Best known for her television work, Glaswegian actress Sharon Small is returning to the stage – and recalling her childhood – to lead the National Theatre’s Men Should Weep, finds Caroline Bishop.
It is clear, after Sharon Small’s demonstration of a heavy 1930s Glaswegian accent, that non-Scottish audiences for the National Theatre’s Men Should Weep may find the production a wee bit difficult to understand; at least at first. “It will be tougher to listen to,” says Small, reverting to her usual light Scottish-English accent after I admit I couldn’t understand a word of the treacle-thick dialogue she has just recited down the phone line. “But once the ear tunes in I think you will really enjoy the music,” she reassures. “My partner at home goes ‘my God, what’s happened to you? You’ve changed!’”
The Glasgow-born, London-based actress’s revived native accent may be a shock to others too; specifically those who know her as one quarter of the sack-swapping Mistresses, Trudi Malloy, or as the cold-blooded sleuthing sidekick to Inspector Lynley, Barbara Havers. But Small, who has made her name on television, is returning to her roots in more than just voice as she leads the predominantly Scottish cast of Men Should Weep.
She plays Maggie, the heroine of Ena Lamont Stewart’s drama about a stoical mother of seven who, with her husband out of work, tries to hold her family together through abject poverty in 1930s Glasgow at the height of the Depression. “She is a matriarch but not in a really bossy way,” says Small. “She has got something that is very accepting about her and she is happy to play her role. She loves her kids, she loves her husband and doesn’t try to boss him around. She doesn’t try to dominate any proceedings, she is somebody who is doing her best.”
“Way back in 1986 when I went to drama school, there were very few Scottish voices on the telly”
Lamont Stewart wrote the play in 1947 specifically to portray the female experience of the Depression, about which little had been written until then. At the centre of the play is Maggie’s relationship with her husband John. “This is a couple that do stand out for actually still being in love with each other; they are 25 years married and we [they] still do have love. She actually says ‘it’s because things have always been right between me and you that I can struggle on’.”
Men Should Weep is a fixture on the school curriculum in Scotland and was voted in the top 100 plays of the 20th century in the National Theatre’s 2000 poll. Small knew it from her youth, when she played one of the younger characters in an amateur production. “I loved the play then.” So when the chance came to play Maggie at the National Theatre, she jumped at it. “I think it’s a fantastic role for a woman to play. This is a really important story to be told and it’s got resonance with what’s going on today,” she says, drawing parallels with current job losses.
It also resonates with her own life. The eldest of five siblings, Small was brought up by her single mother in a tenement building in Glasgow similar to the one Maggie and her family live in – albeit with decades between them. “I lived in a tenement until I was seven, so I can remember that. They did get better by the late 60s, but we were in the ones that were about to be knocked down, so they were getting very run down. Mum had to potty train us all from an outside toilet. We had no hot water. Eventually she got a washing machine when I was about seven. My mum had to do everything with cold water or just boiling kettles. So I have quite clear memories of that kind of living.”
Is her mother an inspiration for the role of Maggie then, I wonder? “I think all mothers are. I’m a mother myself. I got woken up twice last night, for quite a while. And that kind of tiredness of just trying to keep going and keep going when you are really beat…. I have been speaking to my mum a little bit and I was like, ‘what was your main thing?’ and she was like, ‘just to feed you, that was what it was all about, to get you fed from one day to the next’.”
But Small is reluctant to state that her own experience as a mother of two young sons is informing her approach to playing Maggie. “One of the things that happened when I became a mother was I just cried more. I became softer, I became more vulnerable to the harshness of living, in terms of the cruelty of human nature,” she says. “I think somehow because of the vulnerability of your children and that dependency they have on you, something makes you re-look at the world, at just what a dangerous place it is. But I don’t want to ever speak for anyone who hasn’t had children because I’m sure they can play the part and they can still have the same feelings.”
