The long-awaited Tennessee Williams classic Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which opened recently at the Lyric Theatre and has now extended its run, boasts a hugely talented cast and includes Ned Beatty and Gemma Jones as the heads of the southern-fried Pollit clan. Starring alongside them, and Brendan Fraser in his London stage debut, is Olivier Award-winning actress Abigail McKern, making a whole lot of women very jealous…
"Well, of course he’s completely gorgeous,” she says candidly of Fraser. “An absolute delight, and a brilliant comedian,” she continues, with a hint of a grin before getting more serious. “He’s actually a terribly, terribly good actor, but I’d kind of heard that anyway.” For Abigail McKern, who has worked with some of the best over her 20-year-plus career (Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Penelope Keith, Ian Richardson), the rehearsal room is a great leveller and, though she admits to behaving “like a complete child” over meeting American movie stars, she also feels it’s important not to buy into the hype. “They’re just people, just other actors and once you’re actually working on something together, everybody is equal really.”
The actress has had plenty of practice at taking it all in her stride and those who recognise the name may understand why. Her father, Leo, who many will always remember as Rumpole of the Bailey, has been treading the boards with stage and screen greats since his Old Vic days in the 40’s, coincidentally playing the original Big Daddy when Cat on a Hot Tin Roof arrived at the Comedy in London in 1958, “the theatre where I had my recall for the part of Mae,” McKern notes. “As a child I spent an awful lot of time hanging round dressing rooms and film sets and you can’t help being affected by it. It does sort of seep horribly into your blood.” However, despite his obvious success, her father was quick off the mark in pointing out a few home truths when he recognised a spark of interest, and although she wasn’t discouraged, she certainly wasn’t encouraged either. “He said I should try backstage work first,” she says, quoting his words of advice, “because unless you know how a theatre is run, you won’t have the proper respect for all the people who are involved.”
Taking her father’s suggestion to heart, she enrolled at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School to study the art of stage management, at the same time turning down a place at the Wimbledon School of Design. “Well, I secretly knew that I would probably need an equity card at some point and of course SMs get equity cards, and designers don’t!” In fact, although she plays her talents down when she admits to “mucking around a lot with art”, she runs her own gift-wrap design company. “It’s my second string. It means that when I’m not acting, I’ve got something that I am passionate about.”
Acting, however, was perhaps always on the cards and a three-year career in the wings only heightened McKern’s appetite. “I’d watch the rehearsals and see other actors working while I was running the shows and I realised that was where I wanted to be.” A three-year course at the Webber Douglas drama school in London followed, and not far behind an Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress as Celia in As You Like It at the Open Air in Regent’s Park. “It was a fantastic feeling of course and, to be honest, I was more than satisfied with just being nominated. I hardly expected to win as well.” That same year saw the actress on a roll when she also picked up the Plays & Players Best Newcomer Award for her performance as Jackie Coryton in Hay Fever at the Queen’s Theatre. “It’s all a bit shocking really, and although it’s great to be able to say ‘look what I achieved’ when you’re out of work and blue, there are so many brilliant performances going on that are never made a fuss of.”
Her latest venture, the part of Mae, sees her return to the West End (after a few years absence) to share the stage with Americans Brendan Fraser and Ned Beatty, Australian-born Frances O’Connor and British actress Gemma Jones, a fine mix of talents and nationalities. “It’s quite a compliment that American actors want to come over and cut their teeth on the British stage,” she says, pointing out, however, that a stint on the London stage can be far from career or ego boosting. “I worked with Dustin Hoffman on The Merchant of Venice and he was absolutely terrified. All the eyes of the world were on him, desperate to see what he would do with Shakespeare, and that’s got to be intimidating.”
McKern’s next project is a Channel 4 three-part drama, Swallow, written by Tony Marchant and directed by Adrian Shergold, which deals with the corruption within the pharmaceutical business. Although it is not due on our screens for a while, the filming is already completed so McKern can relax for a while and concentrate on her existing challenge – the Southern accent. “Ned is from the South anyway, so I’ve learnt a lot from him,” although she goes on to say the cast have also had the benefit of one-to–one sessions with voice coach Penny Dyer in order to perfect the infamous drawl, so closely associated with Tennessee Williams. “He writes so brilliantly and specifically for the accent, it’s important to get it right,” she continues. “It’s so important to have high standards… I went to see Humble Boy at the Cottesloe recently and the minute you get in there you know you are in safe hands. As soon as you know that you are looking at excellent actors speaking brilliant dialogue then you can just sit back and enjoy it.”
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is playing at the Lyric until January 12, 2002.