As she prepares for the role of Mrs Malaprop, Penelope Keith talks to Lloyd Evans, who finds her decisive, cheerful, pragmatic and modest, with a tendency to break into fits of unexpected giggles
A winter off. That’s what Penelope Keith had planned for this year. But when an opportunity arrived to play Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals she couldn’t turn it down. ‘It’s one of the great women’s parts so I thought I must have a bash at that.’
We meet in a compact, slightly unloved dressing-room in the Theatre Royal, Brighton, where she sits in light-brown slacks and a soft-pink cardigan with her back to a bright mirror festooned with good luck cards. An assistant brings me a cup of coffee and Keith instantly spots that I have nowhere to put it. She grabs a red plastic bucket and upends it in front of me. ‘There!’ She’s decisive, pragmatic and instinctively cheerful but there’s a marked degree of modesty about her, too, probably ingrained during her post-war childhood and strengthened by personal disposition.
‘The only interesting thing about me is my work,’ she says, and adds, ‘if that’s interesting. I don’t enjoy the current culture of exposure of everything — one’s heart, one’s soul, one’s body, I don’t do that.’
The Rivals, directed by Peter Hall, has finished a national tour and has arrived for a 16-week run at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, one of the West End’s larger houses. The recession hasn’t damaged people’s appetite for classic revivals?
‘Fortunately not but we’ve been living on fool’s gold,’ she says in that luxuriantly steely voice. ‘And it’s the wages of sin we’re all having to pay for now. It’s awful for a lot of people who are going to lose their jobs, ghastly, ghastly, but you know I was brought up to believe that you didn’t buy what you couldn’t afford. You saved. And debt was a dirty word.’
Though she comes across as a textbook head girl, Penelope Keith has huge stores of enthusiasm for her work and a tendency to break into fits of giggles unexpectedly. And she treats certain vowels to a sensuous elongation. When she refers to queues of young people crowding into Brighton’s nightclubs, she pronounces ‘queueueueueueues’ like the chime of a bell in a long glissando from high soprano to tenor. ‘Queueueeueueueues of young’. What concerns her is that they’re saddling themselves with a life of endless debt.
Not that this is random carping. She’s quietly active in numerous charities and helped launch a group called Debt Cred, which lobbies for personal finance to be taught in schools. ‘It governs everyone’s lives, whether they’re dukes or dustmen, but there’s no financial education in schools, which I find shocking.’
I ask about her preparation before each show. ‘Do you get into a special space?’ She responds with full-strength vehemence. ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no. It’s called acting. Although of course…’ — and her modesty takes over to eliminate any hint of superiority about her reply — ‘a lot of actors do get into special spaces. And if that works for them, fine. I don’t. I know exactly what I’m going to do. Because once you’re on stage absolutely annnnnnnnything can happen. I went to do a move the other day and someone — I have a very lonnnnnnnng frock — someone was standing on my frock. And I thought, now, do I pull it from under the foot, or stay here until they move? That’s what happens. Acting is selling snake-oil, really. It’s this. Patting your tummy, rubbing your head.’
It was the only ambition she ever had. ‘As a child one was frequently asked, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” It behove you to have an answer. And there weren’t that many choices for women. I don’t know where it came from but I just said I was going to be an actress, from the time I was five, and I never ever wavered. So that was it.’
She learnt her trade in weekly rep. ‘I was an assistant stage manager, general dogsbody, made props, shifted props, too, but I got quite a few parts. It was wonderful, wonderful training. I loved it. I absolutely adored it.’
Was her knack for comedy immediately apparent? ‘Not really, no. I was never a pretty young juve, for a start, so I was always going to play character parts. And I supppppoooose I played one or two comedies but you see there’s no difference really between Ibsen or Sheridan or Ayckbourn or Shakespeare. It’s all about truth. If you’re not truthful it doesn’t work. I’ve seen Streetcar Named Desire many times and I’ve never failed to cry my eyes out, but then I’ve seen the odd production of, say, Noël Coward and not raised a titter. My great heroes are the stand-up comics.’
This comes as a surprise to me. ‘Oh, yes,’ she says. ‘Oh, that’s real craft.’
‘Are you thinking of Max Miller?’ I suggest, rather tactlessly reaching back into the pre-Cambrian 1930s.
‘I’m thinking of Morecambe and Wise,’ she says unflappably. ‘I’m thinking of Frankie Howerd. I’m thinking of Les Dawson. They were wonderful.’ And her favourite? ‘I remember doing a gala very early in my career, at Wimbledon Theatre, and Max Bygraves was topping the bill. My grandmother was an enormous fan of Max Bygraves. I wasn’t, but I stood in the wings and when I saw the way he worked an audience it took my breath away, just took my breath away.’
Clearly, she has strong views about comedy. ‘People always think it’s easy. I mean all the great actors realise how tough it is. Michael Redgrave said, “You can fool the town with tragedy but comedy will find you out, my boy.” And it does because you have to be far more truthful.’
On the topic of aphorisms I ask if she’s aware that an observation of hers appears in many books of quotations. ‘Oh, really! What have I said?’ she asks, her eyes widening as if I’d just produced a chocolate birthday cake. ‘Shyness is egoism out of its depth.’ ‘Oh, yes. And it is, isn’t it?’ But modesty intervenes once again and she steers the conversation away from herself. ‘The other great quote, this isn’t me, it’s Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The louder he shouted his honour, the faster we counted our spoons.” Isn’t it wonderful. I love that.’
As I leave, I ask if she’s dispirited by the dearth of good roles for older actresses. ‘I suppose there aren’t that many. But I’ve had a bash at some of the great ones. Everyone always complains about it. But ’twas ever thus. ’Twas always thus.’
And she takes the red bucket and stows it neatly under her dressing table.