Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • MARCIA WARREN • Arsenic and Old Lace • 2003

marciawarrenInterviewing Marcia Warren proves to be a treat. We speak during rehearsals for the revival at the Strand Theatre of Joseph Kesselring’s comedy thriller, Arsenic and Old Lace, in which she and Thelma Barlow are playing the two murderous Brewster sisters, Martha and Abby, who put ageing gentlemen out of their misery to the understandable consternation of their nephew, Mortimer. ‘It’s such a clever play and so well made,’ says Warren.

She and Barlow have known each other for 40 years and are having enormous fun working together. ‘It’s wonderful,’ she tells me, ‘that there are so many shortcuts. There’s no pussy-footing round. You say, “Do you want to go there? Well, why don’t you go there and I’ll go there. Alright.” And it’s done.’

Warren is unsure what inspired her to become an actress. ‘Do you know, I don’t know. I don’t know whether it was the same for you but I knew when I was about three and I don’t understand why.’ Someone had recently suggested to her that it might have come from the radio, a medium that certainly inspired a generation or two. ‘And I thought, well, I wonder whether it was from the radio. I don’t know where it came from.’

Ever since training at drama school became an accepted and preferred route into acting in the last century, there have been two schools of thought about how valuable they are; many maintain that the best experience is learning on the job. Marcia Warren trained at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama and adored it. ‘Suddenly you were doing the one thing you wanted to do. You weren’t doing Geography or History. I absolutely adored it.’ Even when she was given negative criticism in the classic pull-’em-down-and-build-’em-up process used by many schools, she adored it. ‘It was all good,’ she says. She doesn’t tell me but I happen to know that she was the very first winner of Guildhall’s Drama Gold Medal and Comedy Prize.

I had long been under the impression that the actress flogged her guts out for years like most of us and that only when Alan Ayckbourn employed her at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, did everything begin to take off. She confirms that this was, indeed, the case, having spent 15 years in rep altogether before that particular call came. She goes on to explain that few at that time thought of doing television. ‘For years you thought, I have to be an ASM, a stage manager and then an actress, and then twenty years later do television. It never occurred to me. And the seasons were so long then, weren’t they? I went to the Bristol Old Vic on and off and did seasons at Northampton so that took up a long period of time.’

Her praise of Ayckbourn, as with most actors who have worked with him, is effusive. ‘He is such a wonderful director as well as writer because he’s such a wonderful observer. I’m reading his biography at the moment and my goodness, he’s learnt his trade. I know we did too but putting bits of wood together and lighting and God knows what in the most dreadful circumstances… that’s why his technical rehearsals go like a dream.’

We turn to the current production and I ask her whether it was a ‘no-contest’ situation when it came to accepting Arsenic and Old Lace in preference to Auntie and Me. This is the play by the Canadian Morris Panych in which Warren appeared with comedian and actor Alan Davies at the Edinburgh Festival last year and which is currently playing at Wyndham’s. It turns out not to have been an easy choice to make. ‘I couldn’t decide. So I asked my agent to decide. I just didn’t know. Somebody said, “It would give you a new career if you do Auntie and Me because different people would be coming.” I thought, I’m not sure I want to start a different career at my time of life! But there was talk for a while, though it never worked out, of me doing two and a half weeks in Auntie and Me at the same time as rehearsing this.’ Very stressful. ‘Yes. I didn’t want to let anybody down but it was a bit greedy, I think! Not very ethical.’

One thing that has always struck me about Marcia Warren is encapsulated in a review for Auntie and Me from The Independent: ‘Warren’s largely gestural performance – she speaks about half-a-dozen words in total – is a thorough delight, her mannerisms and facial expressions writ large with ample relish to ensure maximum hilarity, but with a seasoned discipline and definition that precludes caricature.’

