Rebecca Johnson is an actress whose work I was already familiar with, having seen her last Christmas as Mrs Darling in Wendy and Peter Pan at the RSC in Stratford. I rated her performance, then, and she has continued to impress me now that she is starring as Liz Essendine, alongside Samuel West as Garry Essendine, in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which is touring to Richmond, Brighton and Malvern until 21 August 2016. I chatted to Rebecca about her role in the play, her experience on tour so far and who inspires her as a performer.
Thank you for talking to Break A Leg, Rebecca. Tell me about Present Laughter and the character that you play.
What can I tell you about Present Laughter? It was written in 1939 and couldn’t be performed because of the outbreak of the Second World War. I’ve previously done other Noel Coward plays which include This Happy Breed, The Vortex, both with Stephen Unwin who is the director for Present Laughter. I love working with Stephen and I also worked on A Day In The Death of Joe Egg which he directed, that was on at Liverpool Playhouse and Rose Theatre in Kingston.
What I particularly like about Present Laughter is that there are more female parts than male parts, which doesn’t happen very often. It’s a very happy company to work with, too, wherever we’ve toured to there’s usually a company outing planned.
My character, Liz Essendine, is Garry’s wife. They’re no longer together, she upped and left him years ago, but they’ve never got divorced. There was obviously quite a romantic ruction in the past, probably an affair that caused them to go their separate ways. Although professionally they’re still very, very close, she’s a writer herself and writes stuff that could be a vehicle for his career. She’s a very no-nonsense sort of character and I’ve taken a leaf out of her book, she tells it like it is, she’s quite unemotional about stuff. There’s an edginess to her that I like and she really schemes in the play, she is instrumental in having Joanna locked in the ‘slut cupboard’ as we’ve called it, Stephen (Unwin) christened it the slut cupboard! The way that she arranges for Joanna to be hidden in there and pretends that she’s at her flat is great, Liz is a schemer and a fixer.
Did you find that the way you played her changed as you went through the rehearsal process?
For a while I found it difficult to ‘find’ her and decipher how she might be different from Monica (played by Phyllis Logan). Although it’s funny because sometimes your first instinct is right and then you go around the houses and take various notes and read different things, but ultimately come back to where you started.
When you went to drama school, what were your ambitions?
When I was first at drama school my ambitions were to play all of the female juvenile leads in Shakespeare plays. I’ve played most of them, but not Juliet or Cordelia.
Who inspires you as a performer and who inspired you to go into acting?
Lots of people inspire me, I would have to say Dame Judi Dench. I saw her on stage in Absolute Hell which starred in with David Horovitch who played my dad in Just William. The way that she had the meltdown in that play to ‘absolute hell’ it was breath-taking, her range is remarkable. Also Dame Maggie Smith is an inspiration to me.
I’ve also been inspired by lower brow stuff like the Carry On films and looked up to actresses such as Hattie Jacques and Joan Sims. I also liked Molly Sugden in Are You Being Served.
Are there any characters that you have a particular ambition to play, now?
I’d like to do more new writing, I’ve done a bit, I’d like to be there at the beginning, I did that with Coram Boy at the National Theatre. I was involved in work shops where we improvised and one of my lines was used in the final script.
I’d also really love to focus on comedy, I think Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval must be due a revival by now!
What would you say to encourage potential audience members to come and see the play?
If you want 2 1/2 hours of entertainment, laughter, come along and see it. It’s not without its sardonic humour, but ultimately it’s a very funny comedy and might just beat the post-Brexit blues!
Thanks to Rebecca for a smashing interview, I highly recommend that you watch this amazingly talented lady on stage in Present Laughter, and in anything else for that matter!
Photo credits: Theatre Royal, Bath