As the eponymous heroine of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, which had its West End premiere in 2008, Ella Smith took on a role many vainer actresses might have rejected. Happily, it paid off and Smith’s endearing performance saw her named Best Newcomer at both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Awards.

Now, after a foray into film with St Trinian’s II: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, the 27-year-old is back on stage, starring opposite Celia Imrie and Charity Wakefield in a new production of 18th-century comedy The Rivals at Southwark Playhouse.

Written in 1776 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the classic comedy of manners has been brought up to date by Red Handed Theatre and Out of Joint director Jessica Swale. Imrie plays Mrs Malaprop, whose mangling of the dictionary prompted its own entry into the English lexicon, and Smith and Wakefield are her unfortunate wards. Lydia Languish wants to elope with the penniless (but false) Ensign Beverley, while Lydia's dithering cousin Julia (Smith) has lost her heart to the jealousy-prone Faulkland.


What made you want to sign up for this production?
It’s a challenge to do a play that people know and parts people are familiar with. To take that on and decide to do something interesting with it – most actresses would love that opportunity. It’s important to do as many different styles of theatre as you can because each one informs the next job you do. I was terrified at the first read-through. But the standard of the actors involved makes it very exciting.

Were you influenced by the other casting?
Absolutely. I’d just filmed St Trinian’s II with Celia so when I was told by the director she was going to be playing Mrs Malaprop, I said, “if I can work it, I will”. Looking at the cast list, it’s quite a coup for this theatre. But they auditioned so many people and we’re all very lucky to be here.

What’s the biggest challenge of performing a period play?
The language – that’s the hardest bit. We want to make it relevant for the moment, rather than just painting this big posh period piece. We want to grab an audience with these elaborate words, but it can be a lot to get to grips with. I have sentences that are six lines long before you get to the full stop. You have to dance your way through it.

It’s really a romantic comedy, isn’t it?
Exactly. I was talking to Tom McDonald who plays my suitor Faulkland, and we decided that essentially our characters are Joey and Dawson from Dawson’s Creek – other than the corset and stiff upper lip. The production is quite fresh. There’s a really nice dance and music element so it’s more like an experience than watching a play. The audience can’t not get involved. And we’ve got a very young, good-looking cast. It was nice walking into a rehearsal room full of gorgeous men!

Your character Julia has a jealous boyfriend. Is that something you’ve experienced?
Less jealousy perhaps, more the games people play. It’s something that happens in your youth when you’re trying to figure out your way and what other people mean to you. I’ve come through the other end now and got to the point where I won’t stand for that kind of capricious behaviour. But Julia is far too young and inexperienced. Faulkland is her one and only love – breaking off an engagement in those days would have been scandalous. So the stakes are high.

What’s it been like working with Celia?
Incredibly funny. She’s such an attractive woman to the point where I’ve had to say, “It’s not really working, Celia. You know you’re going to have ugly up.” All the young boys fancy her. She’s very supportive and not at all starry, always first in there with the biscuits. I think every young actress wants to have a career like hers – long and varied. That’s the dream.

Who else do you admire?
Mark Rylance is one of the most talented and interesting actors we’ve got. I’ve seen him in pretty much everything: Richard II at the Globe, Boeing Boeing, Jerusalem. He’s just fearless, as if he doesn’t care, even though he obviously does. When you go and watch him, it’s easy to think, “I’m going to give up”. But if I achieve a quarter of what he has achieved, I will be happy.

Do you consider Fat Pig your big break?
For me, it’s been more of a steady rise. But that was one of the most amazing roles and people were so lovely and supportive. It will only come along once, though I’d love to work with Neil again.

How was filming St Trinian’s?
It was a complete giggle. You’d think with all those young bits of stuff, there might be problems. They’re all models slash actresses, those girls. But they were actually very down to earth – no diva behaviour. People would even swap lines if they thought a joke was funnier coming from someone else. I’m the head geek so I had to don an awful pair of specs. But I also had the most comfortable shoes, so I was okay.

Do you prefer working on stage or screen?
I don’t see a huge amount of benefit doing TV and film. I can earn £300 a week or £3000 a week, but acting in theatre is a hell of a lot more exciting. You bond with people, rather than just turning up and saying your lines. You go through adversity together. I’d be happy to do theatre forever.


The Rivals runs from 12 to 30 January 2010 at Southwark Playhouse.