She may have turned 71 this year, but British actress Una Stubbs is currently enjoying something of a stage renaissance. “And yet people in the street say to me, ‘have you retired?’” says Stubbs with a look of gentle anguish, “because they don’t go to the theatre; if they don’t see you regularly on television they think you have retired, and I think, oh God I’m doing the best work I’ve ever done!”
Those who think Stubbs has retired probably know her from her years on television – perhaps as Rita in 60s sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, in children’s programmes Worzel Gummidge and The Worst Witch, or as a long-serving team captain on game show Give Us A Clue. But it is in the theatre where Stubbs has concentrated her career in the last decade or so, illustrated by this year’s hat trick of stage performances. She was a delightfully air-headed Madame Dindon in camp musical La Cage Aux Folles at the Menier Chocolate Factory last Christmas, and a housekeeper secretly harbouring desires for her dishevelled employer in Shaw’s Pygmalion at the Old Vic over the summer. Now, Stubbs is on stage at the Donmar Warehouse playing put-upon aunt Ivy in T S Eliot’s The Family Reunion.
“Sometimes I feel it’s like a Dali painting, you know, it’s so surreal,” says Stubbs of Eliot’s 1939 dark, complex drama about a family haunted by ghosts of the past. The petite actress is so softly-spoken that I have to sit close in the rehearsal room where we meet to hear her. “I find it almost harder than Shakespeare, at first, because it goes round so many corners and windy roads.”
The mysterious plot centres on Harry, played by Samuel West in the Donmar’s production, who returns to his family’s estate after an eight-year absence to celebrate the birthday of his domineering mother. There, Harry and his assortment of chattering aunts and uncles confront the various secrets that trouble them, some of which are revealed to the audience and some of which are not.
Aunt Ivy, Stubbs tells me in that endearingly dainty voice, is poor and lives in a bedsit in Bayswater when she is not being brow-beaten by her more forceful sisters at family gatherings. “She loves flowers; she used to have a garden and she lost that… and she also likes cake!” says Stubbs with a surprised little laugh, as though that were a particularly eccentric thing to like. Is Ivy fun to play? “Yes! She’s a real saddo!”
Playing the saddos, the eccentrics and the nasties is what Stubbs likes best, and happily, she is at a prime age for such roles. “I think there’s a difficult period for women, in the crossover age, and then when you get much older then there are lots of lovely dotty, mad bats to play!” she laughs again.
“I love working with young, new directors, it’s exciting and I’ve been lucky to do that.”
Stubbs feels very lucky to have the chance to play them. The last 10 years have seen her tackle a whole range of dramatic, comic and sometimes unpleasant characters on the stage – from desperate Hester in Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea to the distateful Duchess Olivarez in Schiller’s Don Carlos – but it has taken a steely determination that belies her slight frame and wisp of a voice for her to get where she is now.
Twice married and divorced – to actors Peter Gilmore and Nicky Henson – Stubbs spent her ‘crossover age’ as a single mother of three sons, and it was her family, rather than her career, that took precedence. “I was bringing up a family and I had to take, sometimes, any old job which meant I would earn a salary for them. Sometimes it wasn’t a good career move,” she says.
The varied concoction of sitcom acting, writing, presenting and, particularly, “not very good pantomimes and that sort of thing” she feels gave people the impression she was “light weight”. Understandably so, she adds, and she has no regrets from that period – on the contrary, she feels she was “very lucky and it saw me through; I could have my children with me a lot of the time”. But the legacy of those years meant a hurdle to overcome when, with her three boys grown and flown, Stubbs was able to focus on her career.
“I’d never done classical work and I’ve had no training, and I knew that if I wanted to stay in the business then I had to work very, very hard and turn my career around to be taken more seriously,” she says. “I thought the best thing was to try and work with wonderful directors and wonderful companies, even in a tiny role, a tiny capacity, and I did that, and gradually I was given more and more to do. And even now I’m very happy to do a tiny part if it’s in a good production. I think now I’m just being taken a bit more seriously.”
Her devotion to her family nearly led Stubbs to miss a vital moment in that career trajectory. She was appearing in Matthew Warchus’s production of Peter Pan at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1996 when one of her sons fell seriously ill and she had to take time off from the show. Her son recovered and Stubbs rejoined the production on the night that upcoming director Michael Grandage happened to be in the audience. “[He] said ‘I think you should do something dramatic, will you do it with me?’” relates Stubbs. She said yes, and he cast her in The Deep Blue Sea at the Colchester Mercury.
“When you get much older then there are lots of lovely dotty, mad bats to play!”
Now the Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, at the time Grandage had just one production under his belt – Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee in Colchester – but Stubbs, whose face takes on a look of awe when she speaks of him, said she knew at the time that he would go on to great things. “Maybe not as enormous so quickly, but we all knew, we all went, ‘oh he’s fantastic’. He’s just wonderful,” she almost whispers.
Would she have conquered a dramatic role without him? Perhaps, but Stubbs feels she owes him a lot. “I just knew I was in safe hands,” she says. “Maybe now, a little bit later, I’d have gone, ‘oh my God I can’t do this’, but anyway he pulled me through.”
Stubbs has now worked with Grandage six times – notably in his award-nominated production of Don Carlos, alongside Derek Jacobi, in Sheffield and at London’s Gielgud theatre in 2005. However, it was not, she insists, the connection with Grandage that led her to be cast in The Family Reunion at the Donmar. Instead, the play’s director Jeremy Herrin cast her after seeing her in Pygmalion.
Herrin joins Stubbs’s director roll-call that also includes Christopher Luscombe, for whom she appeared in Star Quality at the Apollo in 2001, and Marianne Elliott, who directed her in Pillars Of The Community at the National Theatre in 2005. “I love working with young, new directors, it’s exciting and I’ve been lucky to do that. Marianne Elliott and Matthew Warchus, Christopher Luscombe, they are all young,” she says, and I suspect all three forty-something directors would be very pleased to be described as such.
To Stubbs, they are. The trio were not yet born when, after training as a dancer, she started her career as a chorus girl in revue shows and a dancer on 1950s television show Cool For Cats, before going on to star with Cliff Richard in 1963 film Summer Holiday. “Oh God, it seems like yesterday, where’s it gone?” she smiles. “But it’s all wonderful backup for what one does later, if you stick at it and work hard.”
Stubbs is proof that hard work pays off. She may be a twinkly-eyed grandmother – albeit a glamorous one – but Stubbs has shown she is tougher than she appears and now she is reaping the rewards of her earlier decisions by having both a successful stage career and a cherished family. However good her career, it is her family that remains Stubbs’s greatest pride and joy. Thankfully, they bear little resemblance to the troubled characters in Eliot’s play. She beams at a mention of her three granddaughters and delights in describing the fun she has with the middle one, the seven-year-old daughter of a son who lives in Spain. “We play shops or ladies or whatever. Sometimes if I do it a bit well she says ‘Granny are you acting or is this real?’ We have a lot of fun, she’s my best friend.” Stubbs will be off to Spain for her own family reunion when the Donmar run is over.
Then, no doubt, she will be on to the next role in this golden age she is currently experiencing. Though she says it could just be a lucky period that “might stop tomorrow,” she wouldn’t ever want it to. Stubbs, those people on the street might be glad to know, won’t be retiring any time soon. “Why?” she says, softly, but with a slight horror, when I ask if she has ever considered it. With her current career, why indeed?