‘From treif to kosher,” observes Sue Kelvin. She is looking back on — to use a David Mamet phrase — a life in the theatre. It started with Flying Pig, the company Kelvin co-founded after leaving drama school, and grew into a career which has placed the 50-year-old actress at the top of the list for any director looking to cast a Jewish matriarch.
It is a surprisingly rich roll-call of roles that includes Golda in Fiddler on the Roof, self-pitying Debbie in Steven Berkoff’s Sit and Shiva, the over-bearing mother in Beau Jeste, a rabbi’s wife in the forthcoming movie Reuniting the Rubins, and not forgetting Kelvin’s well-received title role performance in Sophie Tucker’s One Night Stand, which was written by Kelvin’s husband Chris Burgess.
For Kelvin’s latest interpretation of the archetypal Jewish mother she plays the title role in Hetty Feinstein’s Wedding Anniversary, a new musical which opened at the New End Theatre in London this week and which is written by the same writer, indeed, the same husband, as her Sophie Tucker show. So, has she had enough already with playing Jewish mothers?
“It’s funny,” reflects Kelvin during a break in rehearsals, “I did Fiddler on the Roof with Henry Goodman, and I worked with him on Sondheim’s Assassins [Kelvin played the Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman while Goodman played the assassin Charles Guiteau], and Henry really hates the idea of typecasting.”
In which case, he would probably loathe the idea of taking on the role of Hetty’s husband Harry (played by David Burt), who refuses to cough up the cash to celebrate his pearl wedding anniversary.
If it's true, It's in there. You only get humour out of pain and reality
Harry’s refusal forces Hetty to wonder whether the past 30 years were worth it, and it is this reflection on three decades of marital ups and downs that forms the basis of the show.
“It’s basically the story of a marriage,” says Kelvin. “I think anybody who is married will relate to it. And even if you’re not, you will recognise your parents’ marriage.”
Kelvin was born in Manchester and raised on a diet of not just Jewish food, which is the subject of one of the songs in Hetty Feinstein’s Anniversary, but on stories about the great Jewish vaudeville diva Sophie Tucker.
“When I heard her music as a child I immediately felt a kind of connection with her,” says Kelvin. “And whenever Sophie Tucker was in Manchester she would stay at my aunt’s. My grandmother would pick her up at the Palace Theatre after her show, take her round to my aunt’s and they’d talk and drink and play poker into the night.”
It is for this reason that, out of all the roles — both Jewish and gentile — played by Kelvin, including Chicago’s Mama Morton and Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables, Tucker remains the pivotal one.
“She was strong and funny and fiercely independent,” says Kelvin of the heroine who she heard so much about but unfortunately missed out on meeting her.
“I haven’t encountered a Jew of certain age who hasn’t seen her or met her. She was just a great networker. She was a bit like Hetty, who is also very, very funny.”
But for all the influence of Tucker on Kelvin’s career, the memories to which this comedy actor most often turns when preparing for a Jewish role are of her paternal grandmother. “She was a very strong and domineering matriarch,” she recalls.
“She was a caterer and would literally bake 144 loaves of bread for Friday night. But you can’t not soak up the atmosphere — the gossip, the aliveness and the humour. And although I’m not religious — I’m very secular, in fact — but culturally I very much identify with Judaism and I enjoy it very much.”
But starring in a show about the vicissitudes of marriage — “there’s a lot of sadness in the show as well” — is all very fine. But when the script and the songs are written by your husband of 21 years (they have two children) the words “linen” “dirty” and “public” come to mind.
“Look,” says Kelvin in a no-nonsense way, “if it’s true, it’s in there. Because that’s what matters.
“People have to recognise themselves if they are going to engage with what is on stage. If they don’t, it’s not really worth going. And you only get humour out of pain and reality. But in the end this is a warm and emotional show.”
And as for Henry Goodman’s fear of typecasting, Kelvin is not bothered at all. She knows what she is good at and is happy to stick with being good.
“Let’s face it,” says the actress before returning to the rehearsal room, “being Jewish is something I can tune in to. I tend to play a lot of Americans too. But if you were to give me a Noel Coward play, I wouldn’t know what to do.”