From being recognised the minute she left her front door for playing the country’s favourite murderess, to starring as a German air hostess in the West End, via pregnancy, the 2004 tsunami, a long-term Chekhov adaptation and the fulfilment of a life’s ambition; it has been a busy couple of years for Tracy-Ann Oberman, as Matthew Amer found out.
“I always burble in interviews,” burbles Tracy-Ann Oberman when we meet in the deep dark depths of the Comedy theatre’s dressing rooms; a place that sunlight has never touched and where the air may be decades old. The crypt environment seems fitting for an actress famous for a murder watched by 18 million people – that of Dirty Den in EastEnders – but with a flick of a switch the room is illuminated by a plethora of mirror-surrounding bulbs, revealing the vivacious, if not a little burbling, Oberman.
“The show speaks for itself; it’s a very classy, sexy, funny production.” Oberman is talking about Boeing Boeing, the long-running – it opened in February and is currently booking until the end of January 2008 – French farce in which she has become the third actress to play German air hostess Gretchen, one of three trolley dollies being strung along by architect Bernard. A fairly unheralded arrival on the London stage, the Matthew Warchus-directed comedy immediately received both critical and public acclaim.
Warchus actually returned to the production to run the rule over this latest cast change which saw Jennifer Ellison and Jean Marsh – along with Oberman – join Elena Roger, Kevin McNally and Neil Stuke. It gave the process, says Oberman, the feel of a revamp, rather than a simple three in, three out switch of actors. It also gave Oberman the opportunity to put her own stamp on a character she describes, while laughing, as an “uber-Teutonic, blonde, flaxen-haired wench who could crush you in her bare hands”. Gretchen is a world away from Oberman who, bubbly and cheerful, seems more likely to worry about being crushed than to do the crushing.
"You have a cheating husband who gets your stepson’s cheating girlfriend pregnant, then you accidentally murder him"
“I remember coming to see it and thinking ‘I don’t know, I don’t like farce as a rule’, but I found myself crying with laughter, thinking ‘This is hilarious’,” she says, before slipping into the role of the consummate marketer, a profession she is sure to find employment should she ever turn her back on show business. “It’s a complete feel good play. As the dark nights of October, November and December draw in, I can think of no better place to be than snuggled up in the Comedy theatre laughing your knickers off.”
Though Oberman had been working in theatre and television for years, kicking off her career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and cropping up in television series including Big Train, 15 Storeys High and Bob Martin, it was when she joined the cast of EastEnders in April 2004 that she found stratospheric fame. Playing Dirty Den’s wife Chrissie, her on-screen life was event-packed, even for a soap opera character, from the very start: “You come in, you have a cheating husband who gets your stepson’s cheating girlfriend pregnant, then you accidentally murder him, then bury him under the Vic, then pretend that he’s still alive but occasionally get drunk and talk to him while he’s under the patio, then concoct a whole major story that pretends he’s alive, while framing another girl…”
Such was the drama, the twists and turns in her storylines – not helped by the fact that she worked under three different producers and that Leslie Grantham (who played Dirty Den) was swiftly written out of the series after some ignominious tabloid coverage – that, when it was all over, Oberman was quoted criticising its writing. This, it seems, is actually a misquote, and in fact, “it turned out to be brilliant,” she says, “because I think it was one of the strongest storylines over that period and I think the character, from the feedback I get, made a huge impact because people couldn’t decide whether she was a villain or a victim. In hindsight I loved it; I loved the character, I loved the acting challenge, I loved the discipline. You’re learning all the time because you literally do 25 scenes a day, go home, learn another 20 scenes, come in, film 20 scenes, go home… every day for a year and a half, and you do all your own stunts… being punched in the face by Peggy Mitchell and having to fall into a seven foot grave; it was fantastic. I was only in it for 18 months and it feels like I clocked up about three years worth of TV experience, because I was in, I think, 138 out of 142 potential episodes.”
The fame that comes with that type of role, appearing on the televisions of the nation three or four times each week, can be a double-edged sword. While it makes normal life slightly more difficult, to the point where Oberman would straighten her frizzy hair to avoid recognition – a ploy which, incredibly, seemed to work – that level of publicity also gives leverage to pick and choose the projects she wishes to pursue. Oberman has used it to bring her first play to fruition.
3 Sisters On Hope Street, which will be staged at the Hampstead in February, has been co-created by Oberman with her neighbour and playwright Diane Samuels. The piece, as the title suggests, moves Chekhov’s famous tale to an area and culture close to the playwrights’ hearts. “This is a family that is living through enormous social and political change,” Oberman explains, “[they] completely avoid all big issues by using humour, wit, arguing, bitching and backstabbing, and eat all the time and talk about food all the time. I just thought, ‘This, to me, was a Jewish family.’”
