When Jonathan Kent’s revival of Gypsy opens at the Savoy Theatre later this month, it will be the first time the critically adored musical has been seen in the West End for 40 years. But is its star – multi-award-winning stage and screen actress Imelda Staunton – daunted? A bit, since you ask.
‘I’m thrilled and terrified in equal measure,’ says Staunton of stepping into one of musical theatre’s most iconic roles, the indomitable Momma Rose. ‘The anticipation is so great, I just want to make sure I don’t disappoint.’
Disappointment seems unlikely, given the rush of five-star reviews that greeted both the production and its leading lady during a sell-out run at Chichester Festival Theatre last autumn. But Staunton insists she can’t afford to be complacent: ‘It has to be even better than Chichester – that’s what we have to strive for,’ she says.
Based on the lively autobiography of the famous striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee (played in Kent’s production by Sherlock’s Lara Pulver), the musical tells the story of the ultimate showbusiness mother and her relentless determination to push her daughters into the spotlight, whatever the cost.
Momma Rose is a big role in every sense: as well as being one of the more complex characters in the musical theatre canon (the show’s lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, has called her ‘a showbiz Oedipus’) Staunton has also had to extend her vocal range in order to belt out such ballsy showstoppers as Everything’s Coming Up Roses. The actress admits she had her doubts about taking on the part, but found it hard to say no when the man petitioning for her to do it was none other than Sondheim himself.
‘We did Sweeney Todd at Chichester,’ recalls the 49-year-old of the role that won her her third Olivier Award. ‘And he came and said, “You have to play Rose”. And my immediate reaction was “Do I? Do I really have to do it?” But I thought, well, if he’s asked me, it would be rude to refuse.’
Previously given life by such theatrical grand dames as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Bette Midler, Rose cuts a tragi-comic figure, as heartbreaking as she is monstrous. ‘It’s very worrying, of course, those women who want their children to live the lives they wish they’d had,’ muses Staunton. ‘It’s so dangerous and unhealthy. But what you do admire about her is her resilience – she just will not stop, at anything. She’s a strong, messed-up woman. And that’s fascinating to play.’
What sort of mother does Staunton think her own daughter, Bessie, would describe her as?
‘Short and bossy!’ she says. ‘Hopefully I’m nothing like Rose. She’s at drama school, but that was her own choice – I wouldn’t dream of making her do anything she didn’t want to do.’
On the flipside, Staunton says she and her husband, Jim Carter – aka Downton Abbey’s immutable butler, Carson – didn’t try to dissuade their daughter from entering the family trade either. ‘Doctors don’t seem to put their children off being doctors, do they?’ she asks. ‘So I’ve never understood that. I mean, touch wood, we’ve had fairly healthy careers. That might be a bad thing, because she might think it’s fairly easy to get jobs. But she knows what the business is like.’
Born in North London to a hairdresser and a road-worker, Staunton has taken a keen interest in the recent debate – exemplified by that testy spat between James Blunt and the Labour MP Chris Bryant – about the increasing domination of the arts by performers from privileged backgrounds.
‘It is very difficult for kids with no independent means of paying for drama school to get a break these days,’ she sighs. ‘I couldn’t have afforded to go, but I got a grant. It’s a nightmare. I don’t think anyone should have to come out of university with a 30 grand price tag around their neck. It’s appalling.’
On graduating from RADA, Staunton served her time in rep before joining the National Theatre where, as well as winning her first two Oliviers (one of them for Sondheim’s Into the Woods), she met her future husband during a production of Guys and Dolls. On screen, she appeared in the likes of Peter’s Friends, Sense and Sensibility and Shakespeare in Love, but it was Mike Leigh’s 2004 film Vera Drake that saw her moving front and centre, winning a BAFTA and earning an Academy Award nomination for her role as a woman performing backstreet abortions in 1950s London.
‘My first love, I suppose, is the theatre, and yet Vera Drake was the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,’ she says. Was it a career game-changer? ‘Of course, yes. I wouldn’t have got Harry Potter [Staunton played Ministry of Magic bureaucrat Dolores Umbrage in two Potter movies] without Vera Drake. They might have wanted to cast me, but they wouldn’t have been allowed to because my profile wouldn’t have been enough.’
In 2006, Staunton was awarded the OBE for services to drama. ‘I just wish my mum had been alive to see it,’ she says. ‘She would have been so thrilled.’ Despite such plaudits, she cautions – again – against complacency. ‘You can’t think, well I’ll just relax now because, because I’m obviously marvellous! You have to regroup and carry on.’
So what, Weekend feels compelled to ask, is it like living with Carson? Is she waited on hand and foot? ‘Not a jot!’ she cries. ‘The service at home is appalling, if I may say so. If only he could be as Carson-like around the house. But I think I’d be a bit bored if he was.’
How about for a day, maybe?
‘Yes, Carson for a day!’ she laughs. ‘I could give the money to his favourite charity. But actually, he sort of is that person, in a way – he’s a very honourable man, Jim, and he does consider people, and talks great sense. He’s much funnier than Carson, but there are elements of Jim that are that person who wants things to be done properly.’
If she were ever to be cast in Downton herself, would she see herself upstairs or downstairs?
‘I wouldn’t be cast upstairs in a million years!’ she insists. ‘Although I did play the Queen Mother once.’
Weekend reminds her that she also played the Queen of England and Empress of India in Aardman’s The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists!
‘Yes, I’ve played Queen Victoria – of course I could be upstairs, for goodness’ sake!’ she says, suddenly warming to the idea. ‘Of course I could. After all, that’s what being a character actress is, isn’t it?’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 19, 2015
(c) Waitrose Weekend