Marcia Warren: ‘I was never leading lady material – I’ve got a funny face’
A beaming Marcia Warren greets me effusively as I enter the foyer of the Coronet, Notting Hill, the latest addition to London’s ever-growing roster of satellite venues. We pick our way through the set for The Cocktail Party, not yet opened at the time, which is awaiting assembly, to get to her dressing room.
Although woefully underrated and unrecognised by the wider general public, among theatre buffs – and latterly fans of ITV’s sitcom Vicious in which she plays Penelope – Warren is an award-winning scene-stealer and one of our very best and busiest comedy character actors.
Despite half-hearted murmurings of retirement she is seldom out of work, cornering the market in batty old dears and what she laughingly calls her “Oxfam roles”, where you do not expect to take the designated outfit home with you.
You often wonder about an actor’s criteria for choosing a particular part – a fantastic script, a brilliant director, any job better than nothing? What is it these days that persuades Marcia Warren to leave her beloved garden in Richmond upon Thames in favour of playing a small part in The Cocktail Party?
“I’d been playing a smelly, grumpy old woman in Agatha Raisin for Sky and before that, a homicidal maniac, so when this wonderfully poetic script arrived with a witty, sophisticated role for me – and a nice frock – I jumped at it. I don’t think I’ve played anyone witty and sophisticated on stage since my rep days.”
Warren served a long and happy apprenticeship in various reps after she left the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1963, swathed in glory. “I had five agents when I started,” she giggles. “Nobody told me you’re only supposed to have one. I just went round to all the agents and each one said, ‘Yes, we’ll take you’.”
In Northampton, Bristol, Salisbury, and Canterbury she did “the whole ASM [assistant stage manager] thing”, playing small roles and standing in the wings, rolling ball bearings down a tray to simulate the sound of rain, prompting, flapping the thunder sheet and more. “The secret was not to be too good at stage management otherwise you didn’t progress as an actress. One night in Northampton, where I was actually stage manager at the time, we were doing an Agatha Christie and my ASM took the curtain up too soon. There, sitting on the sofa, were three dead bodies all drinking cups of tea. They took one look at the audience, quietly got up with their teacups and walked off the stage.”
Did she dream of becoming the next Peggy Ashcroft or Edith Evans?
“I never thought about it. I knew I wasn’t leading lady material because of my funny face. When you worked in rep, you just accepted everything you were given, which is probably why I still find it difficult to turn things down. You never thought about the West End, let alone doing television or films. There was always too much going on in your own company. It was hard work but I was young and thrilled to have a job. Before I went to drama school, I never thought anyone would let me do it.”
Warren nevertheless burst on to the West End scene in the mid-1980s with an eye-catching role in Richard Harris’ award-winning comedy Stepping Out, about a ladies’ tap-dancing class in north London, which ran for a year. “My tax return for that year included bills for £400 for tap-dancing lessons and £19 for my chiropodist. If anyone had told me I’d spend a year in the West End, tap-dancing in a silver lurex catsuit, I’d have told them they were barmy.”
In a rare moment of self-analysis, Warren admits that her original craving to act was probably born out of wanting to be someone other than herself. When I ask what kind of child she was, her reply says it all: “Very shy, a dunce. Perhaps I just wanted to be someone else from an early age.”
She says she never expected anyone to allow her to do it (to act). “I’d resigned myself to becoming a gardener but mummy thought grappling around on my knees in the winter wouldn’t be much fun, so she and my father supported me in becoming an actress.”
How does she cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? “I’m not very optimistic in the first place, so when you don’t get something that’s fine because it proves you were right all along, and then it’s a nice surprise if you do get the part. I was never really ambitious. I’d like to have played Rosalind in As You Like It, which didn’t happen, and I’d like to have played the wife in Relatively Speaking, which did.”
One role she never expected was Mrs Wilberforce in the acclaimed 2011 stage version of The Ladykillers, adapted by Graham Linehan from the 1955 Ealing film comedy. Given the iconic status of the celluloid Mrs Wilberforce – Katie Johnson – there are few British actresses who could have equalled let alone trumped her, but Warren found a way. She was, as Linehan himself says, perfect for the role: quizzical yet ditsy, indulgent yet firm.
She was also the only woman among a cast of six men, which seemed to suit her down to the ground. “I had to look after my boys,” she says. “They were adorable, so kind and talented.”
Warren is clearly still in the market for a professional challenge. The Cocktail Party, she suggests, is both entertaining and impenetrable. “We all come in to rehearsals with different ideas and revelations every day, and I’m sure that will carry on throughout the run. It is demanding and extraordinary. It should be ready in about a year.”
The role that has so far eluded her, and for which she is eminently well suited, is Miss Marple, so I remind Warren that Joan Hickson didn’t even start playing Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth until she was 78. “No, too many words,” she insists. Not even if you were offered it? “Too many words,” she repeats. “The brain slows down, you know.”
There is no sign of this, I have to say. Her durability seems to be more of a surprise to her than it is to her legions of fans. “I always thought the work would dry up and that retirement would happen naturally. It’s quite amazing to me that I’m still offered so much work. I’ve learnt to turn things down now, so my garden is looking a lot healthier as a result.”
The Cocktail Party is playing at Print Room at the Coronet, Notting Hill, until October 10