Lesley Nicol journeys from childhood to ‘Downton Abbey’ in engaging one-woman show

“How the Hell Did I Get Here?” at the Greenhouse Theater Center paints a portrait of the actress through words and music.

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Through the use of stories, songs and projections, actress Lesley Nicol takes the audience on her life’s journey in “How the Hell Did I Get Here?”

Through the use of stories, songs and projections, actress Lesley Nicol takes the audience on her life’s journey in “How the Hell Did I Get Here?”|

Michael Brosilow

Lesley Nicol — aka Mrs. Patmore from the blockbuster TV series “Downton Abbey”— was the sort of solemn, shy, bespectacled child who looked like she was 50 in her first-grade picture. So Nicol recalls, pointing to a grade-school photo that proves it, in her one-woman-plus-a-pianist show “How the Hell Did I Get Here?,” now making its North American tour kickoff at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

For the non-Downtonites, Mrs. Patmore is the chief cook in the “Upstairs/Downstairs”-style series and subsequent movie about life on a post-Edwardian-era English estate. Mrs. Patmore serves as something of a moral, working-class conscience for the lavish drama — a salt-of-the-earth, maternal presence beloved by both servants and gentry alike.

With a roster of upbeat original songs composed by Mark Mueller (who also accompanies Nicol on the piano) and a script penned by both, the 80-minute “musical autobiography” takes audiences from the actor’s childhood through her years in the “Downton” ensemble. Nicol has enough belt to get the job done and an ear that keeps things melodic as she weaves humorous tunes about self-doubt, success and celebrity between monologues that are part stand-up comedy, part poignant storytelling.

‘How the Hell Did I Get Here?’

How the Hell Did I Get Here?

When: Through April 3

Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $30 - $89

Run-time: 80 minutes, including one intermission

Info: greenhousetheater.org

Early on, Nicol stands between two photos and talks about how terribly shy she was as a child, and how she yearned to be “invisible.” One photo is the unfortunate grade school image, the other is Nicol beaming in a high-glam gown at a glitzy industry awards ceremony, accepting a statuette for “Downton” while thunderous applause engulfs her.

Nicol spins a picture of her childhood that’s both joyful and traumatic. Her mother was a glamorous stunner, with whom Nicol was extremely close as a young child. But after her mother put her on a diet in grade school and continued to obsess about her daughter’s weight, things became strained as Nicol learned to hate the way she looked.

But Nicol found her passion early in life: At a grade school poetry reading, she found herself basking in the attention and applause, fulfilled in a way she hadn’t been previously.

Still, she tried other avenues of fulfillment as well. For a time, she took cooking courses, reasoning that she liked to eat, and besides, she’d be prepared if she ever got a role that called on her to cook. Using pots and pans and a spatula as percussion instruments, Nicol in the show lets loose a delightfully daffy and hilariously specific number about her final exam.

As she describes hustling through the audition circuit, she finds just enough success to keep her going. Pre-“Downton” adventures are plenty. She relates cringe-worthy auditions and ridiculous roles, displaying a droll sense of humor and self-deprecation throughout. She speaks of joining the cast of “Mamma Mia!” in London’s West End and “being the only one in the cast I’d never heard of.”

When we get to her years at “Downton,” she offers a glimpse of the can-do personality that helped her through the lean years. Learning that her idol Anthony Hopkins was working on a set adjacent to that of “Downton,” Nicol photoshopped a glossy of Hannibal Lecter looking yearningly at Mrs. Patmore, drew a bright red heart between the two and had it delivered to Hopkins’ trailer. He responded by unexpectedly turning up on the “Downton” set talking about fava beans.

Nicol spins her stories on a bare stage flanked on three sides by towering gray suitcases that double as projection screens showing her at various stages of her youth, as well as family photos and images from the many sets she worked on.

Her journey from that short, stout, awkward, cripplingly shy child to well-heeled celeb at the heart of a global pop culture phenomenon takes up the bulk of the production. Director Luke Kernaghan has a light touch. The songs and the stories flow, with Nicol as the sort of convivial, unassuming host that puts everyone at ease.

For “Downton Abbey” fans, the show is a must-see. But even for those who don’t know Lady Mary from Lady Godiva, “How the Hell Did I Get Here?” is an engaging look at the life of an artist.

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