From studying at the Royal Conservatoire to starring in Outlander and performing on Broadway, Laura Donnelly is blossoming into a darling of theatre and television. Mark Good meets the Olivier Award-winning actress who is living out her dreams.
Standing on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall receiving her Best Actress Olivier Award a mere two months after giving birth to her second daughter, Laura Donnelly had to pinch herself.
Already an extremely accomplished performer, the Olivier Award recognised Laura’s role in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, playing the part of a young widow in Northern Ireland, thrown into turmoil after her husband’s disappearance. It was the latest milestone in a quite remarkable career.
“I suddenly realised that I had gone further than I probably thought I would,” Laura acknowledges.
If you had asked me on the day I graduated where I thought I would be now, I don’t think I would have dared to look that far ahead.
The Ferryman was the fastest-selling play in the history of the Royal Court Theatre when it premiered in 2017 ahead of a year-long run.
It has now transfered to Broadway in October, where it will run for six months. Laura’s journey to the Broadway stage has its roots in her studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She decided to apply after receiving a glowing review from a friend – and never looked back.
“Suddenly, I was around so many like-minded people and we all had similar ideas, ambitions and dreams,” Laura says.
“It was great to be involved in so many productions – especially the pantos; they were such fun. I loved, in first year, when I got to be an extra for second and third year shows.
“That was the first glimpse into what it was like to be in one of those productions and to see how far the other students in those years had come in their time there.
“I had a really lovely bunch of people in my year and I am still really close to a lot of them.”
Keeping an eye on the senior students gave Laura an indication of the standards she was aiming for. She believes her training helped equip her with the tools to make those aspirations a reality.
“I think there are a couple of aspects as to why the training at RCS is so important and so useful. One is the technical skill that I developed in terms of vocal and physical training. I’ve just finished a show in the West End where we were playing to more than 1,000 people a night – that takes vocal energy.
“The other aspect of the training there is that it teaches you how to go out into the profession. It teaches you the kind of person you want to be at work, the professionalism you will need. You learn how to put yourself forward for jobs and how to behave on a set.”
Laura has undertaken all of these with aplomb. She has worked extensively in film, television and theatre, including as the guest lead character in Merlin, Violet in the ABC TV series
Missing and Sarah Kay in The Fall. On stage she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and starred in The River with Dominic West and Hugh Jackman
However it’s her latest role in The Ferryman that has won her this latest accolade from the industry.
The play particularly resonated with Laura as it was inspired by the story of her real-life uncle Eugene Simons, one of the so-called Disappeared, who went missing from his Co Down home in January 1981. His body was later discovered by chance in a bog near Dundalk, Co Louth.
“The Ferryman gave me a deeper understanding of what my mum had been through, like so many others at that time,” says Laura.
To receive the recognition from the Oliviers was incredible. It is voted for by your peers, the people in the profession...I’m very grateful.
The Ferryman transfered to Broadway in October, directed by Sam Mendes. Laura will spend a few months in New York and is accustomed to the international lifestyle but massively enjoys returning to Scotland to film Outlander, in which she plays Jenny Fraser.
“Outlander has been so much fun, mostly because the cast and crew are amazing. So many of the cast went to RCS. Steven Cree, who plays my husband, was a few years ahead of me and Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, was the year above me. It’s a bit like coming home and on top of that, I get to be based in Glasgow when I’m filming. There is such humour in Glasgow, with people not taking themselves too seriously – then there’s the nightlife.”
As someone who has clearly grasped the opportunities available to her with both hands, Laura is disheartened to hear of threats to performing arts education, often one of the first areas to suffer during a challenging financial climate. The situation, she insists, cannot continue.
I don’t think that the performing arts are a luxury. I think they are an absolute necessity.
“The work that the performing arts do in opening people’s minds, giving them experiences and sometimes simply escapism, is so valuable.
“If we don’t get kids involved extremely early in these things, they are missing out on an absolutely essential part of life.”
We catch up with graduate Laura Donnelly following her Best Actress award at this year’s Oliviers.