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Josie Lawrence interview - 'It’s all my fault if Mother Courage goes disastrously wrong'
Josie Lawrence may still be best known as an improvisational comedian for TV's Whose Line is it Anyway? and it remains a big part of her professional life, with twice weekly appearances as one of the Comedy Store Players in London whenever she is available. She also has her own all-female comedy troupe called The Glenda J Collective - "after my idol Glenda Jackson", she says.
And she goes on, "I'm known for comedy, which is nice - but theatre is where I began, and I adore everything about it. Theatre started off being my only love - I didn't want to do telly or film when I started out - and that's where this comes in." This is Mother Courage, Bertolt Brecht's famous anti-war play. "I remember reading it when I was 18; I've still got my old copy with my name in it from drama school. And I thought when I'm old enough I'd really like to play her. I went through the spectrum of wanting to play the daughter Kattrin, then Yvette, but now I'm old enough to play Mother Courage!"
We are talking as she eats a lasagne lunch she's brought in from her local deli, in a break from rehearsals at an old church hall in Pimlico. She's never used the microwave before so someone else in the kitchen has to show her how it works. There's definitely something other-worldly about her, but she's also warm, delightful company.
Given her long-stated ambition to play this role, how did this production come up? "I did some theatre earlier this year, Amédée at Birmingham Rep with Trevor Fox, which I really enjoyed - I'd never done any Theatre of the Absurd or Ionesco before, and when I work in Birmingham I can stay with my family as I'm from the Black Country, near Dudley. But I'd not done a play in London in ages, and my agent said what would you like to do? I said Mother Courage. And he said he knew [producer] Danielle Tarento, so we had lunch at The Ivy. Trevor Nunn, who had directed me in Acorn Antiques, was sitting at the next table and said hello, and that felt like a good sign!"
Her enthusiasm made it happen, "So it’s all my fault if it goes disastrously wrong," she jokes. "But it's only on for a short amount of time, so I'm just going to enjoy myself."
She follows in the footsteps of actors like the aforementioned Glenda Jackson, who once played the role, as have Judi Dench, Diana Rigg, Meryl Streep and Fiona Shaw. "I try not to think about that too much, you have to put your own little mark on it as best you can!" But she's never seen a previous production. "I decided never to see a production funnily enough - I didn't want to ever think, 'that's like what she did'." She finally met her idol Glenda Jackson last year when she paid a backstage visit at the Old Vic to her friends Celia Imrie and Jane Horrocks who were co-starring in King Lear at time with Jackson. "This is going to make me sound like a stalker, but my cat is called Glenda Jackson. I had two cats called Eric and Ernie, but Ernie died so I went to the rescue centre to get someone for Eric. There was a girly cat and I called her Glenda, because Eric and Ernie always loved her!" Does the real Glenda Jackson know? "She does, because Celia made me tell her!"
Imrie was of course also in the stage version of Acorn Antiques that marked a previous West End appearance for Lawrence. She's certainly had a varied theatrical career: she's played both Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (the former at Manchester's Royal Exchange, the latter in an all-female staging at Shakespeare's Globe), Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard at Birmingham Rep and Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew for the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon, as well as taking over from Elaine Paige in The King and I at the London Palladium. But she remembers her very first West End job particularly fondly: "It was an American play called Painting Churches, with Leslie Phillips and Siân Phillips as my parents. When my name was up in lights for the first time, Siân an took me out to look and said that the first time it happened to her, her name was put up as Stan Philips, as they didn't have the circumflex A!"
But it was discovering improv when she was touring as part of a three party music group Denise Black and the Fray Sisters that changed her life. "It was realising that it was something I could do that got me onto the comedy circuit. And it means I'm in the fortunate position as a performer of never having not worked since 1985 - it's the best part-time job in the world. I'm away from it now, but this finishes on 9th December, and on 10th December I go back to the Comedy Store. We appear twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays - it's the longest running comedy troupe, and it's like working with my family."
Now she's the matriarch of another theatrical family in Mother Courage. "Hannah Chissick, who is directing, and I have similar ideas about the play, and she has a great vision for it, which is that we're creating something that is going on all around you." They are using a version by Tony Kushner, whose Angels in America was recently revived at the National: "I'm working with the best material - I just hope I don't mess it up!"