unwavering faith in capitalism during The Great Depression.
The American Clock follows the story of the 1929 stock market crash in America in a society governed by race and class. Throughout the show, watch as the same character is played by multiple actors, and multiple actors play a number of different characters. Expect 1920s swing and jazz with a fiercely contemporary sound and an impressive evening of culture.
Ollie Cole caught up with Fran backstage for Secret London for a chat about the play, performing, and the London life…
How are you finding your time in The American Clock?
I am loving every second of this production. Mainly because, from the creatives to the cast, it is the most divine group of people I’ve ever worked with. Plus, being in the Old Vic building itself, it’s like one big family.
We’ve still got ‘til the end of the month but in my head I’m already like ‘oh my god it’s going to be over’ and I’m going to be really sad to leave it. The excitement and the hubbub in the building is all about the show and what’s happening right now. It’s just been an absolute dream, and a very moving show to be a part of.
You play multiple roles in the show too, has that been an interesting challenge?
The most I’ve ever done in a play is two roles, maximum, but in this there are seven parts for me to play. It’s been quite an experience and something that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. We’ve been very blessed that from the beginning of rehearsals we had Penny Dyer, our dialect coach and the queen of dialect, to guide us through. She’s amazing, and she’s helped us all with our different parts, whether we’re in Iowa or North Carolina, or needing a Jewish New York accent, she’s really helped. It’s been fun working it out and working with that.
The Baum family represented in the play – Moe, Rose and Lee – are played by different people throughout too. What’s that about?
With Moe, Rose and Lee, their faces change throughout the production, and they do it to celebrate the changing face and evolution of the American family, having three sets of actors play those roles at different times through each performance.
They have a white, Jewish family, a south east Asian family, and a black family. You kind of have to be ‘on it’ when you’re watching it because of how many people play so many different characters throughout the play. But it’s great because it’s seen from three different sides, which adds layers to the play in a fantastic way and adds more of a sense of ‘this did effect absolutely everyone’.
You’ve been dancing since the age of three, and get to throw a few shapes in this show too!
It’s absolutely fantastic! That’s another reason why I’ve loved this job so much. It is a dancing delight, from the Charleston to 1930s style partner dancing.
I very rarely get to do partner dancing in shows, because I’ve got reduced height, but what was lovely about this was that my height was never something we needed to think too much about. It was kind of ‘we’ll just work to Fran’s ability’, so I got to do loads of partner dancing with all of the lovely people in the cast.
Oh, and the music in this show is divine – the band are cracking – so it’s the music and the dancing that really make it.
Plus you’ve got a revolving stage, which not even Les Mis is going to have soon!
I’m absolutely thrilled about the revolve! I’ve only worked with a revolve once before at a show at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre but it wasn’t used to its full advantage. But in this it’s constantly on the move to represent the clock moving and time passing and it’s really fun!
It’s challenging at times. There’s one point in the show where I find out that my brother’s dies and I have to slowly walk off in sadness and sometimes I’ve been walking off and I’ll trip a little and have to try not to break out of being sad, but that’s the fun and the challenge of it.
It’s a play set during The Great Depression, so how do the themes stack up in the present day?
It’s very relevant. A lot of the play is about capitalism and you look at America now and it’s Donald Trump, so it’s capitalism central. There’s something special about doing a play that was so meaningful at the time, and showing it to people now and letting them work out how relevant it is today.
People have seen the play and told me they’re left with a lot of questions about our current situation. It’s very hard sometimes to come back and remember that it is about that time, because it still seems very present and real with the politics of it all. I think that’s scary, but it’s an interesting thing for the audience to work out and form their opinion of.
And how is performing at The Old Vic?
I pinch myself every day when I walk through stage door. It’s absolutely mad. But then you step in and realise it’s the most warm and humble place, with the people really making the space feel like one big family. I got quite nervous before starting this, thinking ‘it’s the Old Vic! I’m going to be an absolute mess!’ but I’ve never felt more welcome in a place as I feel here.
The people who work here are absolutely divine, right from stage door where the first person you see is Ned and he’s always on cloud nine. The amount of support I’ve had throughout this whole process has been absolutely crack-a-lackin’!
What lessons do you take from the play?
Keep a hold of your money, haha! No, what I take from this play is how important family is, and how your whole world could be falling apart but as long as you have the people and the community around you, you’ll get through it. Family, chosen or blood, is one of the most important things and they’ll always be there for you.
You’re now a Londoner – what drew you here and how are you finding it?
I’ve lived in London for about three years now, and I used to come here as a kid as an Urdang associate at Urdang Academy. As a kid, I came for one weekend a month from a little village in Shropshire to train with professionals and then every term we’d put on a show. We used to make a bit of a holiday of it, and, when I first moved to London, my Granny said that when we were on a train back once, as a child I said ‘I’m going to live there one day, Granny!’
I’m very impressionable and if I see something I like I’ve got to jump in and go for it! I finished my training, and my friend Ollie was going to a drama school in London, so I moved with him to Chiswick and never looked back. It’s my favourite city in the world, I love it, anything goes.
When you’re not on stage, what do you like getting up to?
Cooking! My fingers stink of leeks right now actually, because I was making veggie meatballs earlier. Cooking, or swimming, or going for a massage…I’m a lady of leisure really! Anything where there’s food or a chance to relax and I’m there. I love going for a brunch if anyone wants a brunch!
When you do head out and about, where do you like going?
I love Dishoom, I went there for my 21st birthday last year and am planning on going again for my 22nd in a few weeks – the food is incredible. My favourite place to be in London is the Southbank, walking along it is very magical. Covent Garden too, you’ve got to love Covent Garden! Especially PANCS, where they do really nice gluten free, dairy free pancakes – I went there yesterday, it was absolutely lovely!
What’s next in the life of Fran Mills?
I don’t know if I can tell you about a certain something that’s next because the cast hasn’t been announced yet! But while I’ve been here with The American Clock I’ve also been filming for the TV series ‘Harlots’, where we’re on our third series, and filming takes me up to the end of May, so I’ll just be concentrating on that. Then it’ll be the summer and I can go on my hollibobs!
Finally, what would you say is the main reason people should come and see The American Clock?
It’s an Arthur Miller for starters, and it’s very rare to get a really well done Arthur Miller play on a London stage. Plus, it’s got an amazing cast, and the incredible Rachel Chavkin behind it too. It really is special, and I don’t think there’ll be a production of The American Clock quite like this ever again!
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Words by Ollie Cole