Actress Josie Lawrence talks to Diane Parkes about returning to a play she last appeared in 15 years ago.
Black Country actress Josie Lawrence is returning to familiar territory when she performs in The Cherry Orchard at Birmingham Repertory Theatre next month.
Josie, of Old Hill, played the maid Dunyasha in a Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Chekhov’s drama at Stratford-upon-Avon 15 years ago and now next month she takes the part of Madame Ranevskaya.
But she says the two experiences are totally different.
“That was a few years ago, it must have been 1995 when I was with the RSC. It was in the Swan which is a much smaller, more intimate theatre. And at the time I was in rep and was also in The Taming of the Shrew.
“When you come to a play again, with a totally different cast and director, and in a different space – and 15 years later, you see it anew.”
Despite her familiarity with the play, Josie admits that she and director Rachel Kavanaugh were undecided between The Cherry Orchard and another Chekhov play The Seagull.
“I love The Cherry Orchard and I also love The Seagull,” she says. “When we started talking about doing it, it was a toss up.”
Josie and Birmingham Rep director Rachel worked together on the Tom Stoppard espionage drama Hapgood two years ago and Josie says both were keen to collaborate again.
“Rachel really gets actors,” she says. “She is always in a good mood and she always works in such a creative way. It is a really good experience to be an actor working with her.
“When they did the play in Russia they had 18 months of rehearsal and we only have four weeks, but you don’t worry at all when you are working with her.”
Fifty-one-year-old Josie, who has also featured in productions as diverse as Acorn Antiques, The King and I and Much Ado About Nothing, is also enjoying the process of getting under the skin of Madame Ranevskaya, a once rich noblewoman who is faced with selling her cherry orchard to pay the debtors.
“I always think people can be too reverential about Chekhov when he wasn’t like that at all. He has a real connection to people. There is something worn around the edges about it all.
“Madame Ranevskaya’s name means Wounded Love and that is just what she is. She has been wounded. She has had a dreadful experience, giving everything up for a lover who lets her down and she is surrounded by hangers-on. And then she puts the blinkers on. She does not want to see what is happening.
“This is an enjoyable play but it is not all easy because it is so complex.”
Josie has strong links with the Rep having first performed there in 1997 in The Alchemist. And, as well as varied stage experience, she is also a well-known comedienne, a founder member of The Comedy Store, and television actress.
Since she was last at The Rep she also took a stint in EastEnders as Amanda Best, a former girlfriend of Minty Peterson from 2009 until February this year.
It was, she says, a fun experience.
“I was initially there for 11 episodes but then the story was revolving around the killing off of Archie Mitchell so they asked if I would stay for three months with an option on another three months,” says Josie. “They still let me do other things like The Comedy Store and voice overs so I thought ‘well this is quite good I will do TV for a while’.
“They work really hard and they are so nice and friendly. I loved my character but I was very well aware that she was never going to be the one to be given a nervous breakdown or have a fourth baby.
“I really enjoyed it but I also knew when it was time to go.”
Once out of the soap, Josie decided to channel her energies back into comedy and stage and a different passion – music.
“I am in a band,” she confesses. “Well actually there are the two of us. Steve Edis who plays drums and piano and me. I have an old piano at my house which never gets used so Steve came round and had a go and we have done about 14 songs now.
“We have written about five new songs and then we have also taken some old jazz songs and done our own versions of them. I am enjoying it so much it doesn’t feel like work.
“We were hoping that we could play a little intimate gig while I was here in Birmingham but Steve is the musical director of the new musical Birdsong so he is really busy and I have been busy doing this so we haven’t had time to sort anything.
“I have said what we need to do is decide a venue and a date in January or February and book it and then we will have to do it.”
And they have not even decided the name yet.
“We keep going round and round on it,” laughs Josie. “We come up with a name and think it is great and then we come back the next day and decide we don’t like it anymore. We will probably end up being something like the Josie Lawrence and Steve Edis Band.”
Josie is with The Cherry Orchard until early November and only time will tell whether or not she will get round to organising that gig as the next few months are also busy.
“We have The Comedy Store’s twenty fifth birthday. I can’t believe it has been 25 years,” she says. “And we will do what we always do – a show.
“I am also looking into doing another play. I can’t tell you what it is yet but it is a new play.
“And I am going on holiday to Egypt. I was all booked and ready to go in April and then the ash cloud came and we had to cancel so I am really looking forward to going now.”
* The Cherry Orchard with Josie Lawrence and directed by Rachel Kavanaugh plays Birmingham Repertory Theatre from October 15 to November 6. For tickets see www.birmingham-rep.co.uk or call 0121 236 4455.