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Wendi Peters On ... The Game

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Wendi Peters is currently playing Mrs Metherell in the Northern Broadsides revival of The Game by Harold Brighouse, which arrives at the Salisbury Playhouse 5 – 9 October.

How does it feel to star in a play that’s not been performed for nearly 100 years? “I’m absolutely thrilled about it. I’d never heard of this play – obviously I’ve heard of Harold Brighouse because of Hobson’s Choice. Then when Barrie sent it through for me to read, I was hooked by it. It’s set in 1913 and it was written then, but it’s so relevant to today – not just the main theme, which obviously is football, but the class system. We like to think there is no class system nowadays but there is. A rich girl marrying a poor boy, his mother not wanting him to get into that situation, and her father not wanting her to marry him: it’s just a really good meaty play. There are a lot of laughs in there, and some really great characters. I was so surprised it hadn’t been done for that amount of time.”

How would you describe your character, Mrs Metherell? “She is very, very strong. She’s the mother of the star football player Jack, and she obviously adores this boy, she’s mollycoddled him, looked after him on his own from being a young child, and she really wants what’s best for him. She doesn’t want him marrying some woman who doesn’t know how to clean the flags outside the front door properly, or keep a house – which Elsie has never learned to do because she’s always had it done for her. She doesn’t think this girl is good enough for him.”

Is she a battleaxe then? “Do you know what, she’s a very subtle battleaxe. She’s not one of those who will thrash it all out, have a big argument about it and stomp her way through. She’s quite clever. “

Do those legendary northern matriarchs still exist? “I think they probably do, but on a much subtler level. Nowadays people are much more independent, women particularly, so there isn’t as much of that staying at home with your parents. There are still those mums who sons will marry someone who will never ever be good enough for them. “

The fictional setting of the play – does it remind you of your home town, Blackburn? “It’s called Blackton, and the team is Blackton Rovers, which is so close to Blackburn Rovers. My grandad used to have a season ticket at Blackton Rovers. Just reading the play, it brought back so many things to me, I thought I really want to do this. The woman I play, Mrs Metherell, she sort of reminds me of my Grandma Dawson: standing there on that front step, knowing everything that’s going on in her street. My grandma worked down the cotton mills from being very young – 11 or 12.”

Did you go and watch Blackburn Rovers with your grandad? “I’ve never been to a football match in my life! The actual game does not appeal to me at all. Apparently I need to go because the atmosphere is amazing. My dad goes occasionally to Blackburn Rovers but he doesn’t have a season ticket.”

Will you find it easy to slip back into a Blackburn accent for the role? “It is a bit of a challenge. Even though I lived near Blackburn up to the age of 16, I never had a really thick Lancashire accent. My mother didn’t, nor my father particularly, and it was never particularly strong. I suppose from doing drama all my life, it has mellowed out a bit. I’m going to stay with my mum and dad for a few weeks during rehearsals and I’m really looking forward to going back and getting about near them and working on it. Because I don’t want to make it a northern accent. I can do a northern accent no problem, I’ve done it so many times before. I want to make it the proper, rounded Lancashire accent, focused on a specific area. There’s no point in doing a job if you’re just going to be able to walk into it, do it and walk away. You’ve got to learn something from it.”

Are there parallels between Mrs Metherell and the character you played in Coronation Street, Cilla Battersby-Brown? “Cilla’s a mother – but the character I’m going to be playing in The Game loves her son dearly. Cilla did love Chesney but in a very superficial way – she never showed it. She was one of those people who never thought about anything before she spoke, she just came straight out with it. She was bright, but in a very conniving way – if there was a scheme going, she’d work it out. So there aren’t big similarities, apart from them both being strong northern women.”

What did you think of the character of Cilla? “I loved playing her. But I wouldn’t want to live next door to her. She’s not a nice character. So I don’t like how she is or what she does, but I loved playing her.”

Is it tough working on a soap like Coronation Street? “Coronation Street is very, very hard if you’re in a main storyline. You’ll be in make-up at 7 o’clock in the morning and not finishing till seven at night. Then you go home and you’ve got six scenes to learn for the following day. So for a certain amount of time you’ll be extremely busy. But then, because there are so many characters, they move it around and it moves on to the next family. Sometimes you get two or three weeks off, or you go up for just a couple of days’ filming where you’re sitting in a Rovers booth doing a few scenes, or you’re at the corner shop. It comes in fits and starts, which is what I found frustrating living in London. I’d either be up there all the time working, which was great, or I’d be up and down the motorway for a couple of lines here and a couple of lines there. I’d rather be working all the time but I’m a bit of a workaholic. Compare that to a tour last year of Grumpy Old Women where we did one nighters. That was physically hard – one day we’d be in Plymouth, we’d do the show, stay in a hotel, we’d get the train the following morning at ten and we’d get to Canterbury. Then we’d do a show that night and move on to another place.”

Do you miss Coronation Street? “I don’t miss the actual job and I don’t particularly miss the character of Cilla. I miss some of the people – I miss the immediate family, I miss Sam Aston who played Chesney, although we keep in touch with phone calls and texts, and Jennie McAlpine (who played Fiz Stape) and Andy Whyment (Kirk Sutherland). Some of the people I miss the most are the make-up ladies and the wardrobe – the people who you spend a lot of time with first thing in the morning. But the actual job and the character – no, I’m having such a great time doing a variety of things and having a bit more time at home in between.”

