Claire Skinner interview - 'We're in a cycle of plays about Alzheimer's and grief at the moment'

Claire Skinner

Now in full swing, the third play at the new Bridge Theatre is set to be Barney Norris’ Nightfall, a family drama about a rural family dealing with the loss of their father, and what happens to their land now that he’s gone.

Claire Skinner plays the family’s mother. Skinner, who many will recognise as Sue Brockman from the TV series Outumbered, has made a name for herself on stage having appeared with the RSC and at the National for many years, and was praised for her role in Florian Zeller’s play The Father.

We caught up with Skinner to talk about the new play, performing work about grief, and the shows that made her stop hating musicals.

Nightfall Tickets are available now.

Photos credit Manuel Harlan

Have you been to the Bridge since it opened yet?

I have, I saw Julius Caesar on press night and I loved it. It’s massive, however. Nightfall is going to be in thrust, so we will have the back wall and then a thrust out into the audience. It’s quite exciting. This is a different scale of play to Caesar as well, so it will be interesting to see how that pans out. We hope that will make the play feel a bit more intimate.

What is Nightfall all about?

It’s about a family on a farm, and the father’s died. It’s about who wants to hold on to the farm, how the kids feel about it. It’s about loss in a working-class rural family. There are a lot of good themes.

It’s something we can all relate to as well, then?

Exactly. It’s a family talking to each other and trying to work all this stuff out. I hesitate saying it’s a play about grief because then no one will come. But it is a discussion about how you handle grief and how things are passed on. It’s all told through the family dynamic, so it will be very relatable.

What’s your character in the play like?

I’m the mum who’s very keen not just to hold on to the farm but to hold on to the past and the memory of the father. For her, it’s about letting go of the memory of the father. But she’s quite a funny character, I think she’s quite amusing. But she’s also quite manipulative. She uses her emotions to manipulate people which I find really interesting because we all do it to some extent, it’s just a spectrum of how far we’ll go.

It sounds like there are parallels between this and The Father, which you appeared in during 2015…

I do think there’s a bit of a cycle of plays about Alzheimer’s and grief at the moment. I’ve read so many plays about dementia since The Father. But this has a broader scope in a way. Barney’s voice is very unusual, because he’s preoccupied with that part of the world, which is where he comes from. He’s very interested in working something out about that area.

Do you prefer working on newer works and or established plays?

I’ve done Measure for Measure at the RSC and Othello and The Winter’s Tale at the National, but I really do like developing. This has developed quite a lot in rehearsals and I really enjoy that because it’s an intellectual challenge which you marry with the emotional challenge. It’s been really satisfying. I do like interpreting things, but I don’t like people telling me I’ve done the interpretation wrong…

Claire Skinner
Claire Skinner in rehearsals

You’ve said in interviews in the past that you aren’t massively keen on musicals. Is that still the case?

I used to hate musicals, but weirdly I keep going to them and loving them. The last one I saw was Caroline, or Change at Hampstead and I was completely blown away by it. It’s amazing. And Follies – who knew I’d like that? When I saw Gypsy, I thought “Oh no, what have I done… I’m trapped”, but by the end of it I was blown away.

Why did you hate them?

I just didn’t believe them, but I must have seen the wrong ones. Or maybe I’m just jealous because I can’t sing. I’d love to be able to get up and do that, so I guess I’m envious.

Do you have anything on your theatrical bucket list that you’d like to tick off?

I’ve never had one really. I only know whether I want to do something when it’s put in front of me. After this, I’d like to get out of the cycle of Alzheimer’s and grief. Maybe I would quite like to do something music and dancey. I feel less inhibited these days, so maybe I would like to do something like that.

What are you looking for when something is put in front of you?

With Prism at the Hampstead, it was about Jack Cardiff who thought his wife was Katharine Hepburn. The appeal there was that I had the challenge of doing Katharine Hepburn. I like things I can see as a challenge or unusual.

What is the most challenging production you’ve worked on, then?

Nightfall is. To me, this is like doing Shakespeare of Chekhov. It feels quite domestic in one way, but in another it’s really broad. Thinking about Shakespeare, it’s Measure for Measure. You take on Isabella when you’re quite young, but she’s really hard to get.

If you could sum up why someone should buy a ticket for Nightfall, what would you say?

It’s an unusual voice that you’ll hear, and you’ll enter an unusual world.

Nightfall is at the Bridge Theatre until 3rd June.

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