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Haydn Gwynne

Published 12 January 2011

Back on stage in London after a stay in New York, Haydn Gwynne talks to Caroline Bishop about following a massive Broadway musical with a new play at the intimate Almeida theatre.

For a woman who has managed to build a career that combines stage and screen, plays and musicals, comedy and drama, actress Haydn Gwynne is somewhat ambivalent about her achievements. In fact, her own judgement on this most varied of careers is that it is “slightly weird”.

“Does that mean I’m a jack of all trades and master of none?” she muses. Surely, I suggest, it is every actor’s Holy Grail to have such variety. “I think they’d like to be a master of something!” she retorts, roaring with laughter.

Gywnne is doing herself down. Someone who has been nominated for both a Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony Award can hardly term herself master of none. In fact, the 50-year-old actress has something of an enviable career, two early breaks in an Alan Ayckbourn play and hit early 90s sitcom Drop The Dead Donkey setting her on a dual-pronged career path that has combined roles in well-known TV shows Peak Practice and Merseybeat with stage appearances in everything from Twelfth Night for the Royal Shakespeare Company to big budget musical Billy Elliot in the West End and on Broadway.

“That is useful,” she concedes, of her career flexibility. As the family’s main breadwinner, Gwynne’s experience in more than one medium means a higher likelihood of getting work in an industry where opportunities are shrinking. “So that can only be helpful but sometimes [you do] sort of go ‘well what kind of actor are you then?’

Audiences at the Almeida theatre will have the chance to see exactly what kind of actor Gwynne is when she takes on the role of quick-witted, straight-talking mother Susan in a new play by American writer Gina Gionfriddo, Becky Shaw.

“Things aren’t always what they seem and I think that will be one of the pleasures of the play”

Two things drew Gywnne to Gionfriddo’s acerbic drama about family and relationships, she tells me when we meet at the Almeida theatre during rehearsals. “I haven’t done a huge amount of new writing. It’s a new piece and obviously a piece I was interested in and liked the writing of. Then also because it was the Almeida and I’ve come to the Almeida for years and never worked here, so I was very happy to have that opportunity to come and work for a company and theatre whose work I respect and like.”

A character-driven piece, the play centres on recently widowed Susan and her relationship with her daughter Suzanna and her adoptive son Max, who is set up on an unfortunate blind date with the titular Becky Shaw. “I sincerely trust it will make people laugh otherwise we are not doing our job. But its themes are serious and quite dark, some of them,” says Gwynne. Her character, Susan, has suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years. “[She was] probably always was going to be a bright, witty woman, but I think that [the MS] has sort of exaggerated or sharpened… her mental abilities, but it’s perhaps also enlarged her cynical side. So she is very straight-talking. A lot of what she says can sound on the surface quite mean, funny and mean. But it’s always never less than honest.”

The play’s dark, tragicomic themes lead Gywnne to think of a comment made to her by one of the British cast of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, which was playing on Broadway at the same time she was there with Billy Elliot. “When they were rehearsing it was like they were doing Chekhov in terms of exploring all the realities and the darkness and those relationships, so it was a tremendous shock when an audience came in and started laughing. ‘What, but this is heartbreaking?! Oh yes, of course, this is meant to happen’. Hopefully if we get it right we might feel a little bit like that as well.”

“I think it will wrongfoot you,” she adds. “I think you might find yourself taking sides between the characters but then as things develop you might switch allegiance. Things aren’t always what they seem and I think that will be one of the pleasures of the play.”

“There are things that I’ve turned down that I look back and go ‘Oh my God that will never come my way again’”

Gwynne is working alongside American actor David Wilson Barnes, who originated the role of Max in New York and now finds himself the only American in a cast of Brits. It is a situation that Gwynne knows well, albeit reversed. “I’ve been in exactly the same position as he is, because I was the only person who’d come from the London Billy Elliot production and went and did it [on Broadway] with a brand new cast. So I could understand a little bit of what that might be like for him,” she says. “It’s very clear, even right from the read through, David’s character is fully-fledged and ready to go. If I hadn’t had that experience I might have gone ‘oh God it’s going to be so boring for him to have to wait while we all catch up with his slipstream.’ But I knew that that wasn’t the case with Billy.”

