This weekend on Dec 27 Imelda Staunton reprises her recent Chichester and West End performance in GYPSY in a filmed version of the production. In this 2012 interview I did with Staunton, first published in the Sunday Express, as she prepared to reprise her Chichester performance as Mrs Lovett in another Sondheim musical SWEENEY TODD in the West End, she mentions that she was already thinking of doing GYPSY next….
FROM ARCHWAY TO LA, BY WAY OF THE WEST END
The last time Mark Shenton met Imelda Staunton he offered her a job. Now she’s an Oscar-nominated star of films, but has returned to her stage roots in Sweeney Todd.
Imelda Staunton and I first met 14 years ago — and as a result, she became a Diva at the Donmar. Allow me to explain: I was helping the Covent Garden theatre to programme an inaugural cabaret season that later became a regular yearly fixture, and I was looking at who to book when I wandered into a Covent Garden record shop Dress Circle that specialises in musical theatre. She happened to be in there, and I promptly invited her, on the spot, to be part of it; and what’s more, she immediately agreed. As she wrote in a programme note then, “It all happened because I met a man in a shop.”
And now she’s in the West End reprising the role of Mrs Lovett (pictured right) in a new production of Sweeney Todd that has transferred to the Adelphi Theatre after a hugely acclaimed run at Chichester Festival Theatre last summer, and as she tells it, “It all happened because of a man I met on a radio show! I get all my best breaks like that!”
The man in question on this occasion was Michael Ball, and he was hosting his regular Radio 2 show, for which Imelda came in as a guest. “He put a record on, and then said to me, ‘I want to ask you something, but not right now’. I told him to ask me straight away — and he said he wanted to play Sweeney Todd and said, ‘Do you fancy doing Mrs Lovett?'”
She jumped at the chance — she’s played in Sondheim before, starring as the Baker’s Wife in the original 1990 London production of Into the Woods, and it won her an Olivier Award. But despite that pedigree, she says, “I knew I could never make it happen myself, so thank God Michael suggested it to me.”
In a varied career that has began in theatre and has since spanned an Oscar-nominated performance in the title role of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and playing the scene-stealing role of Dolores Umbridge (pictured ldft) in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as well as TV roles like Miss Pole in Cranford, she has also played Dorothy in the RSC version of The Wizard of Oz (long before the current London Palladium one, cast by reality TV), as well as twice starring as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the National.
She actually began her London stage career in the latter, appearing in the chorus first as a Hotbox Girl to Julia McKenzie as Adelaide before subsequently taking over, and she says now, “I remember thinking what am I doing here — I’m in the chorus of a musical, but I’ve done St Joan and Electra already,” referring to the long apprenticeship she had already served in regional theatre. “But the pragmatic side of me said, this is me working in London, and you’re watching Julia McKenzie, Julie Covington, Bob Hoskins and Ian Charleson — where does it get better than that?”
Actually, there was one thing better: she also met her future husband Jim Carter in that production, who was playing Big Jule. They have been together ever since, and she remembers that when she saw Julia McKenzie play the role of Mrs Lovett at the National Theatre, “I was pregnant with my daughter Bessie. She’ll be 19 this year! Oh my goodness!” Jim — who has finally become a household name thanks to playing Mr Carson in Downtown Abbey — also works constantly, and in 2007 Jim, Imelda and daughter Bessie all appeared in Cranford together.
Bessie (pictured above with mum and dad on the red carpet for the 2013 Olivier Awards) now looks set to follow in her parents footsteps towards an acting career; she’s doing A Levels in English and drama, but goes to RADA classes on Saturdays, which is where her mother trained, too. Imelda welcomes it: “She’s got a headstart, because she feels very comfortable in the world of acting, whether the theatre or a film set. It took me years to be that confident!” But she’s also cautious: “It’s not an easy road being an actor, and I worry that there might be comparisons, which I’ll just loathe, because she’s everything I could never be — she’s gorgeous, 5’9″, with legs up to there!”
Unlike her daughter, Imelda had no theatre in her background at all. Born of Irish immigrant parents in Archway, North London and educated at a local convent school, she says now, “I only started going to the theatre when I was 17. But we had an elocution teacher at the convent, Jackie Stoker, who I still see now, and I started doing drama classes with her after school. I did the school plays and liked doing them, and she said to me, ‘you will be auditioning for drama school, because that is what you’ll be doing’. I knew I wanted to be an actress, but I had no idea how to be one or what you did to become one.”
That she ended up at RADA, one of the world’s best, is she says, partly thanks to the fact that “I didn’t get into the others.” She also auditioned for Central and Guildhall but was rejected. But she’s come a long way since; in a newspaper interview the day before we met, Stephen Sondheim called her “absolutely remarkable” and spoke of how she’d be ideal to play Momma Rose in Gypsy, the musical he wrote lyrics to Jule Styne’s music for.
Imelda would love to do it, too: “I’ve always thought she’s a terrible woman, and I like that. She’s an ogre!” Mrs Lovett is equally morally complex, if not downright ugly. Sondheim has called them “the two juiciest female parts: they’re sort of the Hamlet and Lear of the female repertoire.” Imelda notes this and says, “Yes, they’re tough. I don’t know what Gypsy is like, but Mrs Lovett is so difficult and therefore it is terribly rewarding to do. It’s not an easy job. And that’s why I like it! The bigger the challenge, the better it is. This really is stretching every bit of me.”
The same is true of her co-star Michael Ball, and not just because it shows an entirely different side to him: as Sondheim quipped, “Who knew he could grow facial hair for a start?” But for Imelda its about something else: “Not only is he physically transformed, but also his voice. When I’m standing behind him when he’s signing the Epiphany, I wonder to myself: does anyone know what it feels like to stand here, being so close to the magnitude of his talent?”
The respect, she says, is mutual: “We absolutely adore each other, because we know we work very hard. All I’m interested in is getting it absolutely right, and he’s the same: it’s all about doing whatever it takes to get there.”