Ingredient X star Lesley Sharp talks to Matthew Amer about a whirlwind couple of years on the stage and the importance of good new writing.
Rehearsals, like a sprinter with poor spatial awareness, often overrun. There is more chance of me using a legitimate metaphor than a rehearsal ending on time. Having spent eight years interviewing performers, directors and writers in rehearsal breaks, it is now no surprise to me that the process involves a little waiting around. I tend to carry a book or an iPod. Today I have forgotten both.
I sit in a small concrete bunker at the rear of the Royal Court’s bar/restaurant, waiting for one of the most talented stage and screen actors of her generation, Lesley Sharp, who is currently preparing to return to the Royal Court’s stage in Nick Grosso’s new tale of addiction, Ingredient X.
The hands of my watch tick slowly onwards. In the main bar area grey supporting columns mingle with a handful of lunchtime diners. Knives sparkle expectantly in the unnatural light. I lose myself in the nondescript hum of cutlery striking plate, mealtime chatter, one-sided telephone conversations and background music. Time ticks past; 20 minutes, 25 minutes, 30 minutes. The bar’s spotlights stare at me, wondering why I am sitting alone in a corner, scribbling notes. They don’t blink. They never blink.
The grey monotony is broken 40 minutes later by a bright pink jacket sitting comfortably on Sharp’s shoulders. The wait has been worthwhile.
My small experience is something of a metaphor for the theatre world, which Sharp left behind in 1996 following a production of Mother Courage at the National Theatre. At the time she had young children and felt she could not happily balance the conflicting requirements of her home life and live performance: “I didn’t feel I was being a good mother at home and I didn’t feel like I was cutting the mustard on stage,” she tells me.
“It was about the writing and showcasing new writing. That’s what was important”
A decade later, with her children roughly 10 years older, she tested the theatrical waters once more, returning to live performance in The God Of Hell at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by her friend Kathy Burke. Following encouragement from playwright Mark Ravenhill, who convinced Sharp she had lost nothing of her talent during her 10 years of theatrical exile working only on screen, and the arrival of the script for Simon Stephen’s Harper Regan on her doorstep, she has fallen back in love with theatre. To claim the decade without her was theatrical drudgery would be an overstatement, but like her pink jacket’s appearance at the Royal Court bar, she has certainly brightened up London theatre since her return. It seems like she has been ever-present in Theatreland for the last two years, following her Olivier-nominated Harper Regan performance with The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Ghosts and now Ingredient X.
“It’s an amazing piece of writing,” she says of Nick Grosso’s new play as she sits opposite me, arms tucked away behind the table that separates us. “It’s very fast, very quick thinking, very deft, very technically accomplished, but it’s also very from the heart. It’s about the nature of addiction, which is not what one would expect to be the most comedic of subjects, but he’s managed to create a play which is very funny but very uncomfortable and very moving.”
Sharp is demonstrably excited about the project, singing the praises of fellow cast members Indira Varma, James Lance and Lisa Palfrey, as well as director Deborah Bruce, who she cites as one of the reasons she was eager to be part of the project.
We chat as the cast is coming towards the end of its time in the rehearsal room. This transitional period evokes mixed feelings in Sharp, especially on this production, which has seen a team of six – the four actors, director Bruce and the stage manager – working closely as part of a very small team. “Part of you really mourns the delightful intimacy that the six of you have while you’ve been burrowed away working for four weeks, there’s part of me that doesn’t want to relinquish that, but you’ve got to get up there and you’ve got to do it.”
The Royal Court is, Sharp says, “very buoyant, very positive” at the moment. So it should be; last season saw two of its shows, Enron and Jerusalem, share a host of awards between them and transfer to the West End, where they recreated their Royal Court success. This season has also started well, with great reviews for current show Posh. While she giggles about feeling the pressure of following that success, it doesn’t seem like much of a worry. “You just have to be really positive about what it is you’re engaged in,” she says, “and that is new writing.”
