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Josie Lawrence: ‘I still think of myself as an actor who likes to improvise’

Having trained in drama, Josie Lawrence made her name in TV improv before tackling a series of Shakespearean roles. Now turning to Brecht, she tells Tom Wicker how her early career has informed her acting work

Glenda Jackson has just coughed up a fur ball in front of us. Josie Lawrence, in whose tranquil garden this has taken place, tries to look mortified but can’t help laughing. Lawrence’s cat, named after one of her all-time idols, beats a swift retreat.

Earlier this year, Lawrence went to see the original Jackson in King Lear at the Old Vic and met her after the show for the first time. During their chat, Lawrence revealed the name of her moggy: “Glenda said, ‘Oh God, no,’ and laughed.”

That her idol is the British actor-turned-MP (and back again) speaks to Lawrence’s roots in acting, rather than the improv comedy that would make her name, and was also an inspiration for her latest theatrical role in a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. She recently bridged the gap between drama and comedy, setting up an improv group called the Glenda J Collective last year.

Lawrence – who is most recognisable to the British public as the first regular female contestant in 1990s improvised comedy TV hit Whose Line Is It Anyway? – took her first dramatic steps on the four-year theatre course at the cross-disciplinary Dartington College of Arts.

Josie Lawrence as Katherina, with Michael Siberry as Petruchio, in the RSC’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1996. Photo: Reg Wilson / Royal Shakespeare Company

Lawrence grew up in Old Hill, an industrial town in the West Midlands. She didn’t come from an acting background and ended up training at Dartington following encouragement from her drama teacher. “I wanted to audition for RADA, but the idea of sending me to London worried my parents,” she says.

After her audition at the country-estate campus in Totnes, her mother asked her what she thought. “I told them: ‘They’ve got a swimming pool,’ ” Lawrence says with a smile. “It was the only place I tried out for.”

Dartington gave her improv, Shakespeare (via the Grave-digger in Hamlet) and community theatre. “I loved that side of it,” she recalls – and ensemble work is something she still relishes.

From starring in films such as Enchanted April (1991) and BBC soap opera EastEnders, to winning a Dame Peggy Ashcroft award for best actress for her performance as Kate in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1996 production of The Taming of the Shrew, Lawrence is a versatile actor, who feels comfortable on stage.

“I can be a great lump of anxiety sometimes,” Lawrence says. “But on stage, funnily enough, not.” Warm and engaging, she excels at creating vividly memorable female characters.

Lawrence originated Agnetha in the 2002 premiere of Bryony Lavery’s Frozen at Birmingham Rep, which transferred to the National Theatre. The year before, she had taken over from Elaine Paige as Anna in a West End revival of The King and I.


Q&A: Josie Lawrence

What was your first  non-theatre job? Working at an adventure playground and a shoe shop.

What was your first professional theatre job? The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists at the Half Moon Theatre, London.

What’s your next job?Some improvised shows with the Comedy Store and the Glenda J Collective.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t worry so much.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Mum and dad, Glenda Jackson and Beryl Reid.

What’s your best advice  for auditions? Do your best. You’re unique.

If you hadn’t been a performer, what would  you have been? A gardener.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Always get ready before the half and then sit quietly or pace until it’s time to go on.

After we meet, it’s announced that Lawrence will be Agnes Nutter in a new TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. However, her latest stage role is the titular Mother Courage in a revival of Tony Kushner’s adaptation of Brecht’s absurdist anti-war classic.

Lawrence had encountered Brecht via The Caucasian Chalk Circle before reading Mother Courage, which was written in 1939 while Brecht was in exile in Denmark after fleeing the Nazis. In talking about the play, she returns to Glenda Jackson, who made Mother Courage her last appearance on stage at the Glasgow Citizens in 1990, before becoming an MP.

“One of the things that inspired me was all the actors who had done it before, like Glenda,” she says. Others to have memorably taken on the role include Judi Dench and Diana Rigg, who described the play about a woman selling wares to soldiers during the 30 Years’ War as “a female Lear with songs”. Lawrence says: “I always thought: ‘When I get to a certain age, I’d love to play this part’.”

From Shakespeare to Chekhov, Lawrence relishes tackling theatre’s heavyweight playwrights. So, when another project fell through, she suggested Mother Courage to producer Danielle Tarento at lunch. “I’d purposely never gone to see it,” she says – because she knew she’d do it one day.

