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20 Questions With...Gemma Craven

Actress Gemma Craven, now appearing in the new musical Taboo which starts previews this week, explains her fascination with forensic pathology & assesses Boy George's crossover from pop star to stage composer.

By • West End


Award-winning ctress Gemma Craven (pictured) has been a familiar face to British theatregoers since she made her West End debut in the 1970 production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Since then, her many West End credits have included South Pacific, A Chorus of Disapproval, The Magistrate, Three Men on a Horse, Loot, Song and Dance, They're Playing Our Song (for which she won the 1980 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical), Godspell, Black Comedy, Dandy Dick, Trelawny, The Threepenny Opera and, most recently, Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Craven's other stage appearances include nationwide tours of Present Laughter, Private Lives, The Shakespeare Revue, 42nd Street and last year's Anything Goes; A Taste of Honey (Palace Theatre, Watford); The Confederacy and A Month in the Country (Chichester); and, in her native Dublin, Calamity Jane, The King and I and Stella by Starlight.

On television and film, Craven has been seen, amongst other things, in The Slipper and the Rose, Still Life, Wagner, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Why Not Stay for Breakfast?, Double X, Pennies from Heaven, She Loves Me, Emily and The Marshal.

The actress opens this month in pop star Boy George's musical debut Taboo, which recreates the hectic London club scene of the 1980s.


Date & place of birth
Born 1 June 1950 in Dublin, Ireland.

Lives now in
Fulham, south London

First big break
The West End production of Fiddler on the Roof (1970).

Career highlights to date
There are so many it's not true - it's been absolutely wonderful. On stage, perhaps my biggest highlight was the musical Trelawny (at the West End's Prince of Wales Theatre), which was Cameron Mackintosh's first venture as a solo producer. On television, Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven. And Brian Forbes' film The Slipper and the Rose (1976).

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I loved working on all of them. There are two specific ones I dearly loved, though. The Slipper and the Rose, which was my first movie. And in the West End, Joe Orton's Loot, with Leonard Rossiter. That was the first show where I had to use my own Irish accent. You can't hear the accent anymore, but you would if I were with my mum. Another favourite was Wagner on TV.

Favourite co-star
I was junior to many of the people I've worked with and they taught me a lot. Favourites have included Alastair Sim, Leonard Rossiter and, on the music side, Marvin Hamlisch. The list seems endless.

Favourite director
Jonathan Lynn, who directed me in Three Men on a Horse (National) and Loot. He's the one who really showed me how to deal with comedy, he brought it out in me. Also, Brian Forbes, who I found to be the most caring director. This is the first time I've worked with Christopher Renshaw (the director of Taboo). His temperament under such pressure is wonderful; he has phenomenal patience.

Favourite playwright
There it really is a mishmash. The plays I've done have been so diversified. I love trying them all.

Favourite composer
I love classical music - I love a bit of Shostakovich, Mozart and Brahms. But, to the other extreme, there I am with Def Leppard and Bryan Adams, who is a great lyricist and songwriter. And, for stage, I love the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein. My tastes are a real mixed bag.

What role would you most like to play still?
That's a bottomless pit. There are so many that I would like to do. I would like to do serious plays, some costume drama. And I like playing nasty parts - they're more meaty and I've already done the nice ones. There's a lot out there waiting for me.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I'd advise them to go to the theatre and see what we're all about it. And they should have to pay for their own tickets.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
No one to do with my business because I'm already doing that now. It'd have to be someone in the financial world so that I could get into their brain and see what's it all about. I'm hopeless with finances.

Favourite book
Usually, it's whatever I'm reading. At the moment, that's Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus - I find it good fun. I do like David Gemmmel and am looking forward to his new book (Stormrider, due out in April 2002). If he's reading this, can I ask for a signed copy please? He also lives in Essex, which is where my mum lives now.

Favourite holiday destination
What's a holiday? I haven't had one in six years.

If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would have liked to have been a forensic pathologist. I don't know why, it must be something in a past life. It's not all the bodies and all that stuff that appeals. I'm interested in how anybody in this day and age, with all the technology we have, gets away with murder. The science of it fascinates me. At one time, I also thought about law.

Why did you want to accept your part in Taboo?
At the time, I was out of work because I'd just been dropped from a show in Bath. The theatre rang my agent and said they didn't want me. It was a bit of a mix-up because, due to lack of paperwork or something, they're now suing me. So I was glad at the time to be offered this. The prospect of doing a brand-new show also attracted me and I'd read the script. I thought this would be terrific. I'm the mum in Taboo and you get to see her character develop from being the nice sort of housewife who doesn't really give herself any time. You see lots of lives progress and disintegrate. And I lived through the 1980s. It's like going back in the time, to a period that was a very good one for me.

What were you doing in the 1980s? Can you relate to the club scene depicted in Taboo?
So much was happening in my life in the 1980s - They're Playing Our Song, Wagner, Song and Dance, I got married to my first husband, I got divorced - it was all go go go, and very exciting. I was never a club person, though I knew of these people and used to see them around. I prefer going out to a nice dinner party.

On the whole, the Taboo company is quite young. How do you feel now being one of the "veterans"?
I've gone from being the junior in a company to the mum; it's great. This is one of the best companies I've ever worked with, too. Everybody - from the cast to the director to the people who own the building - is wonderful, it's a complete family. We're all leaning on each other, but I'm the mainstay. Which is rather nice and very respectable. I hope I'm able to pass on things to the younger members; they tell me I do. I think, one way or another, you have to learn from the people you work with. If they're good, you learn what to do from them; if they're bad, you learn what not to do. If you don't learn, you're wasting your time.

Boy George is known to most people for his pop success with Culture Club. How do you think he fares as a musical composer?
Musicals are very different from pop. I was absolutely astounded at George's ability coming from that side to this. In his numbers, the dialogue goes immediately into the first line of the song. It's like old-style musicals, like Rodgers and Hammerstein. The lyrics are very much a part of scene - it's very clever. They're all brand new songs, too.

What's your favourite musical number from Taboo?
"Petrified", which is sung by Philip Sallon's character. And "Mother", which is very poignant. You'll need your hankies for this show.

What's the most notable thing that has happened in rehearsals for Taboo?
The rehearsal room is absolutely freezing and we've all got terrible colds.


Taboo opens at The Venue, a newly converted West End theatre off Leicester Square, on 29 January 2002, following previews from 14 January.


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