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on Fri, 22 Feb 2019
Improv Queen and renowned actor Josie Lawrence is no stranger to Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Previously she’s graced its stage with performances in Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood and his translation of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. She’s also appeared in Eugene Ionesco’s Amedee, Bill Alexander’s The Alchemist and Bryony Lavery’s production of Frozen.
Now she’s preparing to return to the venue for a sixth time, taking on numerous roles in Jeremy Sams’ translation of French theatre phenomenon Edmond de Bergerac. Directed by Roxana Silbert, the ensemble piece features Freddie Fox in the title role as Edmond Rostand, Henry Goodman as Constant Coquelin and Chizzy Akudulo as Maria.
“I play the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who just whisks herself in and whisks back out again,” says Josie. “She’s just one of the many parts I perform in the play. As well as Sarah, I play a prostitute, an old actress, a waitress and a can-can girl, so there’ll be lots of different hats to wear...”
The winner of five Molière awards, Alexis Michalik’s critically acclaimed comedy continues to play to packed houses at the Theatre du Palais-Royale in Paris.
‘It’s a very funny ‘what if’ play,” Josie continues. “It’s about how Edmond Rostand, the writer of Cyrano de Bergerac, got the idea to write his play. Everyone at the time thought it wasn’t going to work because numerous things kept going wrong, but when it was first performed at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in 1897, it received 40 curtain calls and the applause lasted for an hour. Cyrano made Edmond a huge hero in France, and here we have this slightly fictionalised version of a young man - played by Freddie - his journey, his woes and his success.”
Midlands-born Josie is always happy to return to the region - and in particular to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre - to perform.
“It’s a very friendly theatre, very well run, and I love working with Roxana. The space itself is lovely because it’s huge. It has the feel of a studio to it because the seats go straight down onto the stage. It’s still my local theatre, so I love it.”
Born into a working-class family in Cradley Heath - her father worked at British Leyland and her mother was ‘a lovely mum and housewife’, Josie’s early experiences of theatre consisted of trips into Birmingham to see pantomimes.
She made it known that she wanted to act from the age of five, and at 16 joined local theatre group Oldbury Barlow Players, where her first role was Honey in Who’s Afraid Of Virgina Woolf. Three years at Devon’s Dartington College of Arts (1978 - 1981) resulted in her receiving a Bachelor of Arts honours degree, since which time she’s enjoyed a bountiful career on stage and radio and in television and film.
So which does she enjoy most?
“I love them all. My career trajectory hasn’t followed any particular path. When I finished Theatre College I did a lot of serious theatre. If I had to choose my first love, it would be when I was playing someone who was manically depressed at the Donmar Warehouse with Peter Capaldi. It would’ve been in the early to mid-’80s, and they were doing late-night cabaret there. I stayed behind one night because they were doing improv and needed more girls, so I joined in.
“I then joined the Comedy Store Players, and a producer came along who asked if I’d be interested in doing this thing called Whose Line Is It Anyway. I’m very thankful for that because it made my name. It only used to take two weekends to film, and for the rest of the year I would carry on doing my theatre work, but Whose Line Is It Anyway was what I became mostly known for.
“People immediately started to refer to me as a comedian. I didn’t mind that, as I like making people laugh. Equally, though, I like to be challenged, and to do things that I can really get my teeth into. This year is already turning out to be good. After playing Sarah here, I move straight into playing Aunt Ellie in Oklahoma!, which is a fantastic part.”
As she approaches her 60th birthday in June, and with her career still in full flow, is Josie more selective about the roles she accepts?
“I’m not a huge fan of touring anymore. I’m a bit of a home bird. I love my home and where I live. I love coming up to the Midlands, but I don’t think I could spend a year or so touring; its just not me. Some people love it, but I like to get back home in the evening - I like my own bed too much. When I was younger, I loved the partying every night and all of that, but now I live the quieter life, so that impacts on the decisions I make.”
Regular performances with the Comedy Store Players - a troupe of six who turn up at London’s Comedy Store with ‘no script and not the faintest idea what will happen’ - are still a big part of Josie’s life. So what is it about improvisation - and her role with the Players - that holds such appeal?
“It’s the best part-time job in the world and is so much fun to do. I’ve been part of the Comedy Store Players since 1985, on a Wednesday and a Sunday, and when I can’t do it - like when I had to have two years off to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company - they get guest performers in. Then, when I’ve finished the job, I come back again. It’s immensely funny to do. I did the 30th birthday of Whose Line Is It Anyway at the Royal Albert Hall. It sold out for three shows and we played to about 17,000 people. It was like being a rock star!”
Edmond de Bergerac shows at The REP, Birmingham, from Friday 15 to Saturday 30 March.