I am David Tennant’s waitress!

It’s been a giddy 15 months for former Ipswich girl Hannah Pierce since graduating from drama school. She was part of an award-winning show at Edinburgh, is off to New York after Christmas, made her debut in a BBC radio play AND waits on David Tennant. The Beeb trills that she’s ‘a young woman on the verge of success’. Steven Russell enjoys a good-news story

THREE o’clock in the afternoon on an autumnal Thursday and the chance to draw breath between the departure of the lunch crowd and the arrival of those seeking an early supper. Hannah Pierce takes a break on the patio of St James, the stylish restaurant and bar in north London where she works as a waitress while also mapping her acting career. It’s an established norm nowadays: part thesp, part waiter – the saltwater/freshwater zone where ambition and practicality ebb and flow against each other.

“Exactly. I call myself The Crouch End Clich�,” she laughs. “There are lots of actors in Crouch End. It’s where they hang out: famous and non-famous.”

Absolutely.

Only this morning they had Tamzin Outhwaite in. The actress who played Mel in EastEnders before moving on to roles in Red Cap, Hustle and Hotel Babylon, among others, is a regular visitor.


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Then there’s David Tennant. The 10th Doctor (as in Doctor Who) was dining only the other day and is another frequent customer. He’s very nice, says Hannah – quite shy and quiet.

As someone starting out in the acting game, it must be so tempting – when one is literally centimetres away from established actors – to ask for a pearl of wisdom or two. Does she?

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“It’s a difficult one. I tend to think that if they seem a friendly type you might be able to subtlety say ‘I saw you in so and so and thought you were fantastic’, and then it might lead on to a conversation. But then you think they really probably want to be left alone to enjoy their meal, and if they were asked to give advice they might feel a bit awkward, so it’s usually best to leave it.”

That said, Tamzin Outhwaite always has a word of encouragement for staff. “She knows we’re all actors here.”

Hannah’s actually been on quite a positive trajectory since graduating last year from the Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance in Sidcup.

As a core member of London-based company Pants on Fire, she helped develop Ovid’s Metamorphoses before it played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for virtually the whole of August. The production shifts Roman mythology to 1940s’ wartime Britain. Cupid is an evacuee with a catapult and Narcissus a matinee idol with eyes only for himself.

The lunchtime show at the Pleasance Dome certainly made its mark, winning the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award.

Carol is a New York-based portrait painter and passionate theatergoer. Her website explains the appeal of Pants on Fire’s offering.

“From the moment we entered the theatre and saw the frozen tableau of WW Two-garbed actors we knew this piece was extraordinary . . . The classical myths are now described through music, dance, song, video, puppetry, Le Coq-style graceful scene and costume changes.

“This is a work of theatrical brilliance – very much fun, yet the underpinning of war suffuses the gaiety. Unique theatre!”

There’s a tale behind the award.

“It was quite bizarre,” explains Hannah. “You had to have a Scotsman four or five-star review. (It’s a big daily newspaper north of the border.) Then we got all our reviews in and they were unanimously four or five stars . . . apart from The Scotsman, which was a three-star.

“The story goes that the person who gives the award was told by the Pleasance press office ‘You must come along and see the show. Ignore the review!’ She went to see the show and then went down to The Scotsman and told them they were wrong!

“It was,” the actress is keen to point out, “actually a very kind review and we would have been delighted with it at the beginning of the month.

“Then we were nominated. They contacted us and said they’d have to reschedule the award ceremony around the time we’d have to leave for our show, because the timing was quite tight. Of course, we were secretly thinking ‘We’re in with a chance here!’, but without telling each other.

“We went along to the ceremony dressed in our costumes, because we were ready to do our midday show. Then they announced the result. They didn’t even get the title out, we were screaming so loud!

“We then rushed off to the theatre and there had been a fire alarm set off, so that was a bit of drama. Everyone was outside, so audience members saw us in scenes of jubilation before they got to see the play – which was a bit off-putting!”

There was more good news for Hannah: she was talent-spotted during one of those Edinburgh performances and the week after returning to London had a kind of phone audition with a director. The result was that she recently recorded her first radio play for the BBC, over two days at Broadcasting House. Setting a Glass airs at 2.15pm on Tuesday, in the Afternoon Play slot on Radio 4.

There’s even a bit of a story behind that.

“I only got the script at 1am on the morning, so I was reading late into the night,” she laughs. Those all-important pages had arrived only that day . . . while she was out at her waitressing job. So the wee small hours were the first opportunity to explore the story.

“It was quite manic! I hope it’s all right . . . And then I had a performance (of Ovid’s Metamorphoses) in Croydon in the evenings. So I’d do the studio recordings from 10 till six and go off and do the stage show at 7.30pm. It was quite intense . . .”

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses she played a fast-talking nurse – and that’s essentially the character she portrays in Setting a Glass.

