Maureen Lipman has compared the work of multi-award-winning American composer Stephen Sondheim to the divisive breakfast spread Marmite. “You love it or you don’t. I happen to love it. I happen to think he’s so far ahead of his time that he will be the one who remains.”
The actress was speaking at the after show party for Trevor Nunn’s production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which opened at the Garrick theatre last night. Lipman plays Madame Armfeldt, the sharp-tongued, wheelchair-bound matriarch in this romantic musical set in turn-of-the century Sweden. “It’s so intelligent, the lyrics, and it’s such an exquisite production by Trevor Nunn. It looks like something that happens inside your head when you’ve had a few to drink,” she said.
Lipman previously worked with director Nunn on the Laurence Olivier Award-winning production of Oklahoma! at the National Theatre in 1998. “Trevor has got a way of not pigeonholing Maureen Lipman which nobody else has. He doesn’t care that I’m from Hull and I’m whatever ethnic persuasion, he just gives me these wonderful parts, like Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! and Madame Armfeldt, a courtesan who has had millions of affairs with Kings and Dukes, and I said ‘that’s not me’, and he said ‘they like witty women’.”
“I love Madame Armfeldt,” she added. “She’s nasty and manipulative and very funny. It’s not too much of a stretch!” Sondheim himself endorsed Lipman’s casting in the role when he first came to see the production, which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory last November. “He gave lots of notes and he was very nice to me, told me he really believed I screwed all those guys, which is a compliment I guess!” said Lipman.
Nunn also hand picked Hannah Waddingham for the role of Madame Armfeldt’s daughter, Desirée, a feisty actress and single mother who secretly fears true love has come and gone. It is a role usually taken by an older actress, which meant Waddingham hadn’t even considered it until Nunn asked to meet her for a chat. “And then word came back that he had decided to age down the whole production so I could play it and I just thought, you have to be joking! I thought, not only have I never worked with Trevor, but to go straight into his main chick was completely overwhelming,” she said.
The role of Desirée – last performed in London to Laurence Olivier Award-winning effect by Judi Dench in 1995 – demands Waddingham sing Sondheim’s famous song Send In The Clowns, which was something of a daunting prospect for the actress initially. “Then so many people have said to me ‘oh you’ve really made it your own’ and I just try and make it a vocalised stream of consciousness, it’s just a continuation of the scene and once you take that pressure off yourself it completely becomes your own.”
Waddingham was last seen in the West End playing the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot, a role she subsequently performed on Broadway. “To come back with something so different is really nice. Because this is very much a play for me, it’s not a musical to me because I barely sing, and I try and make sure that Send In The Clowns isn’t a song,” she said. “That part [in Spamalot] was everything I would want in a vocal part, this is everything I would want in an acting part. God knows what I’ll do next!”
Lipman and Waddingham are joined in the cast by Alexander Hanson, who plays Desirée’s love interest Fredrik Egerman, Kelly Price as the Countess and Jessie Buckley as Anne Egerman. Price, whose previous West End credits include Desperately Seeking Susan, Chicago and Guys And Dolls, said the role of the unhappily married Countess is “so different for me. I used to play characters with kind of a light energy, more flighty. But she’s very rooted and very melancholy as well. She’s also, I’m discovering, a bit of a drama queen, so it’s a whole different ball game for me. And also she’s very posh, which as you can hear from my accent I’m not! What a challenge, and it’s such a fantastic role.”
Buckley, making her West End debut in A Little Night Music after coming to prominence as the runner-up on BBC reality show I’d Do Anything, struggled to find words to describe her first West End opening night. “I don’t really know what happened, it was just one of those overwhelming experiences, something I will never forget,” she said. “I feel very honoured to be sharing the stage with the actors that are up there. I bow down to them, I’ve learnt so much from them and they are the most extraordinary people and also to be given the chance to work with a world renowned director like Trevor Nunn. I can’t tell you how privileged I feel.”
The Irish actress said she asked to audition for the part of naïve young wife Anne after hearing that casting was underway. “I was immediately drawn to this. I read the script and I loved the play and I said I have to do this. So went to the audition, I did an awful first audition because I was so nervous, but then luckily they gave me a second chance and here I am today!”
Though I’d Do Anything winner Jodie Prenger beat her to the role of Nancy in Oliver!, Buckley commented: “I think in the long run it’s the best thing for me. Nancy’s a great part but equally I’m having just as much fun with Anne.”
A Little Night Music also stars Gabriel Vick, Kaisa Hammarlund and Alistair Robins. It is booking at the Garrick theatre until 25 July 2009.
To find out more about A Little Night Music read our First Night Feature from the run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.