‘This is a play which is sort of outside my comfort zone,” says Lesley Joseph during a break in rehearsals. By her own admission the actress is better known for comedy, pantomime and light entertainment, and best known of all as Dorien, the glammed-up, high-heeled Jewish neighbour in the Marks and Gran sitcom Birds of a Feather. So you can see why the role of Kathleen, a psychologically fragile, ageing woman who has to have her shoelaces and belts taken away from her, is a departure.
Kathleen is one of four main protagonists in David Storey’s 1970 play, Home, which is populated by the kind of people who are these days cared — or uncared — for in the community.
Home is a powerful work that falls firmly into the category of dark drama, as opposed to light entertainment, the stuff that Joseph is much more used to. The play starred Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson when it opened 39 years ago. This new production is directed by Stephen Unwin and is part of the Sir Peter Hall season at the Theatre Royal Bath. Joseph is joined by strong cast. Nichola McAuliffe plays Marjorie (who weeps for days at a time); Stephen Moore is Jack (who has shown an unhealthy interest in little girls), and David Calder plays Harry (who is not allowed to possess matches). “These are very damaged people”, says Joseph, sipping tea in a corner of the rehearsal room.
The place has a mournful atmosphere, as if the play’s mood — though it has its lighter moments — is hanging in the air. On top of this, the diminutive, 63-year-old actress has been battling a cold. “I hope it’s not swine flu,” she says.
Perhaps the cold explains the no-nonsense, lets-get-on-with-it attitude, and why the interview starts with a curt “Right. Go-ahead”. And why also, when I ask her about family and where she lives in London, she replies: “That’s entirely irrelevant.” (A previous interview reveals she lived in Clapham, South London). Behind me the theatre company manager is doing stuff with tables and props, so I turn to check whether she is staying or going, which from Joseph prompts an even curter: “She’s got pottering things to do. Go ahead.” So we go ahead.
Joseph softens when she is reminded that we last spoke at the King’s Head Theatre in London when she was producing and appearing in Stewart Permutt’s Singular Women. That was a tense time. Not only because the performer was the producer, but because when anything goes wrong in a one-woman-show, there is nowhere for the one woman to hide.
So that was another example where Joseph operated outside her comfort zone. What then, is inside the Joseph comfort zone? “Comfort zone is panto and comfort zone is broad comedy.” she says. “I’m doing Cinderella this year. I play a fairy godmother and I come in on a star, and it’s beautiful.” Comfort zone would definitely be Dorien rather than Kathleen. “I think I’ve probably got more in common with Dorien than Kathleen,” admits Joseph. “And in some ways I have a celebrity lifestyle which might attract Dorien.”
Dorien would undoubtedly have loved the lifestyle, although she might have been a tad more organised than was Joseph when she hosted a dinner on a celebrity episode of Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me. The dinner was a car crash — “I love entertaining, but cooking is not my forte,” the actress admits.
Her guests around the table — Paul Ross, Linda Lusardi, Rodney Marsh and Abi Titmuss — may have been the kind of celebrities from the lists that belong to the lower reaches of the alphabet, but there is still a cachet to Joseph that suggests she does not belong in such company. A starring role in a sitcom that reached 20 million people for 103 episodes is not quickly forgotten by the public. That’s proper fame, that is.
“The thing is you can’t get away from that kind of recognition. But then I don’t really want to,” she says. “And I think enough people know now that Birds is not the be-all and end-all of what I do. I’ve done so much in the theatre since then, people know that was an acting part. The nails went on, the make-up went on, the heels went on.”
The fame game started 20 years ago when Birds of a Feather creators Laurence Marks saw Joseph in a West End farce called Exclusive Yarns by Gary Lyons and Stewart Permutt. Joseph played Pippa Goldblatt, a proprietor of a wool shop. Marks and Gran ended up writing Dorien with Joseph in mind.
“A lot of that hasn’t gone away,” she says casually of the lingering fame generated by the role. “I’m still doing a lot of the things now that I did then. I still get the invitations.”
But being Dorien never stopped Joseph from working on stage or from getting roles as diverse as a Macbeth witch, Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream or appearing in Molière’s The Miser. Recently she has toured in the menopause-musical Hot Flush! and Charlotte Jones’s Hamlet-inspired intellectual comedy Humble Boy, for which she played the posh Flora.
“I’m getting to the stage when part of me thinks I should slow down a bit. Whenever I say that to people, they say: ‘You’ll never retire’.”
And nor does Joseph feel that Jewish Dorien ever resulted her in being typecast as a Jew. “Not at all. If a part is Jewish, I’ll do Jewish. But if it’s not I won’t turn it Jewish. I don’t do a Jewish fairy godmother. I didn’t play Dorien Jewish. She was Jewish. I just play me.”
The diverse career took an unexpected turn when she was invited to co-host BBC London’s Sunday morning radio show. And there has been talk of a Birds of a Feather comeback. “I wouldn’t be at all averse to doing it again,” she says. “I don’t think I’d like to go back into a long-term series. It was the Essex years; it was the Thatcher years; it was white stilettos; white van man. But I think it might be interesting to see how we’ve all moved on.”
Home opens on July 7 (www.theatreroyal.org.uk)