Lawrence sees much contemporary relevance in what  befalls Mother Courage and her family as she tries to profit from the war surrounding them. She’s keen to tease out the character’s ambiguities. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, it’s cheeky, chirpy Mother Courage’,” she says. “I don’t want you to like her at times.”

Josie Lawrence as the Wicked Queen in Snow White at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in 2014

Lawrence has yet to start rehearsing Mother Courage when we meet, but she’s excited about the likely traverse staging of Hannah Chissick’s production. Given Southwark Playhouse’s size, this will be a more intimate experience than some of the play’s previous revivals.

“We want to concentrate on what we’ve got – that we’ll be very close to the audience,” says Lawrence. She wants us to “feel that you’ve had an evening with Mother Courage – that she’s sat next to you and spoken right at you”.

From her first acting role in 1979, in the Half Moon Theatre’s staging of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in a disused Methodist chapel in east London, to her almost weekly gigs at London’s Comedy Store since the mid-1980s, Lawrence is used to being up close to audiences.

Lawrence’s improv career began in 1985, thanks to Songs for Stray Cats, in which she performed at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Comedian Jim Sweeney took audience suggestions for improvisations as part of the post-show cabaret. Lawrence asked if she could try it out, enjoyed it, joined the Comedy Store Players and, ultimately, Whose Line Is It Anyway [3]?

In an interview about the British improv scene last year, she had talked glowingly about how improvisation had helped her. “On stage, I’m never scared that I or a fellow actor will forget their lines,” she said. “It’s given me this wonderful freedom.”

Josie Lawrence. Photo: Ruth Crafer

To what extent has improv informed Lawrence’s acting? Originally, performance-wise, it “came very much second”, she says. “I fell into it. I still think of myself as an actor who likes to improvise.” At Dartington, she adds, it was a devising technique, not for comedy.

Nonetheless, Lawrence reflects, the importance of listening to the person on stage with you and riffing off them – key tenets of improvised comedy – has left its mark. “Every night, there’s a slightly different performance there,” she enthuses. “It keeps it fresh, it keeps it alive.”

In this vein, Lawrence tends not to learn lines for a new project until she’s opposite another actor. “I might be on stage with you as a character and then something happens – a look in your eye, an intonation or a movement – that could completely change how I say a line. So, I wait.”

Lawrence’s career has often taken her outside London, from Birmingham Rep to the Royal Shakespeare Company and Manchester Royal Exchange. Doing Mother Courage at Southwark Playhouse is, she says, partly about reminding London what she can do. “You can do great stuff up there, come home and it’s still ‘comic Josie Lawrence’.”

But if she’s surprised that there are still people who think she started as a stand-up, Lawrence is far from jaded about it. She’s grateful for the impact of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, personally and professionally. She adores her improv “family” and, she says: “It’s nice to make people laugh.”

Lawrence describes working at the Comedy Store as “the best part-time job ever”, with a broad smile. “I’m 58, but last night, at the Store, I was the captain of a spaceship and a beautiful 16-year-old Bavarian woman.”

There are roles she’d still like to play but, she says, scripts aren’t thrown at her. Lawrence’s enjoyment of everything from hot tea on early-morning shoots to standing in a ballgown on the London Palladium stage is infectiously uplifting.

She loves what she does and feels blessed to do it. “But ‘blessed’ is always a shit word, isn’t it? Especially in print,” Lawrence grimaces. “Let’s go with ‘fortunate’.”

CV: Josie Lawrence

Born: 1959, Old Hill
Training: Dartington College of Arts
Landmark productions: Theatre: The Taming of the Shrew, Royal Shakespeare Company (1996), Frozen, Birmingham Rep (1998); National Theatre (2002), The King and I, London Palladium (2001). 
TV: Whose Line Is It Anyway? (Channel 4), Outside Edge (ITV)
Awards: Dame Peggy Ashcroft award for best actress for The Taming of the Shrew (1996), Manchester Evening News award for best actress for Much Ado About Nothing, Manchester Royal Exchange (1997)
Agent: Stuart Piper at Cole Kitchenn

Mother Courage and Her Children is running at Southwark Playhouse [5] until December 9