In fact, Gwynne found recreating the role of Mrs Wilkinson on Broadway after originating the part in London a rewarding experience. “I think I was afraid, looking ahead before I got there… Will I be bored? Will I be stale? But somehow, because the actors were different, the theatre was different… I certainly didn’t feel I was stale and actually maybe even was able to bring in some other things. I’d like to think it was perhaps slightly richer the second time around.”

Becky Shaw is Gwynne’s first stage appearance since leaving the New York production of Billy Elliot The Musical in October 2009, and the contrast epitomises the varied nature of Gwynne’s career: she has gone from a mammoth Broadway musical with an enormous cast involving multiple children and a huge creative team to a five-strong cast in a tiny theatre in Islington. “I suddenly realised, I hadn’t worked with a small number of people for such a long time. It’s been years since I’ve done that! Billy is so massive, massive numbers of people around all the time. So it was quite shocking to be thrown back on the intimacy of a piece like this. A nice shock.”

The juggernaut of Billy Elliot The Musical had more than a little impact on Gwynne’s life. After being Laurence Olivier Award-nominated in 2006 for her stint in London, Gywnne was offered the chance, some two years later, to reprise her role as the quick-witted dance teacher in New York. With a psychotherapist partner who couldn’t leave his London-based job and two children aged 10 and 8 to think of, Gwynne’s decision to take the job was life-changing indeed. “In the end we did decide quite quickly. We really took about 24 hours, me and my partner, talking it through. And we decided it would be a very difficult thing to say no to.”

So, leaving her partner in London, she and the kids packed their bags and moved to New York for a year, with Gywnne having to juggle temporary single-parenthood in a new city with working hours that are not exactly conducive to family life. “The worst thing was working on weekends, no question about it. The Sunday show, having kids, I absolutely loathed.”

The demands of Broadway took something of an adjustment, too. “You’re on a very tough schedule on Broadway. You only have two weeks’ holiday a year, compared to four [here]. I had eight months of a minimum six-day week before I had a week’s break. Doing musicals is an absolute attrition. They just accept that people are out on long-term injuries because they work you really, really hard. Too hard I would say. We twice did 16-show runs [without a day off]. That would never happen here.”

“The worst thing was working on weekends. The Sunday show, having kids, I absolutely loathed”

Understandably, Gwynne says the experience was “pretty shattering for me I have to say”. But her children relished the year. “Particularly the older one really thrived and made close friends. He really misses it actually, he quite often thinks about it. Had I said at the end, ‘shall we stay for another year?’, he’d have signed on the dotted line.”

Before becoming an actor Gwynne lived in Italy for five years teaching English, so it is no surprise that the chance to live abroad again appealed, despite the daunting logistics of having to find a home and schools for her children. “If I were child free who knows what I’d be up to,” she says of this adventurous spirit. “I’m quite adaptable I think. Wherever I am I can make a home and feel quite comfortable. I do love exploring.”

However, New York aside, motherhood has inevitably curbed Gwynne’s exploration to a certain extent, while also impacting on her career choices. “There are things that I’ve turned down that I look back and go ‘Oh my God that will never come my way again’, but you can only go with what works for you at the time. There’s no right way or wrong way.”

Now back in London with her partner, and working just a hop across town at the Almeida, life is currently a little simpler than during her year in New York. Gwynne plans to wait until the kids have flown the nest to really indulge her travel fantasies. “I see myself as an old lady with wrinkly knees and shorts. Although of course by then we won’t be allowed to fly any more, we’ll all be carbon rationed; I’ll have to go everywhere by boat and train.” A brief pause as she considers it. “That might be quite fun!”


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