“I got to play a woman the same age as me and in messy relationships, great friendships and that was just a real gift”
The actress is delighted to be playing such a strong female role – “I’d better bloody do it well!” – at an age when she says there are fewer around. “I think generally a lot of women when they hit their mid-40s suddenly become less cast-able because people are not writing for them,” she says. “There’s definitely less parts around than when I was 20.”
It is ironic then, that this comes at an age Small feels is emotionally rich for a woman. “The more you start going through your 30s the more you get a handle on who you are, and it just gets richer and richer,” she says. “And then as you start to age, it’s a tricky time for a woman, and it’s how to adjust to that, because you don’t really change that much in terms of your desires or what you like or what you find funny. But society starts looking at you really differently. You have to adjust.”
Nevertheless, Small seems to have overcome society’s scrutiny with a succession of plum roles on television, particularly Trudi in Mistresses, the BBC drama about four women in their late 30s and 40s struggling to keep their love lives on an even keel. “I’ve been really fortunate that when I did Mistresses that was just lovely. I got to play a woman the same age as me and in messy relationships, great friendships and that was just a real gift. But I was kind of aware… I thought, this is not going to come along again. It will be back to doing girlfriends or whatever.”
The show ended after its third series this summer, and though Small felt it was the right time – “I honestly don’t see what else you could do with that; you have to be careful you’re not just flogging a dead horse” – she would jump at the chance to work with co-stars Sarah Parish, Orla Brady and Shelley Conn again. I know it sounds like a cliché but I miss them a lot. It really did make genuine friendships.”
She came to Mistresses having spent six years in The Inspector Lynley Mysteries playing the role of Barbara Havers, such a stark contrast to Trudi that it is hard to equate the two with the same actress, something Small is rightfully proud of. “I’m hoping that I can go through my repertoire of work and see that it has been really, really different. Trudi was such a great release to play, because I’d played someone who was very narrow emotionally in Barbara Havers. She was not capable of having a healthy relationship, she was so trussed up with her insecurities and her self-sabotage to a degree.”
“I lived in a tenement until I was seven… Mum had to potty train us all from an outside toilet. We had no hot water”
Though television is where she has made her name, Small’s career was founded on the stage, where she has returned between television jobs. In fact, it wasn’t until five years after graduating from drama school that she even had an audition on television, and her screen career has only flourished in the past decade.
“I wanted to go into stage,” she says of her early career ambitions. “At the time, way back in 1986 when I went to drama school, there were very few Scottish voices on the telly and at drama school you were trained to go to theatre. You got one day’s television technique. That seemed to me to be the route to go, to go to stage.”
Her stage credits include When Harry Met Sally in the West End, a previous appearance at the National Theatre in The London Cuckolds, and The Threepenny Opera at the Donmar Warehouse. In 2009 she returned to the Donmar in Life Is A Dream, while earlier this year she starred in Anya Reiss’s familial drama Spur Of The Moment at the Royal Court, in which she played a middle class wife and mother whose marriage is on the cusp of disintegrating. Much of the play saw her rowing with on-stage husband Kevin Doyle. “It was really enjoyable to do that level of anger, you can’t do that as much on screen.” Stage, she adds, allows her to exercise the acting muscle that “gets a bit flabby sometimes on television” due to the naturalistic, pared down style of acting that the screen requires. But then she adds, self-deprecatingly, “maybe I’ve got the technique all wrong!”
So although Men Should Weep is giving Small her largest stage role to date, she is more than comfortable working in the medium which began her career. And after the curtailment of Mistresses – the final series of which was only granted four episodes and was strangely broadcast during the off-season in August – Small is grateful for the advantages that stage work can bring. “That’s one of the downsides of acting; unless you are a really big name, you don’t have a lot of control,” she says of the Mistresses scheduling decisions. “That’s why quite a lot of actors come back to theatre because they get the range back a bit. Because once that play starts it’s you and your company. No one’s going to shout ‘cut’.” Then she adds with a laugh, “I hope!”