Mary Wakefield

A woman of substance

Felicity Kendal tells a surprised Mary Wakefield of her admiration for Mrs Warren

A woman of substance
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Felicity Kendal tells a surprised Mary Wakefield of her admiration for Mrs Warren

From the moment Mrs Warren bustles in halfway through Act I of Mrs Warren’s Profession, she’s clearly an excellent sort. ‘A genial and presentable old blackguard of a woman,’ says George Bernard Shaw fondly of his heroine. And she is a heroine, though she’s also a brothel-keeper as compromised as St Joan is righteous.

I’ve only read the play, not seen it, but I’m also very fond of Mrs Warren, and, as I walk to the Comedy Theatre to meet Felicity Kendal, I begin to worry. Kendal playing Mrs Warren in the West End? The more I think about it, the less suitable it seems. Surely Felicity is winsome and twee; Mrs W is a business-like old pimp. How can that work? Would Mrs Warren even want Kendal on her books, I wonder, as I climb the carpeted stairs to the theatre’s upper balcony. But as soon as I see her, I know I’ve made a mistake.

There’s Felicity, tiny in tight-black leather, standing hand on hip. She’s at the very top of a vertiginous swoop of seats, glancing down at me across rows F to D, a shrewd look, not unfriendly but appraising. It’s just the sort of once-over Mrs Warren might give a girl, and I realise I’ve committed the elementary error of confusing Kendal with her character in The Good Life.

A few minutes later we’re sitting knee to knee in row A. Felicity talks about the play while I make a mental list of all the various ways in which she differs from Barbara Good. She’s not kittenish at all, at least not with me: she’s poised, self-assured, immaculate. She’s 63 now, but looks a decade younger. Would Barbara G have had Botox? I think not. Kendal, I remember, has converted to Judaism. Barbara would have made a better Mormon.

‘No, you’re right, I have nothing in common with Barbara Good,’ says Felicity Kendal, tapping one blood-red nail (high-quality acrylic) on a leather knee. Does it get on your nerves when people assume you’re like her? ‘Not really, because if you get the job right, people should assume you’re like the character.’ So it’s a compliment? ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘though I’m glad I didn’t go on to play parts like that for the rest of my life. I’ve played hardly any very good women since. Do you know what I mean?’ I do. Felicity means that The Good Life ended in 1978, and that she’s done three decades’ worth of TV and theatre since. She’s played a feminist in Solo and a florist in The Mistress; she’s starred in a run of Tom Stoppard’s best plays, from On the Razzle in 1981, to the dazzling Arcadia in 1993 and the less dazzling Indian Ink. In 2008 she was excellent as Florence, the permanently pie-eyed mother in Noël Coward’s The Vortex. She is quite up to Mrs Warren.

‘Mrs Warren is amazing,’ says Kendal; ‘Shaw was amazing to invent her. He created a woman, a prostitute, who’s completely honest about her situation in a world of hypocrisy where everyone is going: shush, shush — it’s alright as long as nobody knows. Mrs Warren just can’t be arsed to keep it a secret. She has made a choice, and that is to make a life for herself, to make money for herself, on her own terms. She’s a feminist as well as a prostitute!’

Does Kendal identify with Mrs Warren? Actually, I don’t quite dare ask that, but I secretly think it’s true. Not because she’s a tart, obviously, but because, like Mrs Warren, Kendal’s life has been dominated by her career, and she’s often chosen to put work first. But, then, what else does she know? She was on stage well before she could talk. ‘My parents were both actors, and I grew up touring India with them,’ she says. ‘They would send letters to clubs, schools, colleges, saying: “we’ve got 15 plays and 13 actors. How many plays would you like?” My Father set up his own seasons — Shakespeare, Shaw, Sheridan — my mother was the leading actress. We slept on bed rolls wherever we were.’ Was it difficult having your father direct you? Did you ever long for a proper home? I’m probing for weakness, but Felicity doesn’t do self-pity. ‘Sometimes I got a bit pissed off, but on the whole I just remember singing songs going up the mountain with the company to Darjeeling and Simla. If I had to give a childhood to anyone as a gift, that’d be it.’

Gift though it was, she’d had enough by 17. So snip snap, off to London. ‘I wanted to make it on my own,’ says Kendal, and she did. After just a few years of auditions (‘I hate auditions, I’m awful at them!’) she began her stint as Barbara Good and met her first husband, an actor called Drewe. She, Drewe and their baby Charlie in a house on an island in the Thames; ducks in the garden, hammocks by the river but also — rowing through the rain against the tide to do the shopping and a husband who was beginning to suffer from manic depression. ‘It was wonderful,’ Felicity insists; then by way of proof: ‘I got this letter recently from the house’s new inhabitants; they said they had found a piece of paper stuffed behind a mirror in the bathroom. It was a note from Drewe and it said: “Felicity Drewe and Charlie lived here very happily.” It was like a little time machine, taking me back. Rather wonderful to have it.’

Felicity Kendal doesn’t discuss her romantic life in interviews, so because I’m a coward I don’t ask about Drewe; her second husband, the director Michael Rudman (she left him in 1990 but they’re back together now), or her famous eight-year affair with Tom Stoppard. I can however offer an answer to the question that’s worried most theatre-going women for the past two decades: what on earth did sexy Tom see in silly Felicity? Quite apart from being lovely-looking, she has a magnetic aura of self-assuredness which easily outclasses Barbara Good’s homey sex appeal. I suspect it’s Tom, if anything, who was the underdog. ‘He’s lovely, just lovely,’ Kendal has said. ‘Nobody would say a bad word about him. But...perhaps Indian Ink needed a little more cruelty in the mixture?’ See what I mean?

We end as we began, Felicity and I, in mutual admiration of Mrs Warren. But is she a happy woman, do you think? I ask, hoping she’ll answer for herself as well as Mrs Warren. ‘Yes,’ says Kendal, thoughtfully. ‘I think she’s happy. As happy as most women who’ve decided to have a career and not devote themselves to a family. She has made that bargain with herself. There is a wonderful line that Josephine Hart wrote in Damage: damaged people are dangerous, because they know they can survive. Mrs Warren is damaged, but she will survive — and what’s more, she’s probably happier, in a way, than someone who has not made their own choices.’ Then Felicity Kendal nods decisively, smiles and heads off to rehearse.

Mrs Warren’s Profession runs at the Comedy Theatre from 16 March to 19 June.