Interview: Celia Imrie for Noises Off, revived at the Old Vic 2011

3rd December 2011

Acorn Antiques actress Celia Imrie explains how she’s drawing on the toe-curling onstage mishaps of her past for her latest comic role – in the classic Michael Frayn farce ‘Noises Off’.
First published in the Daily Telegraph Dec 03, 2011

Early on in Celia Imrie’s wildly entertaining and gossipy new autobiography, The Happy Hoofer, the actress describes a grimly unglamorous regional tour that enabled her to break into the “legitimate theatre”. Playing Olivia in Twelfth Night one evening on the pier at Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, she donned a vile fluorescent pink cardigan over her Elizabethan costume to keep herself warm backstage.

She then forgot she was wearing it until she walked on and “the woollen nipples somehow got caught up in the gigantic twig which represented shady bower or whatever symbolised Olivia’s garden. I plunged relentlessly onwards,” she writes, “spouting my Shakespearean verse, pink cardigan glowing in the footlights, and did the whole scene dragging round a tree on my back.”

There have been plenty of other such hideously memorable incidents, Imrie reveals – both in her book and backstage at the Old Vic, where she’s finishing preparations for Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s 1982 triumph of theatrical mayhem, which follows a stinker of a touring sex-farce going from bad to worse, in rehearsal, then backstage, until reaching its final reckoning with catastrophe in Stockton-on-Tees.

In a career that began just over 40 years ago in Colchester as a teen chorus girl in Dick Whittington – she played a rat and a sausage – mishaps and blunders have been par for the course: flocks of chickens and pigeons running amok at the Glasgow Citizens, a blow-up doll unwinding behind her on a filing cabinet on the London Fringe. “There are always things like that when you look back,” she says, clipped, assured and amused.

It’s no great leap into the unknown, then, for her to undertake the pivotal role of floundering actress Dotty Otley, who dodders on and off in the guise of hapless country housekeeper Mrs Clackett in Frayn’s delirious farce-within-a-farce. “Yes, I really don’t need to do any – I hate the word ‘research’,” she explains, recoiling at any phrase that smacks of luvvie self-importance (“If you ever talk about how you do something in acting you sound like a twit,” she declares). So she’ll be drawing on first-hand experience and maybe, too, on Miss Babs, the snootish, untreatably wooden shop-owner in Acorn Antiques, the cult Victoria Wood skit that catapulted her into the bosom of the nation’s affections in the Eighties and later earned her an Olivier when it was dolled up in 2005 as a West End musical? “A bit, yes,” she concedes.

“I’ve got to be careful not to merge the two.” There’s even the danger that shades of Julie Walters’s cringe-making charlady, Mrs Overall, will creep in too – she wears an overall, and similarities between the play and sketch aren’t hard to spot. Just as Acorn Antiques used to open with Miss Babs awkwardly answering the phone – so the curtain rises on Noises Off with Dotty struggling to get to the phone while carrying the plate of sardines that will become the evening’s big running gag. “You do get almost the same joke at times,” she says. “At one point I come on and tell the phone to stop ringing and it hasn’t even rung – that’s the reverse of what happens in Acorn Antiques. There are lots of elements like that.”

Isn’t there scope for things going genuinely awry in Lindsay Posner’s revival – what with the plot’s myriad tangled confusions and timetabled calamities? “Oh, don’t say that,” she says, flashing me a slightly stern look, softened by a saving twinkle of mischief and that recognisably foxy way she has with her eyebrows. “Yes, it’s got to go wrong rightly. It’s so intricately written that there isn’t much room for manoeuvre.” She wants it all to look as effortless as “Nureyev dancing”.

Ah, Nureyev. In her memoir, two formative episodes leap out. Her thwarted desire to be a ballet dancer, resulting in extreme anorexia, which led her to go through a hellish ordeal in a drugs regime at St Thomas’s hospital. Then there was a far more comical but no less shaping or shaming episode earlier on when, at the age of seven, she failed miserably to play so much as a note in a recital at Woking Piano Festival.

That incident has been a spur for her: “I think I heard Ian McKellen saying that if something ghastly happens to you, like, for instance, if you throw a stone at a bird and kill it when you’re young, there’s a chance you might grow up to be a vet to try and make that ghastly moment better. Certainly the vividness of that excruciating embarrassment at the piano was so humiliating I do think there’s a secret motor inside me that’s always wanting to prove something and it’ll never stop.”

It must all seem like a dream sometimes – when she looks back to the lows of her youth and considers how far she has come – one of the stars of Calendar Girls (people will often jovially shout “Oh look, it’s ‘Bigger buns’” in the street), fun parts in Nanny McPhee and St Trinian’s, a role, too, in the forthcoming Julian Fellowes television four-parter Titanic.

That was the case, she says, with her most recent film, released next February: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, shot in Jaipur last year. In this stellar project, which boasts Dames Dench and Smith as well as Bill Nighy, she’s playing a put-upon grandmother who does a runner abroad and encounters similar refugees from age and responsibility.

“It really was a dream job. If someone said to me ‘By the way – you know you said you went to India last year? You didn’t, you dreamt it,’ I’d say, ‘Oh really? What a shame, never mind.’ It was that good.”

The Happy Hoofer is the title of Imrie’s book and that seems to sum up the actress I meet, 60 next year – unmarried but mother to one grown-up (actor) son by the actor Benjamin Whitrow. It doesn’t bother her she never had obvious pretty looks – “It has been a blessing – it meant I could do more character stuff.” She didn’t expect to become Vivien Leigh and is just glad to be treading the same illustrious boards as her at the Old Vic (“I’m childishly thrilled”). As for working over Christmas? No complaints either: “There are going to be pantomime casts up and down the country doing exactly the same thing. I like that.”
She shares a small secret: “The sound of people laughing at you is like heaven,” she murmurs – and you can quite believe it.

This article was originally published here

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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