Mama Rose is back to tread the boards in London. This time, it’s Imelda’s turn to show why the Queen of Gypsies isn’t a regular mom, she’s a cool mom…
Don’t go calling Imelda Staunton a national treasure or she might give you a withering Dolores Umbridge look and punish you accordingly. “I think it’s an overused term,” says this most beloved of British thesps. “You can say it about Alan Bennett but you can’t say it about me.”
That’s that then, though GT begs to differ. Imelda’s been in the business for nearly four decades and she’s brilliant in everything she does – be it her Oscar-nominated turn as loveable backstreet abortionist Vera Drake in Mike Leigh’s film of the same name, the aforementioned Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in two Harry Potter films, or that big belter Mama Rose in Gypsy, an ovations-every-night performance she’s brought to the West End after a sell-out run in Chichester last year.
This pushiest of showbiz mums – for whom everything most certainly doesn’t come up roses as she tries desperately to make successes of her two daughters, only to see the second one succeed and force her into the background – has been played by everyone from Ethel Merman to Patti LuPone via Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly.
Mama Rose is, of course, something of a gay icon. Though if you ask Imelda why that is, she’s amusingly flummoxed. “I don’t bloody know,” says the 59-year-old actress. “Why do you think it is? Come on!”
For all the obvious reasons: She’s a strong, feisty character who takes no nonsense from no man, never lives life at half-measures and can sure belt out a tune. “But it covers a lot of bases with a lot of people,” is Imelda’s take on the classic musical, “whether you’re gay, a mother, a kid who wants to go into the business. It works on many levels. It isn’t just ‘Ooh, funny showbiz mum.’” She laughs. “But I don’t care who comes to see it. I’m just grateful when anyone comes.”
After her brilliant turn as the villainous pie-making Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd a few years back, if anyone can put bums on musical theatre seats it’s Imelda Staunton. It’s also in musical theatre that the convent-schooled, RADA-trained Londoner got her big break when, after six years touring the country in rep, she did Guys and Dolls at the National Theatre.
She’s been doing amazing work on stage and screen ever since, with Vera Drake earning her numerous awards – though not the elusive Oscar – and Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 being the role she most gets recognised for. “Families see films like that, so you’ve got three or four people seeing them rather than just one person seeing Vera Drake,” she explains.
Just as she views Mama Rose as so much more than “funny showbiz mum”, she reckons there’s a lot more to Dolores than her faux Chanel suits. “That role was more serious than even I thought it was,” she says of the character she played to scarily clipped perfection. “It wasn’t just ‘Ooh, silly funny lady in pink.’ She’s a pretty dangerous woman but yes, in fabulous outfits. She was pretty horrible, but it was wonderful to have that amount of power and that amount of pink wool.”
Imelda jokes about terrorising her young co-stars. “I made their lives a misery,” she laughs. “I didn’t, of course, and what a nice bunch of kids they all were, with their feet on the ground, working hard year in and year out. All I did was swan in and out again.”
Did she get to keep any of those fabulous outfits? She squeals in mock horror. “Did I keep them? Are you out of your mind?” But it’s not unknown for actors to take home keepsakes from movie sets, is it? “Yes, but not from Harry Potter, baby. You don’t get anything off that set.”
Imelda was considerably dowdier in last year’s Pride, where she played Hefina Headon – one of the Welsh villagers pushing for the alliance between miners and gay and lesbian activists in a true story she didn’t hesitate to help tell on screen. “It’s a story that, my God, we need now more than ever, about people helping each other and about tolerance. You couldn’t have gotten two more opposite factions of society who were prepared to stick their necks out and help someone else.”
There’s a very funny scene in the film where Headon and her gal pals hit a gay club. Has Imelda ever popped into one herself? “Years ago, yes,” she says. “I went to Heaven. Marvellous! I haven’t been to loads of gay clubs but they know how to have a good time.”
The ballsy battle-axe of a character, who sadly died just as filming began, must have been fun to play, but that’s not why the actress signed on. “Having fun with something isn’t high on my agenda. Making it right and making it true is top of my agenda. I wanted to uphold her reputation, which was enormous and she was held with such huge affection.”
As indeed is Imelda. And by none other than Stephen Sondheim, Gypsy’s lyricist and Sweeney Todd’s writer-composer, who saw her in the latter and told her she HAD to play Rose. “That made me a bit anxious. I said ‘Do I? Really?’ I was a bit frightened but I thought, ‘He’s asked me so what am I gonna do? Refuse? No.’”
It is, she admits, an exhausting show to do. “You don’t have a life,” she sighs. And the biggest challenge? “All of it! Everything is challenging and everything is a nightmare. There’s no let up and that’s why it’s so demanding, because when you’re not singing you’re barking at someone. There aren’t many quiet moments or a point where you go ‘This is easy.’ It’s full on.”
And how is it getting your tongue around those tricky Sondheim lyrics? “It’s so satisfying because it’s so difficult, but it’s just speeches to a different tune. He says himself he likes actors to do his work. I can always tell when a singer is listening to his or her own voice and there’s nothing more boring. You just have to tell the story.”
Imelda admires Sondheim but, unlike the rest of us, she’s not in awe of him. “Well, at least not like some people are. I can look him in the eye and talk about the work, and his hunger for knowledge and other people’s stories is enormous, so it’s a privilege to be in his company.”
The notoriously hands-on composer will doubtless be there on opening night and Staunton intends to give the show her all that night, and at each and every performance. Leading her to joke that once the run is over: “I’ll be going into rehab, obviously. I’ll be in traction. I’ll be a husk.”
Her usual post-show ritual is home, a cuppa and bed, but won’t she be tempted to pop into the Savoy’s American Bar – which over the years has hosted the likes of Fred Astaire, Noël Coward, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland – to soak in some of that cocktail-drenched history? Imelda laughs. “Not for me, baby. Not unless they serve chamomile tea.”
Words: Simon Button
Gypsy is at the Savoy Theatre, London.