There is always something funny and yet so very real and touching in her performances and I ask if she goes hell for leather in rehearsal and hopes, with the help of the director, to bring it back down. ‘No. No. I think I try and get it right from the beginning and I do an awful lot of work before the read-through so I sort of know what I’m doing except then you suddenly find you haven’t got a clue!’ But for her, reality is all. ‘Hopefully, even if you do it a bit big and it’s based in reality, hopefully it will be acceptable. Levels are ‘bloomin’ hard.’ She agreed that it is only when you get an audience for the first time that you can truly gauge it.

Rehearsing comedy does not necessarily mean that the process is a barrel of laughs, as many often assume. Nevertheless, I ask her if she has been having fun in rehearsals. ‘Despite everything!’ she says, chuckling. ‘The punters don’t realize how hard it is, do they? Because we’re making them laugh, it must be easy. When I used to do Light Ent [Light Entertainment] on telly, it was terribly looked down on. It was very a secondary thing even though it got ratings and everything. But my God, it’s hard, it’s really hard.’ I ask her if there are any corpsers in the company. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know!’

One aspect that has been amusing her greatly are the stage directions in Kesselring’s famous play. ‘I’m going to do an evening of stage directions from Arsenic and Old Lace. It’s got things like “And in comes Abby, a plump little darling”. And when Elaine comes on, it says “The vicar’s daughter comes on, much smarter than usual”!’ Warren refers also to the directions for the Aldwych Farces, those celebrated comedies by Ben Travers performed during the 1920s by renowned farceurs Ralph Lynn and Tom Walls. ‘There are some marvellous stage directions, with the same team playing them all the time. Things like, “Yes, Madam” and in parenthesis ‘wing-flapping business’. It’s hilarious. And you haven’t got a clue what it was. It’s like that all the way through.’

Starring alongside Warren and Barlow are Stephen Tompkinson and American actor Michael Richards, best known as Kramer in the long-running comedy series, Seinfeld. He is making his West End debut and ‘hasn’t been on stage for sixteen years, bless him!’ she tells me. ‘He is wonderful. He works everything out and he works so hard.’ We discuss whether there are any discernible differences between American and British ways of working. ‘The only difference I find [with Richards] is when you start a scene, he says, “Let’s rock into this” I’ve not heard that before!’

Although the cast has a voice coach to check on their American accents, Warren has done ‘an awful lot’ of American. ‘I mean, that doesn’t say anything, does it? It could still be terrible!’ I say that yes, it could but that I’m sure it won’t be! She finds ‘laboratory’ the most difficult word. ‘I always kind of put my nails into my palms when “laboratory” is coming up.’ The actors among us know those moments only too well.

An old rep favourite , Arsenic and Old Lace is not a play that Warren has ever seen. There was a production at Chichester with Elizabeth Spriggs but neither of us can remember how long ago. I say that the last West End outing I saw was at the Whitehall in 1977 with Barbara Mullen (Janet in the original Doctor Finlay’s Casebook), Joyce Heron and Julian Holloway, and that it was high time for a revival.

Inevitably, the looming possibility of war comes into the conversation. ‘Last time it was done at the Strand in 1942 and, strangely, that was playing through a war as we probably will. Everybody’s worried about playing through this one, of course, because everybody can watch the war on television whereas in 1942, they wanted something to cheer them up instead.’ Let us hope that people will soon get sick of wall-to-wall war and do as our parents and grandparents by finding an entertaining alternative at the theatre.

It has been a very good year for Marcia Warren. Last year’s performance in Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy for the National, which transferred to the Gielgud, gained her an Olivier for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. This was not her first since she also won an Olivier in the 1980s for her performance as Vera in Stepping Out. Written by Richard Harris (the playwright and not the late actor), the play was subsequently turned into a film with Liza Minnelli and Julie Walters. As to award ceremonies, she is in no doubt why ‘they cry at Oscars’. ‘You get so frightened because I think you think you’re going to go up there and dry or forget somebody’s name. It is terrifying but you know, it depends on the words you’ve been speaking so all awards should go to playwrights, really. It’s got nothing to do with the acting at all.’ I question this statement because without an interpreter for the words and more, there is no production, but she is far too modest to take any concrete responsibility.

