‘Downton Abbey’ actress Lesley Nicol cooks up solo stage show in Chicago

In ‘How the Hell Did I Get Here?,’ Nicol takes the audience on an ‘autobiographical musical’ journey through her life.

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Actress Lesley Nicol.

In “How The Hell Did I Get Here?” veteran actress Lesley Nicol tells the story of where it really all began for her, enrolling in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London where she learned to really hone her voice.

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Mrs. Patmore is getting out of the kitchen and stepping onto the stage.

Beloved British actress Lesley Nicol is now serving up herself as the main course in a new production that recently debuted at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center. Called “How The Hell Did I Get Here?” it’s what Nicol describes as an “autobiographical musical.”

It takes audiences on her own journey from her beginnings as a dedicated stage and TV actress to her memorable role as the affable head chef in the cultural phenomenon “Downton Abbey.”

But it does more than that, the actress says.

“It is my story, and we do go over the events of my life, but the whole point of it is for all of us to sit down and have a think about our own way,” Nicol said by phone between rehearsals for the production, which has a limited run now through April 3.

“I hope seeing it ignites memories in the audience’s mind of stuff that has happened to them. Because we’re all in the same boat. We’ve all asked that question: ‘How the hell did I get here?’ We all have highs and lows. We are no different from each other in that sense, so this show is more about what it’s like to be human really.”

Leslie Nichol

‘How the Hell Did I Get Here?’

When: Through April 3

Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.

Tickets: $30-$89

Info: howthehellmusical.com

The show came to fruition several years ago — and had its first short trial at her London-based alma mater in 2017 — when Nicol was living in Los Angeles and met composer/writer Mark Mueller.

“Randomly, I said to him one day, ‘I want to do a theater show, but I don’t want to do cabaret because there are people who’d do that better than me.’ I’m an actress that sings,” Nicol said. “That’s different. The next thing you know, we were sitting down working on it, and it was taking on a life of its own. We couldn‘t stop.”

Mueller — a songwriter who has sold 32 million records and won two Emmys for his work with Disney, Broadway and artists like Amy Grant and the band Heart — originally was supposed to contribute just one or two songs. But he and Nicol quickly found a kinship, and he ended up writing 10 numbers for the production.

“Mark really encouraged me,” Nicol said. “He said, ‘You know, I think you’ve turned into a writer.’ ”

Writing was new territory for Nicol, whose long career has included working in musicals like “Mamma Mia” and “Our House” in London’s famed West End and moving into a number of animated voiceover and television roles, like playing a mafia queen in Shonda Rhimes’ “The Catch” and, in “Supernatural,” playing a mean old witch. She also had a role in the Paul Feig “Ghostbusters” reboot.

Nicol previously had a short run at the Chicago Cultural Center for a theater production called “Admission: One Shilling.”

Actress Lesley Nicol rehearses “How the Hell Did I Get Here?”

Actress Lesley Nicol rehearses “How the Hell Did I Get Here?”

Pemberly Productions

In “How The Hell Did I Get Here?” Nicol tells the story of where it began for her — enrolling in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where she learned to hone her voice.

“I was an acting student, but we were lucky enough to have a West End musical director who taught us,” she said. “He was working on the show ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ the original production, and, in the end, he got me into that show. He was a terrific mentor. I was very shy, and he literally made me open my mouth. And that started me having the confidence to sing.”

Directed by Luke Kernaghan (Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre of Scotland and Ireland’s Abbey Theater), “How The Hell Did I Get Here?” moves to New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh after its Chicago kickoff — around the time Nicol comes to life again as “Mrs. Patmore” with “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” the second film of the series, set for a May 20 release.

Nicol said she couldn’t divulge any spoilers about the movie, which has been called a mix of “mystery and the movies.”

“It will look fabulous on the big screen,” she said. “They go to the south of France — though I didn’t get to go on that trip, of course, because Mrs. Patmore doesn’t get to leave the kitchen. But it’s stunning. It made me laugh, and it made me cry. And we can only hope that people will love it.”

Whether it’s in the movies or in the theater, Nichols said what she does is always about “having a shared experience — that’s why I do what I do.”

Sophie McShera (left) as Daisy and Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore in “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”

Sophie McShera (left) as Daisy and Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore in “Downton Abbey: A New Era.”

Ben Blackall / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

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