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‘Downton Abbey’ actress brings Myra Hess stage story to Chicago

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One Shilling’

♦ 7 p.m. Tuesday

♦ Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

♦ Sold out

Updated: March 1, 2013 7:14AM

‘She’s a lot like Gordon Ramsay.”

With a hearty laugh, that’s how acclaimed British actress Lesley Nicol describes her character, Mrs. Patmore, the no-nonsense cook and head of the kitchen staff on the impossibly popular PBS series “Downton Abby.”

“When I first read season one’s [script] she seemed like this loud bully shouting at this little girl [kitchen maid Daisy Mason, played by Sophie McShera] who couldn’t do anything right. ... It became clear very soon that this is a situation where you cannot afford to make a mistake [as the head of the kitchen staff]. She’s actually whipping them all into shape just like Ramsay [whips his wannabe chefs into shape on ‘Hell’s Kitchen’].”

Nicol is taking time out from her television kitchen duties to star in “Admission: One Shilling” a two-woman stage show (also featuring classical pianist Inna Faliks) based on the life of legendary British pianist Dame Myra Hess, receiving its one-night-only, U.S. premiere at the Chicago Cultural Center on Jan. 29 (the performance is sold-out).

It’s a perfect fit — the Cultural Center has been hosting noontime Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts since 1977 in homage to the woman who organized more than 1,700 lunchtime concerts at London’s National Gallery during World War II (performing in 150 of them herself) when mandatory wartime blackouts prevented nighttime performances. The show’s title refers to the admission price for the historical concerts.

“[Hess] had this idea for these concerts and it just grew and grew,” Nicol said. “At first she didn’t have a clue how many musicians or people would turn out. She said at one point, ‘I thought 40 or 50 of my friends would come.’ In actuality 700 people showed up the first day.”

For her efforts, Hess was eventually awarded the honor of Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1941.

“She was clearly very talented, but did not seem to have an ego in any way. They made her a dame, but she didn’t want to be one,” Nicol said. “As I discovered, she wasn’t a big show-off. She was very self-effacing.”

“One Shilling” was in the midst of a London run when Nicol was approached by Hess’ great-nephew, composer Nigel Hess, to bring it to America. It was her conversations with Nigel that opened the world of Dame Myra to Nicol.

“I got a lot of information from him, lots of personal stuff about who she was,” Nicol said. “Nigel assembled tapes, put together stories from her letters, books, her own words. He shaped the script and selected the relative music. In the show I read the story of what happened and then you hear the music [the works of Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann among others].”

With a nod to serendipity, Hess’ music studies included London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where decades later Nicol would study acting. Nicol went on to a career in musical theater, including roles in the original production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and a three-year run as Rosie in “Mamma Mia!” in London’s West End (“it was a blast to do!”)

But it is Nicol’s role in “Downton Abbey” that has made her a familiar face on a global scale. The series, she said, is a hit because it works on every level.

“The scripts and the cast are two vital [elements] of any successful production,” Nicol said. “In this instance, the scripts have been fabulous since day one. The cast are fabulous actors and nice people. All our characters have many layers, and even as we’re about to do season four, I have no idea what’s in store for Mrs. Patmore. And our audiences are the other element of our worldwide success, really. They have embraced us.”

And while she plays a woman who definitely knows her way around a kitchen stove on television, Nicol’s real-life cooking skills are not quite in the same league as Mrs. Patmore’s.

“I married a man who’s a very good cook,” Nicol said, laughing. “I do so enjoy having people around [for dinner] and he does the cooking. I do feel guilty about that some times. ... But I CAN roast a chicken, or cook a proper roast beef and vegetables. Simple stuff.”

The free Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts take place at 12:15 p.m. Wednesdays at the Chicago Cultural Center, presented by the International Music Foundation of Chicago; visit They are broadcast live on WFMT-FM (98.7).

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