By TIM WATKIN



She's one of the leading ladies of theatre in Australia and New Zealand now, but the first time I sat in a row and watched Delia Hannah hold centre stage, it was in Palmerston North and I was 14.



I don't remember it precisely, but odds-on I had my socks around my ankles and it was the first day back at school in fifth form. You see, she was my form teacher that year at Palmerston North's Freyberg High School. Freyberg was a socks-down kind of school; Hannah says she has great memories of her time there, but "it was a tough school."



Hastings-born Hannah was straight out of teachers' college, after a fine arts degree at Otago University and, although an accomplished dancer, she had yet to consider seriously a stage career.

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"It seemed like a silly, sort of ridiculous thing to contemplate because it's a very specific career and not many people can do it. It's a very tiny industry. That's why I was teaching.



"I really wanted to teach, but no, I wasn't planning on spending my life in Palmerston North. I just got involved in plays and a rock band and theatre and that was my first training for my career, I suppose."



Sixteen years later and, well, who would have thought?



Ms Hannah - she who checked my name every morning - is a big name on the boards. Old school friends remember colourful 80s clothes, with berets, waistcoats, three-quarter pants and boots. Flamboyance. Energy, dark eyes and fine features - enough to encourage the dads to come to the parent-teacher meetings.



She was the cool teacher to have.



I remember her taking us through our steps in the school production in sixth form. She was choreographer of a show called Network (and in a remarkable union of talent for a decidedly average New Zealand high school, playwright and author Fiona Farrell was director), in which I was the narrator (the main male part among a dozen girls - ah, life was good at 16).



But life is clearly better for Hannah now. My attempts to recall the old school days over fruit juice in the lobby of the Metropolis are met with snipped answers and pained looks. Then again, questions about her break into theatre in Australia don't get much further.



"It's old news. I've told this story a million times. I crashed the auditions and blah, blah, blah."



For the record, she made the break from teaching when she got a part as one of the major-general's daughters in a New Zealand tour of The Pirates of Penzance.



Producer Stewart Macpherson says, "Here was this woman from Palmerston North. And it wasn't a great audition. But there was something there. Sometimes you just play a hunch and this was one of them, thank goodness."



She took a holiday in Sydney after that and crashed the auditions for Les Miserables, to be directed Down Under by Trevor Nunn. That audition led to a two-year engagement, with more than 150 performances as Fantine. Sydney has been her home ever since.



Her rise continued when she was chosen to star as Rose Vibert in the Australian version of Aspects of Love, followed by an invitation to open a production of the musical in London's West End. She was then chosen to play Mrs Johnstone in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, when it first toured New Zealand and Australia, and went on to play glamour puss Grizabella in Cats.



The movement between shows, she says, has tended to be following the path of least resistance, grabbing opportunities as offered. She's not one to try to plan the future and hasn't had the chance to spend half her career getting rich and famous in a single role.



"I haven't had that, but it's a blessing in some ways. It means I get to develop myself much more as a performer. I don't necessarily get typecast either."



Whatever the role, the critics have regularly raved about her star quality and magical, utterly engaging presence on stage.



Hannah has a more matter-of-fact take on show business: "There's nothing romantic. It's just surviving ... It's a very tough business and there's not much room at the top. Especially in the Antipodes, there's very little product and everyone's scrambling to get those jobs."



The competition's much the same in London, she adds. More shows, but more people too. So how has she maintained her top-of-the-bill status for more than a decade?



"You probably schmooze with producers and make sure you get your face on TV. It's publicity, publicity, publicity. I'm telling you very candidly because you can't bullshit about stuff like this."



The problem for Hannah is that she has no time for all the schmoozing. Maybe interviews come under that heading, because as we talk she's giving the impression she's got better things to do. It's hard to imagine that it's a gift for publicity, publicity, publicity that's kept her at the top so long.



Closer to the truth is that she's held her own because she's got the voice to do so. She's had only a handful of lessons in her life and can't read music, but she has a voice that can go where even other stars falter. Her explanation, again, is brief: "You know, sometimes God is good and gives you a gift."



You develop the gift by performing, she says. You can't learn how to perform in school. All students learn is how to audition. Hannah's theory is that life is the best school for performers. Now that she's 40, she's better equipped than ever before to play roles such as Grizabella or Mrs Johnstone.



"A bit more depth happens as you get older. The voice just shows more experience."



Life experience is never more needed than in Blood Brothers - a story of twin brothers separated at birth because of their mother's poverty, and the tragic consequences of her choice. More than a singalong show, it's a drama of dark fates and grief with a score. Then again, at times it is insightful social commentary, then warm and tender, then exposing a wicked sense of humour.



"Blood Brothers is one of those pieces that does move and affect people. That's why I'm keen to do it again," Hannah says. Then, it might be time for a production of her own.



"Maybe I'll have a child. You get to the point where other things are a little bit more important and your selfish desires to be on the stage fade."



* Blood Brothers by Willy Russell opens at the Aotea Centre, Auckland, Friday, July 6.