After a troublesome start, with previews being cancelled due to Judi Dench being ill, Hay Fever finally kicked off at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. For Belinda Lang, playing Myra Arundel opposite Dench in Noël Coward’s comedy of manners was one opportunity she wasn’t going to miss. Caroline Bishop went to meet her to talk about her love of Coward’s work, her love affair with the stage and her mission to make sure everyone else loves it too.
It would be fair to assume that starring in a Noël Coward play in the West End with Judi Dench is a rather glamorous thing to do. But Belinda Lang’s day so far has been distinctly un-glamorous. It’s been chucking it down with rain all morning and Lang has arrived late at the Haymarket after being stuck on a bus in London traffic. Now, up in her dressing room, she’s making a cup of tea and toasting a bagel while we discuss everything from the weather and grumpy bus conductors to the fact that the room’s little fridge was so full of ice that she had to defrost it when she took up residence.
Tea made, bagel burnt and Lang settles into an armchair to talk, through mouthfuls, about the reason she’s here – the play Hay Fever, Coward’s 1925 social comedy, in which she stars alongside Dame Judi, Peter Bowles and Kim Medcalf.
A big fan of Coward’s work, Lang, not usually one to approach directors for parts, decided she rather wanted this one and asked Peter Hall to consider her for the role of Myra Arundel. “I’ve never asked for anything before, I’ve always been a bit shy about that,” she says. “I was doing What The Butler Saw at the Criterion and somebody said ‘Ooh guess what, Judi Dench is doing Judith Bliss’, and I thought ‘Oh I think I could play Myra in that’. I don’t know what possessed me but I wrote a note to Peter Hall saying I’d quite like to be in it. I ought to do it more!”
The play, famously written by Coward in just a few days, is based on the time he spent at the home of flighty and eccentric American actress Laurette Taylor. Re-named Judith Bliss (Dench), the character lives a melodramatic existence with her novelist husband (Bowles) and two grown-up children in their idyllic country home. When each family member invites a guest to stay, Coward sets the scene for a humorous portrayal of human flaws and idiosyncrasies. Lang, at 50, admits she’s slightly too old for the part of Arundel, the sophisticated sex-pot guest who rebuffs Bliss son Simon’s advances in favour of his father. Nevertheless, she is enjoying playing what she says is “just a fun part”. The woman is famously described by Coward as ‘using sex as a shrimping net’. “It’s always quite fun playing people who the audience are told to dislike. You have no responsibility for anyone to like you for a start. You can walk on and be horrible and people laugh!”
She says she admires the late playwright’s work because “he’s got an incredible understanding of what makes people tick and he couches it in brilliant guile and wit. I have a strong feeling for [his work] because I admire people who have a depth of understanding but don’t labour the point. I admire that it makes you feel things and makes you laugh about things without banging you over the head with it. I think he’s the past master of it.”
"I don’t know what possessed me but I wrote a note to Peter Hall
saying I’d quite like to be in it"
Lang has long been making people laugh herself. She’s perhaps best known for her long-standing role in 1990s TV sitcom 2Point4Children, in which she played the harassed, likeable mum Bill in the comedy about family life. The series finished six years ago, but Lang’s appearance has hardly changed and it’s hard to think of her as anything but the slightly accident prone mother and wife; she has the same haircut, the same expressive tone of voice and the same slightly wistful, contemplative manner. But the TV series is just a minor part of a career that has been conducted predominantly on stage – her CV reads like an ABC of British theatres – and it’s on stage where her heart really lies.
One reason she loves working in theatre is the lack of hierarchy. “I’ve never done movies but I gather the whole status thing is very apparent – people shut themselves in trailers. [In the theatre] it doesn’t tend to happen. You just get in a rather grotty rehearsal room with a cup of tea and digestive biscuit and get on with the play. It’s great!”
Consequently, it is a very levelling experience for all involved. “When you get into a rehearsal, first of all the status isn’t apparent and second the age isn’t apparent – because you’re all doing the same thing. That’s really nice. We’ll all sit around together and I don’t even think about it. Judi is as friendly with the youngest member of the company as she is with the oldest. If they’re going out clubbing or whatever, they’d ask her, they’d ask me, or we’d ask them.”
