In a quarter of a century, ‘kiosk queen’ Mary Joseph has become a fixture at London’s Almeida Theatre. The winner of this year’s The Stage Unsung Hero award tells Liz Hoggard why she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else
This is Joseph’s 25th year working at the north London theatre. The mother of five joined the Almeida as a cleaner in 1995, and for the past 15 years has worked as a front-of-house assistant, selling programmes, scripts and ice creams from the kiosk in the foyer.
She had no idea she’d been nominated until the day before the ceremony. When her manager called her in to tell her, she assumed she was in trouble. “When my manager told me, I said: ‘Come off it, what a big joke.’ I couldn’t digest it. But I was so flattered,” she says. Then there was a scramble to find a suitable outfit for the awards. “I wore African dress – a skirt and blouse.”
She may be shocked, but everyone who crosses the threshold of the Almeida remembers her. “We estimate she’s sold 400,000 programmes, 200,000 scripts, 100,000 ice creams,” says front-of-house manager Dervla Toal. “Mary works with us six days every week – she’s our ‘kiosk queen’. She takes pride in her unique sales strategies and is always ready in a crisis – sleeves rolled up to unblock a toilet or first to the aid of unwell audience members. From artistic directors to young ushers, Mary is on hand with a cup of tea and a discreet ear.”
Toal also reveals that when Joseph isn’t in the kiosk customers look disappointed, demanding where she is.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a secretary in Nigeria’s Ministry of Defence. Then I became a teacher of sports and religion.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Be adventurous, I’ve found I like to embrace new things.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My mum. I was a baby when my dad died. She taught me that helping people is the greatest reward you can have in life. And my kids. We learn from each other. And I have four grandchildren.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Joseph grew up in Nigeria and moved to London in the early 1990s. “I first started as a cleaner at the theatre, alongside a job working with disabled children at Lambeth Council,” she says. “I also worked in Islington as a support worker for children and adults with challenging behaviour.” After 10 years, the Almeida’s then theatre manager suggested she apply for a front-of-house role, and the rest is history. “It gave me an opportunity to interact with people more.”
With her background in social care and mental health, it’s no wonder Joseph is good at dealing with the public. “I have my regulars who I love,” she laughs. “And there are also some more challenging ones I put up with.” She regularly defends the price of Almeida programmes (“We are cheaper than the West End”) and reveals the bestselling ice cream is salted caramel.
After 25 years of watching productions, Joseph is clearly knowledgeable about theatre. Shakespeare is her hero – she was in the drama club at school back in Nigeria – and her daughter is a Nollywood actress “so I watched her career blossom”.
Over the years she’s developed a pastoral role with actors and creatives. “Mary was, for me, one of the very best things about making a show at the Almeida,” says former associate director Robert Icke. “I met her first when I was an assistant director, and her twinkle, her warmth and her maternal care for everyone around her hadn’t changed a bit by the time I came back to the Almeida years later as a director.”
Joseph says: “It’s just my nature. Sometimes a kind word goes a long way. Working late nights and long hours takes its toll. It can be isolating. Going home to an empty flat is lonely. We all work under great pressure and exist like a little family. Occasionally I make jollof rice for everyone – it always goes down a treat.”
She turns serious as she talks about a much-loved theatre manager who took her own life. Joseph still regrets she missed the signs that she was struggling. “That was a very difficult time – you’re always left wondering if you could have done more. She was the one who encouraged me to join front of house, so I hope she’s smiling down.”
Although she has her favourite Almeida plays – she nags Rupert Goold every week to revive his 2008 production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot – Joseph is too diplomatic to tell theatregoers what she thinks. They need to make up their own mind. “I say to them: ‘For me, I like it but it depends on what you’re looking for. It’s better you come back and give me your feedback.’”
But, as the eyes and the ears of the theatre, she’s invaluable when it comes to feeding back audience responses to directors. She adores Icke, but thinks some of his productions are just too long. “I say: ‘Rob, can we chat?’ and he is always happy to listen and take it on board.”
In turn Icke observes: “It’s hard to put into words why it makes such a difference to have Mary put a sweet into your hand – often on a break in a difficult tech – or take you to one side to summarise what the audience thinks of a show in previews; but there’s such love – always direct, never sentimental – in the way she does it that it’s one of those things that make a theatre feel like a home rather than a place of work.”
Joseph’s sense of humour is infectious and her mimicry of colleagues second to none, says her manager. “She’s the finest actress that never graced the Almeida stage.”
‘Mary makes the theatre feel like a home rather than a place of work’ – director Robert Icke
Over the past quarter of a century, she has worked under three different artistic directors. First Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid, from 1990 to 2002. “We would have the first preview, and behold, Jonathan and Ian would assist me with cleaning the auditorium,” she marvels. She jokes that she would happily have run away with Kent.
Next came Michael Attenborough, who ran the theatre until 2013 – “he’s a family man who you can sit and chat with” – and now Rupert Goold. “I play pranks on him all the time – he’s great,” she laughs.
Goold returns the compliment. “Mary’s kindness, generosity and commitment to both the art and the people mean she is the lifeblood of our community and we acknowledge her for being the one-off she truly is. When people think of the Almeida, no doubt they remember the shows we have produced but, for me, Mary is the essence of the Almeida. Her warmth, her mischievousness, her unstinting dedication to the role may go unnoticed outside the organisation but, within the building, it’s those qualities that keep the Almeida ticking. We’re very lucky to have her.”
Joseph remembers the years when the Almeida decamped to a converted bus station at King’s Cross so the Grade II-listed building could undergo essential repairs. She talks vividly about designer Paul Brown flooding the theatre for Jonathan Kent’s The Tempest in 2000, the last production before building work started.
“And then when we came back in 2003, the first production Mike [Attenborough] programmed was The Lady from the Sea with Natasha Richardson.” It was in the rebuilt foyer that she gained her kiosk. “I’m like a piece of the furniture,” she smiles.
She reads and digests all the theatre reviews – “I always guess the stars right” – and is delighted to see more young people and people of colour – “people like me” – at the Almeida today. Once the Young Vic tried to poach her. But she remains loyal to Islington. “I said: ‘No, this is my life. I can’t betray my people.’ ”
At 65, Joseph has no plans to retire, much to Icke’s relief: “She’s absolutely part of the fabric of the building, has long-standing relationships with audience and artists alike, and is one of those very special people who contribute in a million unseen ways to making the Almeida what it is.”
Born: 1954, Lagos, Nigeria
Favourite productions at the Almeida Theatre:
• The Tempest (2000)
• The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (2008)
• King Lear (2012)
• The Doctor (2019)
• Unsung Hero award at The Stage Awards 2020