She has been described as ‘diminutive but prodigiously talented’ by one critic, ‘part china doll, part pixie’ by another, with the Independent perhaps paying her the greatest of flatteries when it named her as ‘the Judi Dench of her generation’. While the theatre-world agrees whole-heartedly, there is still one person who remains unconvinced:
“Oh God, no I’m not!” Victoria Hamilton says, audibly wincing as she plays down the compliment and the unwanted pressure that comes with it, and instead likening herself to the veteran actress in ‘chosen career path’ only. “Well, she started out in classical theatre before she went into film and I deliberately chose to take that sort of course, so perhaps that’s what they mean?” Rather hefty amounts of talent probably comes into it somewhere along the line too, although parallels between their careers may have been even more reinforced when Hamilton played the young Queen Victoria in the two-part BBC drama screened over the August Bank Holiday, a royal role that Dench portrayed in the 1997 film Mrs Brown. “The funny thing is, the things that make Judi Dench so wonderful is that there could never be another her, so you have to be hugely appreciative for about 30 seconds and then forget it ever happened.”
Hamilton’s current theatrical venture comes as a refreshing change for the actress. “I’m starting to be cast as ‘mums’ for the first time. It’s a really nice new thing.” The ‘mum’ in question, one of her most sympathetic roles to date, is Sheila and the production is Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, in which she stars alongside Clive Owen as parents learning to cope with caring for a child with cerebral palsy.
Written in 1967, Nichols’ painfully funny and enormously touching comedy takes its inspiration from first-hand experience as Nichols and his wife Thelma learnt to care for their own severely disabled child before she died at an early age. Both have been on hand to talk the actors through a subject that remains very close to their hearts and, Hamilton recognises, one that some might find daunting. “You tend to see people’s faces drop when you tell them what the show’s about and they want to run a mile, but it’s such a brilliantly well-observed, and very funny play with an awful lot of laughter,” she assures. “In fact, both Peter and Thelma have been wonderful in talking to me and Clive about what they went through, and one of the amazing things is the sense of humour they retain. That was the way they coped with the situation, by finding this rather black sense of humour to it all.”
Author Nichols is enjoying something of a comeback after a quiet spell over the last few years. “I think he’s spectacularly un-worshipped so it’s great to see his plays coming back in style,” she asserts. “Thoroughly well-deserved!” As well as Joe Egg at the New Ambassadors (which also stars Prunella Scales who Hamilton describes as “a great giggle”), a touring production of his So Long Life starring Stephanie Cole is rumoured to be on its way to the West End, and Privates on Parade opens at the Donmar in November with director Michael Grandage at the helm, another artist that Hamilton heaps praise upon. “I’ve done three plays with him now and he is just amazing,” she says earnestly, referring to the Almeida production of The Doctor’s Dilemma, The Sheffield Crucible’s The Country Wife and last year’s As You Like It at the Lyric Hammersmith in which she played Rosalind, a role which won her the Barclays and the Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Actress.
It is strange then to discover that despite her obvious natural flair for acting she never intended to take up a career in the precarious world of show business, preferring instead a career in the precarious world of literature. Writing had always been on the cards for her because it was what she did best, and it wasn’t until a troupe from the National Theatre arrived at her school to hold a workshop that she got bitten by the acting bug. “I remember actually getting up on my feet and improvising for the first time,” she recalls, “and getting a real high from it, and saying to myself ‘I think I can do this’.” Things seemed to escalate from that point on, as an interest became a pursuit, and eventually a vocation as she moved from drama O Level, to youth theatre and on to one of the country’s top drama schools. “I’d actually secured myself a place at Bristol University to do English and I was within about a week of going when I suddenly got cold feet. I had to turn round to my mum and dad and say ‘look, I don’t want to wait three years to start training to be an actor’.”
The decision, as it turns out, was a wise one – since she graduated from LAMDA the jobs have been coming in thick and fast, with her longest period out of work lasting only six months (a mere drop in the ocean for most actors), although she is well aware of the ups and downs. “I’ve been extremely lucky since I left drama school. One job has seemed to perpetuate the next. It’s been a bit of a charmed career so far.” Her list of stage credits alone sounds exhausting without adding to it the television and film work, which includes Persuasion (1995), The Merchant of Venice (1996) and Mansfield Park (1999). However, it is the theatre that has been the biggest draw: 1995 saw two performances, in Retreat and Memorandum, at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond and a third in Sir Peter Hall’s The Master Builder. 1996 saw her debut with the RSC in As You Like It and Troilus and Cressida, and the following year it was back with Sir Peter Hall’s Company for The Seagull and King Lear. In 1998 she was working at The Almeida, a year later at the National in Money and Summerfolk, and the list goes on…
Despite a hugely prolific, and incredibly fast-moving career, she points out that even the shortest time spent unemployed can feel like a lifetime.“ It can be incredibly depressing. It’s very difficult to keep saying to yourself ‘I’m an actor when you’re not actually acting. And when you’re just starting out there’s the constant rejection… It’s tough, but it’s also all about keeping your nerve.”
Having been on the go for the last eight months now, the actress feels it is time for a well-earned rest once Joe Egg comes to an end. “We’re hoping it will do well and run into the winter, but you never know,” such is the nature of the business. “I’d love to do some more filming again,” she admits. “In fact, there are lots of things I’d like to do once I feel secure and I know the work’s definitely not going to dry up all of a sudden,” she goes on to say.
Despite the fact that she is either fast approaching or already at the enviable ‘name a play you’d like to do’ stage in her career, Victoria Hamilton nevertheless acknowledges that her life is very much in somebody else’s hands, “an obvious downside to the job,” she adds, “but if you can keep working with good scripts and good directors,“ and she mentions Woody Allen’s name eagerly here, among others, “then that’s sort of the dream really. That’s the best you can hope for.” Victoria Hamilton and cast can be seen in A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg at the New Ambassors which is currently booking until November 24. Box Office 020 7836 6111.