Interview: Jane Horrocks, from the Daily Telegraph, 2003
10th November 2003
‘If you’re still acting when you’re old, there’s something wrong with you’
Jane Horrocks – back on stage for the first time in eight years – tells Dominic Cavendish why the theatre is not, for her, a lifelong vocation. Published: 10 Nov 2003
In her dressing room at the Duke of York’s, Jane Horrocks sits talking very softly. Don’t laugh, but the actress who made her name in the early 1990s as “Little Voice” – the dormouse-quiet lass who only roars into life when she’s belting out showbiz tunes in the carbon-copy style of famous singers – is recovering from losing her voice. It’s been eight years since she was last on stage, and the readjustment process is proving arduous.
“My voice going has brought it all back to me: what theatre actually involves,” Horrocks explains, straight off, with determined, if hushed joviality. “My body’s in shock. It’s saying: ‘What the hell are you doing to me?’ ” She pauses, sips some water. “I think I’ve been a bit insane, actually, to take this on.”
“This” is Sweet Panic, a Stephen Poliakoff play first seen at the Hampstead Theatre in 1996, and now revived in the West End with the author himself directing. Horrocks has landed the (substantial) part, originally played by Saskia Reeves, of Mrs Trevel, a lady who first pesters, then vengefully stalks her young son’s psychologist (Victoria Hamilton) after her maternal worries are, as she sees it, belittled.
Those rushing to book on the basis of seeing Absolutely Fabulous’s beloved Bubble in the flesh should be warned that, for this show, Horrocks will be putting into storage her native Lancashire accent which, with its endearing lurches and lilts, makes her such an integrally funny part of the long-running sitcom, currently in its surprise fifth series.
For Mrs Trevel, she has found a new, if equally idiosyncratic way of talking, albeit one that evidently places a strain on her vocal cords: “It’s standard English but it’s quite unnerving. Very up and downy, very unpredictable. My voice coach was surprised when she heard it. She went ‘Oh, right. A bit on the edge.’ That’s what I wanted to achieve, a voice that comes from a very unstable centre.”
Not that we’re meant to laugh, mind you. Obsessed with the way market research has taken over as society’s shaping force, Mrs Trevel might sound somewhat cuckoo, but, according to Horrocks, she’s actually talking a lot of sense.
“Initially she seems like a neurotic mother and a massive fusspot, but, as the play goes on, you think: ‘Oh, she’s not crazy, she’s got a lot of wisdom.’ She thinks the world is speeding up, spinning away from us and it’s very easy for a psychologist who doesn’t have children to say, ‘Slow down, don’t panic, there’s not this rush,’ but she and her child are caught up in all that. These issues are very pertinent at the moment. There’s so much testing of children, so much pressure on them to be brilliant at everything, there’s no room for individuality.”
Although she sings Poliakoff’s praises as a writer, claiming that it was the sheer rarity of encountering a script of such quality that brought her back to the theatre, you swiftly glean that an ability to identify with Mrs Trevel as a mother was a determining factor. Horrocks made no secret of her intention, after the 1998 film version of Little Voice, to devote much of her time to her two children, Dylan and Molly, now six and four respectively. And while admitting that she took this project on as a means of stretching herself fully for the first time since the film – and as a respite from the “monotony” of child-rearing – the fact that she has plumped for this role suggests that she remains instinctively focused on her domestic life in Twickenham.
Now approaching 40, Horrocks is far more mumsy in person than her virtuoso bimbo behaviour in Ab Fab might lead you to expect. As delicate and gamine a figure as one remembers from Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet (1990), in which she played scrawny, self-loathing bulimic Nicola, she’s no pushover in conversation.
I get a stern look when I pry too far into the unhappy episode that was Mark Rylance’s Macbeth, her last theatrical engagement, in 1995, and the recipient of some of the decade’s harshest reviews. “Witless, shambolic and tedious” was how one critic described Rylance’s directorial approach, which presented the play’s blood-soaked strife as the internal power struggle of a Waco-style cult with Horrocks’s Lady Macbeth squatting nightly – at her own suggestion – to pee on stage. “I think this has been done to death, hasn’t it?” she says firmly the second the subject of her bladder-control is broached, closing the door on the topic.
If the whole thing put her off treading the boards (“It didn’t leave me with hope of doing more,” is how she tactfully puts it), then she didn’t, by the sound of it, need much persuading. Having left Rada in the mid-1980s keen and committed, her enthusiasm waned to such a point that, even when she starred as Sally Bowles in the legendary Donmar revival of Cabaret in 1993, directed by her then boyfriend Sam Mendes, she was “ticking the days off the calendar by the end of the run. I thought: this is no way to live a life.”
Television and film compare little more favourably. Why people persist with acting is something that genuinely perplexes her these days: “I think it’s a Peter Pan profession. If you’re still doing it when you’re old, there’s something badly wrong with you. Particularly actresses – they get madder and madder as they get older.” She laughs. What should they all do, then – become Glenda Jacksons? “Yes,” she says, quite seriously. “Get out there and do something sensible with your life.”
Were her acting career to end tomorrow, you feel she’d be the last person to shed a tear. Taken as a whole, her body of work looks slim to the point of anorexia; only a handful of parts – nearly all of them eccentric, introverted, a bit doolally – have registered with the public. But she’s proud to have done what she’s done, doesn’t regret anything, least of all those irritating Tesco ads, in which she trails after Prunella Scales’s batty Dotty and which, she points out, have enabled her to leave unappetising propositions on the shelf. There are no plans to go public again with her diva impersonations. No plans at all, really.
Such a flagrant lack of ambition might sound rather depressing, but you leave Horrocks’s company refreshed. Her parents never pushed her, she says, and she has no intention of pushing her children: “At the moment my son wants to be a janitor,” she reveals, “and if that’s what’s going to make him happy, I’d like him to be that.” In a world of the career-driven, her obstinacy looks like good old-fashioned sanity, the flip-side of which is throwing herself into things with all-or-nothing vim and vigour.
“As you can see, I brought my rubber gloves and bleach in today,” the housewife-cum-reluctant star says, indicating her washbasin. “John Gordon Sinclair said it smelt like a dental waiting-room in here. Cleanliness is next to godliness in my book. I’d like to be more relaxed about it, but I’m obsessional. My boyfriend [comedy scriptwriter Nick Vivian] has started to call me ‘Mrs Trevel’, because I’m obviously taking on more of the character than I should. ‘Calm down, Mrs Trevel!’, he says.”
Sound advice: she can rest easy in the knowledge that the West End will gleam all the brighter for having her around.
‘Sweet Panic’ opens at the Duke of York’s (020 7369 1791) on Wed.