"A kind of Three Sisters via Woody Allen"
She describes the piece as “A kind of Three Sisters via Woody Allen” and extols the comic potential of Chekhov – not often the Russian master’s strong-point in British productions – which she became aware of while studying at the Moscow Arts Theatre School for a term.
Whether she will star in the production is a question for the future that, in turn, poses its own questions. Will she be able to leave her writer’s head in the dressing room and purely be a performer on the stage? “I think I can, and it would be something I’d love to ask Tony Sher [author of The Giant, which precedes 3 Sisters On Hope Street at the Hampstead], who I think has been in his own productions,” she ponders, “but it’s something I need to think about.” Her career has already seen her learn to control her writer’s urge to adjust other scripts she has performed, and she cites Kenneth Branagh as her inspiration for such control, having worked with him on the National’s production of Edmund, in which Branagh, who had been directing rather than acting for six years previously, “was just an actor, even if you could sometimes see him struggling to make a direction work. I kind of took my lead from him on that.”
3 Sisters On Hope Street has been 15 years in conception while Oberman waited for an opportunity to stage it. The show was workshopped two years ago by the cast of Mike Leigh’s 2000 Years, a cast that Oberman was originally meant to have been part of. Unfortunately, on returning from her second honeymoon in India she was horribly ill and thought she had picked up a nasty bug. The truth was rather more pleasant, as she found out she was pregnant. This, though, did not fit in with plans to appear at the National with a director notorious for submerging his actors in the production. Leigh, though, was entirely understanding. “When you’ve got somebody like him saying ‘this is the biggest gift you’ll ever have, it’s a miracle, go and enjoy it, we’ll work together another time’ you listen to him,” she smiles.
As life changing periods of time go, it has been an eventful couple of years for Oberman. The birth of a child will always force you to re-evaluate what is important in life, but even before then, Oberman had things put in perspective when her first honeymoon was directly affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami.
With only ten days break from filming to fit in a wedding and honeymoon, Oberman and new husband Rob Cowan popped over to Phuket during Christmas 2004, for a snatched break. On the day of the tsunami, they decided against their daily walk on the beach. Had their choice been different, I may not be interviewing Oberman now. When they next visited the beach, there was little of it left. Admirably, instead of booking the first flight home, they chose to stay at the resort and try to help, which was more difficult than it might seem. “You try to give blood,” she explains, “but they couldn’t store the blood, and by the time we were getting down to the beaches to help them, the bodies were so contaminated…” Instead they found a local supermarket, bought what they could, and distributed it to the locals whose lives had been decimated.
“Maybe your name is written in a book of life and death,” Oberman muses, subdued for possibly the first time during the interview, “because, for such an extraordinary thing to happen and so many terrible and yet life-affirming stories… you just have to take all the positives and just feed on them and eek out every bit of happiness you can.”
"You can end up acting on a broken leg and you forget about the pain"
Oberman certainly seems to have taken the lust for happiness to heart; she beams throughout the entire interview. And why shouldn’t she, as she has the best of all worlds at the moment; she can spend her days with her child and writing 3 Sisters On Hope Street, and spend the evenings performing in one of the West End’s funniest shows. It is only when she is woken in the middle of the night that the bubble bursts. How does she get through eight shows a week with a demanding daughter? “Sheer determination, iron grit and a love of being a mother and a worker!” she says, grinning and speaking like a footballer who has just played 90 minutes with a broken metatarsal, before quickly revising her answer: “Lots of black coffee and Doctor Theatre.” I’ve never heard of Doctor Theatre, but apparently he is a physician well known in West End circles: “The sheer adrenalin and fear of being in front of between 500 and 800 people a night. The minute you get on stage thinking you are going to die, somehow the bright lights, the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd just sort of… you can end up acting on a broken leg and you forget about the pain.”
As I am about to leave, I notice, casually thrown on a coffee table, a Dr Who DVD. It is not a copy of the episodes in which Oberman appeared as the head of the Torchwood institute, but just one of the DVDs owned by the self-professed Whovian – “That’s the technical name for us Dr Who fans”. With a one-year old daughter, a comedy appearance in the West End, television fame and her first play in the pipeline, it is this appearance in the time-travelling cosmic drama that has been the cherry on the top of a glorious cake: “Some people, their life’s ambition is to walk in and see the Queen Vic, mine was to see a Tardis and a sonic screwdriver… and a Dalek!” em>MA