For a radio debut, it was in at the deep end. Writer Nick Warburton’s work is a two-hander: just a couple of characters. Playing opposite Hannah was James Fleet: known as amiable dim-wit Hugo Horton in TV’s The Vicar of Dibley and for his role in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

No pressure, then.

Hannah says it was quite an intense piece, but wonderful to do.

“Radio and stage are very different. You get the script and don’t really have time to learn the lines. You barely get your head around the structure of the piece. You stand in front of a mic – no costumes – and just go through it, really.

“I actually found it quite liberating, because you’re put on the spot and there’s quite a lot of pressure. You have to perform. There’s no fannying around finding my voice and the character. You just have to do it. It was fun. I’d love to do some more.”

In Setting a Glass, Mike (Fleet) is called to a hospital where his elderly mother is dying. He arrives in the middle of the night and wanders through quiet corridors, looking for a coffee machine, rather than sitting at his mother’s bedside.

He gets chatting to auxiliary nurse Ellie (Hannah ), a disgruntled but determined young woman whose life is starting just as his mother’s is ending.

As he talks about his mum’s uneventful life, he begins to understand some of the reasons behind his curious inability to sit with her.

Hannah describes her character as a somewhat obnoxious nurse. So when she was spotted at Edinburgh, playing an unorthodox administering angel, the radio talent scouts thought instantly of her for the part, then . . . “Exactly! I should take it as a compliment!”

Ellie and Mike “end up forming a relationship – not romantic, though they have quite a lot in common under the surface – but, yeah, they form a bond.

“It’s quite emotional – more on his part than mine. I’m unsubtle, and he’s obviously suffering quite a bit.”

The BBC publicity machine says Hannah, “like the character she plays, is a young woman on the verge of success”. Heady stuff.

Born and bred in Ipswich, growing up in a home not far from Ipswich Town’s football ground and the only girl of four children, Hannah was always drawn to the theatre.

Drama was one of her A-levels at St Albans Catholic High School and from the age of about 14 she was involved with Red Rose Chain, the local independent theatre company – initially attending Saturday classes and then having a work experience placement. There were roles in a couple of Theatre in the Forest productions at Rendlesham in the early 2000s: Macbeth and Wuthering Heights.

“I was more into Red Rose Chain than I was my schoolwork, to be honest. I never really took to A-levels; it was more about the drama.”

Hannah admits that as school-leaving time drew closer, a number of people did warn about the precarious nature of an acting career. ,

“To be honest, I was so petrified that I was going to do stage management. I got into Bristol Old Vic (Theatre School) to do the stage management course. Then I turned up to one of the induction days and just realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I went to New York . . .”

When did she have an inkling she was on the wrong track?

“I was doing the interview rounds (for the stage management courses) and realised I wasn’t nervous. I was instead looking at all the performers going into their auditions and thinking ‘I don’t want to be a stage manager; I want to be a performer!’”

In Manhattan about five years ago, then, at the age of 19, Hannah took a method acting course at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute – a very different approach to the “rather more British and practical, in a way” character of the drama school training she had after returning and enrolling at Rose Bruford College.

So what is it about acting that appeals?

“I think it’s about playing, really. I really enjoy the rehearsal process, getting inside the character and going on a journey of discovery. It’s that buzz of creating something yourself and also learning, as you go, more about people and society.

“I think that’s where psychology as an A-level took off for me, really: later on, when I realised I loved the psychology of humans. I love to get inside people’s minds and ask why they behave a certain way.”

There are ample opportunities. Alongside everything else going on, Hannah runs her own theatre company – Made from Scratch, set up with fellow graduate actors – which fosters new writing. It currently stages short plays by emerging talent and hopes to later present longer pieces.

Is it hard to make ends meet in the industry?

“I think the trick is that you need to always have perspective. You need to not get down about being unemployed. Your second job – your second income, which almost every actor will need at some point, unless you hit Hollywood straight away! – you need to enjoy.

“I’ve got a waitressing job in a really lovely restaurant with a great team of people, many of whom are actors themselves. I’m only in my early days, and I have to keep reminding myself of that when things are difficult, but I think it’s about having perspective.

“Obviously acting means the world to everyone who’s an actor, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You have to be happy in life, have good friends and family, and that’s just as important, if not more so.”

Ambitions?

“For my own career, just to be working constantly, and in the theatre predominantly, and with roles that are really meaty and could lead to other things. It can take time to be in that position, but I believe it can happen and I’m working away at it.”

The short-term future certainly looks promising. Ovid’s Metamorphoses has a national tour beginning in Liverpool in February and running into early summer. With luck, it might well touch down at the New Wolsey Studio in Ipswich.

Before that comes four weeks at The Flea Theatre, off-Broadway in New York, in January. It’s part of the all-expenses-paid prize from that Edinburgh award.

“Some members of the cast haven’t before been to America, and none of them have performed in New York. So everyone is excited.”

Just watch out for bed-bugs. Apparently many public areas of the city are riddled with them . . .

“I know! I saw that in the news. Bit worrying. Let’s hope by January they’ll all have frozen . . .”

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