“If the writing is not good then actually, as a performer, you’re at a loss”
The Royal Court is important to Sharp. She first worked at the Sloane Square venue in 1985 as part of its young writers’ festival, then went on to star in productions including Jim Cartwright’s Road and Andrea Dunbar’s Shirley. At that time, the venue was run by Max Stafford-Clark, now the Artistic Director of Out of Joint. “The imperative that he always passed on was that everybody’s job was to support the writer; it was about the writing and showcasing new writing. That’s what was important,” Sharp explains.
The impact of that advice can be seen in Sharp’s career choices since, both on stage and screen. It is not just that she is working with Grosso now or that her return to the stage was cemented by the premiere of Stephens’s Harper Regan, but on television she has regularly worked with Russell T Davies, starred in Paul Abbott’s Clocking Off and has collaborated with Mike Leigh on film.
“One learns very quickly,” she explains, “that if the writing is not good then actually, as a performer, you’re at a loss. You can sort of make things look better, but actually it’s really difficult. If you’re in a play that doesn’t hold up, it’s really difficult doing a run. You can make it work for a few performances, but after that you’re in a bit of trouble.”
“As I’ve got older,” she continues, “as a woman that becomes less and less easy to find, because what happens is that the women become appendages to men in terms of the structure, so you play somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother, somebody’s teacher, somebody’s social worker. Actually finding really exciting women characters… when you can, you jump at them.”
This is part of the reason Sharp has been seen on the stage so much recently; that is where the good parts have been. In the last eight months alone, she has been able to play the hideously selfish alcoholic mother of an incredibly talented daughter in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, and the struggling mother of a son dying from syphilis in Ibsen’s Ghosts, both in the West End.
“I think probably I should take a bit of a pause. People will get sick of the sound of me”
It came as a surprise to me to discover that Little Voice marked Sharp’s commercial West End debut, the actress having previously worked exclusively in subsidised and regional theatres. She describes the experience as an “eye-opener”, having previously thought complaints about the tiredness caused by performing eight shows a week in a long run were over-exaggerated. By the end of her run, when she was rehearsing Ghosts during the day and performing at night, she fully understood the complaint. She wouldn’t, however, change a thing: “It was a ball. It was an absolute gas getting up every night and doing that. Chances like that don’t come around very often, so when they do come you just have to go for it.”
Sharp’s co-star, filling the role made famous by Jane Horrocks in the show’s original production and film adaptation, was X-Factor contestant Diana Vickers. When the teenager with no professional acting experience was revealed as the performer on whom the revival was being hung, many, both privately and publicly, questioned the decision. Sharp, having watched her performances on the TV talent show, thought her casting was “really interesting. If [director] Terry Johnson, [producer] Nica Burns and [playwright] Jim Cartwright think that Diana Vickers can do it,” Sharp thought to herself, “who am I to [question them]?”
“She was very focused. She was very disciplined. She was an absolute delight to work with. It was brilliant, she put all of that negativity and criticism to flight because she did it, she pulled it off. She was fantastic. I’ve got nothing but admiration for her because she was only just turned 18 when we started rehearsing. I think for any person of 18 it was a big ask. She didn’t miss one show. I was off; my voice gave out. I got into serious vocal problems with [her character] Mari and had to reconfigure what I was doing. Diana didn’t. Diana came out of the show saying she felt her whole vocal range had increased because of the work that she’d done, that she felt much stronger as a singer. That’s all down to the work that she did. I’ve got nothing but admiration for her.”
Sharp’s busy couple of years look set to become a little more relaxing once Ingredient X finishes its limited run at the Royal Court. After Harper Regan, The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Ghosts and Ingredient X she has a “small commitment” to a BBC series, but intends to spend the summer recharging her batteries. “I think probably I should take a bit of a pause,” she laughs. “People will get sick of the sound of me.”
I think that is probably unlikely. In fact, her talk of a possible new collaboration with old friend and Ghosts colleague Iain Glen, about which she is very tight-lipped for fear of jinxing the project, already has me intrigued about what her next stage outing might be; and Ingredient X hasn’t even opened yet. “It looks like it might be coming together for the new year,” is all she will say on the subject. It looks like another 10 year break from the stage is definitely not on the cards, which is good news for everyone.