WHEN I speak to Anita Dobson, best known as Dirty Den's long-suffering wife in EastEnders, she is suffering the effects of jet lag.
The former soap queen has just returned from the States, where she appeared alongside Steven Berkoff in an emotionally draining performance of Greek tragedy Oedipus.
She has just one day to recover before making the shorter skip across the Channel, in spirit at least, as she begins rehearsing for French musical Carnival of the Animals, opening at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios on July 4.
Dobson plays the narrator Mademoiselle Parfait, who, it transpires, is not quite as perfect as her name suggests, in the tale of Paris’s secret 21st district, where animals and humans chat and cavort merrily.
The play is based on and features the songs of French composer Camille Saint-Saens' short orchestral suite of the same name, originally written as a work of fun for his friends and never publicly performed during his lifetime.
It could not be more different in tone from Oedipus, Sophocles’ stunningly bleak tale of patricide, self-harm and man’s impotence in the hands of the gods – or, for that matter, your average half-hour slice of life in Walford.
For Dobson the tale marks a welcome change from the Greek tragedy, which could hardly be less family-friendly.
“I didn’t even know the music when I accepted the role. I just thought it was a delightful script,” she said. “I got back last night from playing Oedipus in the US and now I’m starting work on this, which is a bit of a change, to say the least.
“I think children will love it but there’s lots for adults to enjoy too. Mlle Parfait might seem perfect at first but there’s a darker side to her.”
The melodies of Carnival of the Animals, including The Elephant, The Aquarium, Fossils and The Swan, have already cemented themselves in the hearts of music lovers worldwide.
The short 14-show run in Hammersmith marks the premiere of this stage adaptation, written by Andrew Marshall and directed by Thom Southerland, with work by composer Gavin Greenaway.
Under Mlle Parfait’s patronage, the Carnival of the Animals is still being performed by the creatures it celebrates more than 90 years after its first outing, but there is disharmony in the ranks.
However, the squabbling animals are united by four new arrivals – a chimpanzee, zebra, parrot and lioness – who promise to shake things up and expose their mistress’s dark secret.
"It’s such a sweet little story and we’ve got a great cast of bright young kids, who can do it all, so we’re very excited," said Dobson.
Carnival of the Animals is at the Riverside Studios, in Hammersmith, from July 4 to 14. For tickets to the play, suitable for ages six and above, call the box office on 020 8237 1111 or visit www.riversidestudios.co.uk