Accalaimed actress Susan Penhaligon returns to work with The Agatha Christie Theatre Company but is playing a very different part this time around.
She plays a glamourous producer in Rehearsal for Murder coming to Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre from Monday February 22 to Saturday February 27. Susan talks about her role, performing in Agatha Christie shows and one of her most well-remembered yet controversial roles.
Tell me how you got involved with the show.
I was offered the part by Bill Kenwright and I read it and thought, this looks like a good thriller, it’s unusual and it’s rather fun to be playing the part of a producer and people in our business.
Were you familiar with the story when you first got involved, have you seen the film with Jeff Goldblum?
I saw the film first, and then the script came. I thought we’d be American in it because it was written by the writers of Columbo and Murder, She Wrote, but we’re setting ours in London’s West End.
So, without giving too much away, tell me a bit about the story and your character?
I play Bella Lamb, the producer of the play that flopped that Monica (Welles, played by Amy Robbins) was in and she died after the first night. Bella lost a lot of money but she’s great friends with Alex (Dennision, played by Robert Daws) the writer and I’m very much part of who killed Monica, which is what Alex believes has happened, and any one of us could have done it.
You starred in Kenwright’s production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None early last year, and now you’re back in another murder mystery! But you play two very different characters.
Oh yes. When I was in And Then There Were None, I played a wonderful character, Ms Brent, which I really enjoyed because it’s a character part, the spinster lady and I wore a grey wig. But in this play, I’m much more glamorous. I try to play parts that are different. I did a wonderful play last year about Louise Brooks, who was a famous 1920 film star, and the play was written about the end of her life, when she was dying, and it was a role to die for, excuse the pun. I try, quite consciously, to mix it up. I’ll do a commercial tour, and then I like going into fringe and doing new writing.
It’s fair to say you’re also something of a Kenwright favourite. How did you first meet Bill and what’s been one of your favourite productions of his you’ve starred in so far?
I loved doing Three Sisters in the 80s, which was on at the Albery. The Mysterious Mr Love, with Paul Nicholas and myself, and again, a character role, although I was much younger then (laughs). I loved playing that part because it was a character part. I’m not really interested in being me. At my age I can’t play young glamorous roles anymore, and I have no wish to. I love being at this age when I get offered lots of different kinds of parts, it’s great to be offered a variety that I can go from playing Ms Brent, the spinster lady with a stick and a grey wig, to Bella Lamb the producer, who’s tough and looks pretty good for her age. She’s wearing a lot of jewellery and she’s made a lot of money and she tries to look glamorous. So those are different parts and that’s what I enjoy most.
Have you worked with any of your Rehearsal for Murder co-stars before?
Most of them! (laughs) It’s so great to walk into a rehearsal room and know half of the cast. You have connections and it’s a great advertisement for the idea of a company. I’ve worked with Ben Nealon a few times as part of the Agatha Christie Theatre Company, Robert Duncan I did Verdict with him, Steven Pinder, we did the Somerset Maugham play The Constant Wife. I’ve also worked with Bob (Robert Daws), I did a radio play with him.
There are two younger members of this company, Holly Ellis and Lucy Dixon, and this is their debut tour – any advice you can offer them?
I can give them both loads of advice, but whether they want it or not I don’t know! (laughs) The thing is, when you’ve been working for as long as I have, you actually have to wait until someone asks you, because you can give a younger actor advice and they actually don’t want it. When I was young, the best advice I got was from older actors. I think both girls are doing remarkably well. You have to jump in the deep end when you’ve done a lot of television and then you’re thrown on the stage – and that’s when the crunch comes. IT is a big thing for young actors if it’s their first tour but I think Holly and Lucy are more than up to it.
It’s a five-month tour of the UK – pros and cons of being on the road?
You’ve got to be able to put up with the travelling, whether you’re driving or going by train, arranging where you’re going to stay and all that side of it, you have to learn how to do it well, which only comes from experience. I’ve been working for 42 years, and digs have got so much better, you rarely come across the kind of digs you used to when I first started out. You know, the outside loo, cold, dirty, dingy – you think the worse and I’ve probably been there. And now that doesn’t happen and the different theatres now vet the digs much more. Some of the best things about touring though, are seeing England, which is wonderful, seeing Great Britain. I always find something new in every city or town we go to, there’s always something you didn’t cover the last time we were there. I love it, actually. I suppose maybe I’m a gypsy at heart, I don’t mind it, I can do it, I quite like going to all these different places. They should ask actors to do travel books. An actor’s travel guide of around the UK. It would be very interesting. Or even a newspaper report, different aspects on how towns are changing. It’s only because you keep going back to these places that you see them change over the years. And I go back to places. And I love art, so I go to galleries wherever we go.
Many will know you from A Bouquet of Barbed Wire which was considered very controversial at time! Do you still get recognised for it?
I do, but not that often. It’s not controversial now, although the main theme of it probably is, because it was about a father who was in love with his daughter. That will never change, and in fact, I think probably even more shocking today than it was then. People go on about all this nudity, but I personally didn’t ever have those kind of scenes to play because I played a character who got more and more pregnant, so I had a different prosthetic bump as the episodes went on. And then there was something in the press that said everybody gets into bed with everyone else – well, that’s what happens on any soaps! And I think the thing that people forget about, the shocking thing was the relationship between Frank Finley and myself, there was the undertone of sexual attraction and that’s what was shocking, nothing else.
You’ve had a pretty amazing career – what have been your highlights?
To be honest, I can’t think of my past work like that because I’m always looking to the future. So it’s always the job I’m on that I want to get right and do as well as I can. And I still have ambitions to keep working. In 2014 I had a wonderful part at the Edinburgh Festival of an old woman who had dementia in an old people’s home. And the same year I played an old granny – in fact, I’ve actually been slightly ageing up. I say that I have to grey my hair but the truth is, it is grey (laughs).
Tickets are available for Rehearsal for Murder are available from £11.90. To book call the box office on 0844 871 7607 or visit www.atgtickets.co.uk/aylesbury