One question that is often asked of actors is who would they say are their favourite people, with whom would they most like to work. I am not the exception that proves a rule and ask what would be her ideal production. She replies without hesitation. ‘Matthew Warchus [directing]. Playing opposite Mark Rylance and Simon Russell Beale, please.’ The play? ‘Charlotte Jones can write one specially!’ Is anyone listening?

Humble Boy and the award turned out to be just first in a run of jobs which have made this last year so successful and enjoyable for Warren. She has been playing a Celtic Queen with an unpronounceable name in the movie Gladiatress being filmed by the Smack the Pony actresses. ‘And we’ve been acting in a foot of mud and I wore a crown, a helmet and had a very heavy, large carpet. And the more it got covered in the mud, the more I was dragged down into the mud with this thing. But to take my tribe up a grassy knoll – we were going off to war – and then to turn round and see all these extras being the Roman Army coming up the path: absolutely wonderful.’ Working on a film adaptation of John Braine’s novel The Jealous God saw her in another glamorous location, ‘in pouring rain. In the North’.

‘I’ve had to turn down so many televisions,’ she tells me, and I can hear that mixture of regret and pleasure in her voice that is so familiar to other actors. You feel privileged to be offered the work, and want the work, but jobs are like the Clapham Omnibus: ‘Whether they [employers] came to see Humble Boy and the name was put in front of them in the programme, I don’t know. It’s very peculiar how these things suddenly happen, isn’t it? And you fit everything in and then the next year is absolutely zilch.’

Put two or more actors in a room and there will eventually be the usual grumbling about how the business has changed for the worse. No one can deny that some aspects have changed for the better but often, it’s a matter of which things have changed. For Marcia Warren it is the time given over to rehearsals. ‘In television. Nil. It breaks your heart. Every bad thing that’s happened to the business comes down to money, whether it’s stopping repertory seasons so people can’t do a full season. You never did rehearse for films but even Alastair Sim persuaded them to rehearse the Ealing comedies. And I think it all could be so much better. Duologues have got so short, haven’t they? Really sad. Everything is done under such great pressure. And they’re casting about three people in all the leads, it’s a great shame. But nowadays it’s not down to the director or the producer either, it’s the executive producer. It’s all about bums on television seats, I suppose.’

One thing is very clear: although we are speaking on the telephone, I don’t need to be face to face with Warren to feel the tangible love she has for the business and all that theatre can provide. ‘I saw The Tempest last week which was absolutely terrific. I understood it, laughed and was moved for the first time. But I haven’t seen anything for ages because the year has been as it was. I would go every day of the week if I could. I adore theatre.’

I end with a question about advice. ‘Apart from ‘don’t’, you mean!’ Apart from ‘don’t, I say. ‘I think just to develop as many skills as possible. Go to the very best drama school.’ And which would you say is the best? ‘Guildhall, of course!’ she retorts, going on to say how important it is to be true to yourself, to ‘know what’s good and know when to stop’.

One experience she looks back on with great fondness is touring all over the world for the late Derek Nimmo, describing it as one of the greatest times she has ever had. ‘[We’d] stay in the best hotels and perform the play in wonderful sets in the hotel. That was such a gift. You went round with your eyes half closed with tiredness but ah, that was wonderful… China, Nigeria, the Gulf, just fantastic.’ Who is doing that now?

‘The thing I think about this business that is so enjoyable is the contrast,’ she continues. ‘You’re living in terrible digs, four-foot by four, and next in Singapore at the Hilton Hotel. Being out of work and sipping a glass of wine on an island and doing a show. And the lows make you appreciate the highs so much. But it is contrasts that are so extraordinary. You know, receiving your bouquets, finishing at the West End and then signing on the next day.’

There is no side to Marcia Warren, she does not take herself too seriously. She is a warm, hard-working professional and, I’d be willing to bet, a treat to work with. She is certainly a treat to watch.

Sarah Vernon © 2003

Originally published on R&V 20-02-03

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