I can’t quite picture Lang and Dench busting some moves at Fabric on a Saturday night, but the point is that she enjoys the friendship and community feeling of her Hay Fever group. She says they “bonded rather organically quite fast” and it’s easy to see how down-to-earth, un-starry Lang would get on with most people. Being an actor, she says, means, “It’s too easy to make friends! It’s disastrous from that point of view – yet more people that I fail to ring back or text!” she laughs. “I fall in love with people, with the group you know. I’m still missing my Private Lives group, I had them all for dinner while I was doing rehearsals. It’s horrible saying goodbye; I’m not good at goodbyes.”
Private Lives, also by Coward, was her last stage role prior to Hay Fever. The production, which toured around the UK, was co-produced by Lang and fellow actor David Haig (currently in Donkeys’ Years at the Comedy), through their fledgling touring production company, Haig-Lang Productions. It was only the second play they had produced, the first being My Boy Jack, written by Haig himself about Rudyard Kipling, which had a well-received tour and came to the Hampstead theatre in 2004.
"It’s too easy to make friends! It’s disastrous from that point of view"
Haig-Lang Productions, set up in 2003, developed from the mutual love of touring shared by Lang and Haig. The pair have worked together on several occasions, including in Life X 3, which toured the UK and ran at the Savoy in 2002. “While we were doing that we discussed an idea for putting on our own tours, being how we were being offered tours that we didn’t really want to do, but quite like touring, which is unusual because a lot of stage actors don’t like touring,” she says. “We both felt at the time – and I think things have changed in a way, there is some very good stuff out there at the moment – that what was on offer wasn’t necessarily top class, or that people were being sold ‘fresh from the West End’ when it wasn’t, or being stuck with people from the television who were possibly miscast. We wanted to address that and try to persuade our friends and people we enjoyed working with to come out on tour and enjoy it as much as we did.”
The philosophy for the company is “to do things simply,” she says carefully, contemplating the right description. “That’s not to say cutting corners, but choosing to do the play simply and well with the best [actors] you can possibly get, the best set you can get. Put the money in all the right places.”
The two plays they have produced so far have allowed Lang to experience the theatre from an entirely new perspective. It’s a challenge she has thoroughly enjoyed and wouldn’t now want to relinquish. “In this [Hay Fever] all the decisions have been made and I’ve got nothing to do with any of them. That’s fine, it’s quite restful in a way, but I much prefer to be at the helm saying ‘Ooh, lets have this’; it’s much more exciting.”
“You make mistakes but they’re your mistakes,” she continues. “I’ve been incredibly pleased by everyone’s work and that’s what’s been so thrilling. It gives you confidence that you’ve got some [say] in achieving a whole rather than prancing around in a costume.”
Her love of touring started some 10 years ago when she, rather reluctantly, agreed to do a tour of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, and was overwhelmed by the audience reaction outside the capital. “We opened in Windsor and people went berserk, they just loved it. Then we took it to the Savoy where people liked it but we didn’t have that level of excitement that we had out of London, and I thought wait a minute, that’s where to go. They want some good stuff brought to them.”
Since then, touring has become something of a personal mission, driven by Lang’s sense of achievement at enabling non-Londoners to see West End-quality theatre. “It makes you quite proud to take something that’s well done round the country, it makes me happy,” she says.
Her voluminous experience of touring since then means that Lang is a veritable authority on the audience personality of British towns. Nottingham and Sheffield: “They really know how to have a good night out, they can’t sit still!” Edinburgh: “so warm and absolutely marvellous”. As for the West End: “It is different because the tourists come in and people are generally quieter and you don’t get such an obvious response to it.”
"It makes you quite proud to take something that’s well done round the country"
That’s not to say that Lang doesn’t love working in the West End, she definitely does, especially at her current home, the Theatre Royal Haymarket, as it “feels quite intimate”. She’s also a big fan of working in off-West End theatres, such as the Tricycle and the Lyric Hammersmith, “because they have an audience that’s drawn from a smaller pool in the main and you get that community sense. I much prefer smaller theatres.”
All in all, you get the feeling that Lang is in the theatre not for the fame or the glamour, but because she truly loves the stage, and wants everyone everywhere to love it too. She would, she says, find it very hard to give up. “There’s a lot of emotional stuff attached to it, a lot of stuff about achievement and self-worth, and if you have fallen in love with it and the life that goes with it then it’s hard to leave,” she says wistfully. “People do and I think they’re brave, and there are a lot of people that probably should but don’t. The nature of the work you do is so satisfying when it’s good, it’s so hard to leave it behind.”
Right now, things are pretty good indeed for Lang, and she’s not going to be one of the ones to leave it behind. “Not this week! But try me in August, honestly you never know!” The laughter in her voice tells me she’s not going anywhere. br />