Would you go back? I was lucky enough, nine months after I left, to be asked if I’d be interested in doing a DVD of Cilla. We went to South Africa and filmed: who’d say no to that? Three weeks filming in South Africa with Jennie and Andy and Sam, it was absolutely brilliant and how lovely to be asked. I saw it as closure for the time being on the character. She’d left, popped off to Vegas, and it was all very mish-mash and quick, so the DVD was a closure – for now. But never say never: I’d be stupid to say I don’t ever want to go back because you never know, in five or six years’ time I might not have any work for three years and say ‘I’d quite like to go back there’! In the immediate future I have no plans to go back.

Was Bad Girls a fun show to do? “I played a lovely character called ‘Podger’ Pam – I get all the best lookers! I had to wear a fat suit and they dyed my hair black, and they did put make-up on but only to make me look absolutely terrible. It was a great thing to do. She was bonkers. She heard voices in her head and a voice had told her she had to kill the gas man when he came to read the meter, and then burn him. As you do. That’s why she was in prison.”

Cilla and ‘Podger’ Pam are larger than life characters – where do you draw the inspiration from? “It’s what I love doing. I love taking a role and making them into a character. I started out as a theatre actress, and it’s a very theatrical thing to do. A lot of television nowadays is very naturalistic, people just being themselves which is lovely, and I’ve done that as well. But I do like to have a good meaty character to play.”

When did the acting bug strike? “When I was about 10. I persuaded my mum to let me go to ballet lessons, because my cousins did, when I was about eight. From ballet I went on to do tap and modern and every form of dance. Through the dancing school I got involved in Blackburn amateur dramatics, being a dancer in some of their shows, then doing plays at school. I remember thinking this is what I really love, this is where I’m happiest and it’s what I want to do. It didn’t go down too well at a grammar school. My headmistress was a little bit ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing?’ But once she’d seen me in a few school plays she realised it was what I was meant to be doing and gave in.”

Did your parents have a theatrical background? “No – apart from my dad pottering around in the garden and singing, absolutely nothing. Nobody knows where it suddenly came from. But both my sister and I got the bug from an early age. My sister’s four years younger than me and she did the same kind of thing as me, and played Annie in the West End when she was 10.”

Your sister Lindsey Dawson is best known for her role as Jez on Channel 4’s Shameless. Do you get jealous of one another? “It’s odd because there’s been many a time when we’ve been up for the same role and luckily neither of us has got it. We don’t think like that really. We’re just pleased for each other whatever we do. We know how hard it is to be an actress so we’re thrilled when one of us gets a part.”

You studied at the London Studio Centre – did any of your fellow students also go on to make a name for themselves? “There are a few. Liz Hurley was in the year above me. She was great: bonkers, absolutely bonkers, really good fun and joining in with everything. We were in a lot of the college productions together, we did Cabaret, and a production of Grease. A couple of years above me was Stephen Mear who is now a huge West End choreographer – he choreographed Mary Poppins and Sweet Charity, and stuff like Little Mermaid on Broadway. Below me was Tamzin Outhwaite, who’s starring in Sweet Charity in the West End.”

You’ve performed in a lot of musicals – is that a particular love of yours? That’s where I started out. I went to musical theatre college and I did a lot of musicals because that’s what I knew and it’s what I loved doing. When I left college I did a lot of what I call the quirky teenage role. But there comes a point when you’re too old to play those roles but not old enough to play the big mother characters in musicals. I decided I wanted to venture into more comedy, straight theatre and do some television as well. Now, if somebody was doing a musical with a role that I really wanted to do, I would love to do it. I’d love to play Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, and I’d love to play Rose in Gypsy.“

You’ve starred in two very different touring productions: The Vagina Monologues and Grumpy Old Women Live. “I’d done lots of theatre, but it always had that fourth wall: you were doing a play in your little space and the audience looked in. The difference with Vagina Monologues and Grumpy Old Women was that the fourth wall went, and we were doing almost stand up: talking to the audience, involving them, sometimes being heckled a little bit. It was a new skill I wanted to learn, and I loved it! I loved the response from the audience.”

Was it fun to perform in Grumpy Old Women Live? “I’ve never had a reaction from an audience like it. Susie Blake and I were just astounded by it the first few nights; obviously Jenny Éclair, as a stand-up comedienne, was used to that reaction. But we had to pause the show for five minutes while the audience calmed themselves because they were laughing so much. That’s an amazing buzz to get from a full 2,000-seater theatre.”

Have you anything lined up after The Game? “No I haven’t. It finishes at the end of November, which is a lovely time to be finishing because it’s just too late to do something at Christmas, theatre-wise. I will be looking forward to a Christmas off. The family are talking about all going out to South Africa for Christmas, which will be really lovely. My parents have a house out there and we’re talking about them, and my sister and us going out there because it’s my dad’s birthday on Christmas Day.”

Has your 10-year-old daughter Gracie shown any interest in performing? “She does lots of stuff at school and she loves it. She does singing exams and she’s done a drama exam, and she really enjoys it. I’ve never known a 10-year-old who’s been to see so many shows in the West End or seen so much theatre. My husband was in the final cast of Cats for its last three years. Just before it closed we took her – she was 18 months old and she sat through the whole of Cats on her own seat absolutely enthralled by it all. Next year the school’s doing a production of The Pirates Of Penzance and she’s thrilled about that. “

Would you worry if she wanted to be a professional actress? “She says she doesn’t want to do it as a career at the moment. It wouldn’t worry me. It’s not something I would advise her to do but if she truly wanted to do it I certainly wouldn’t stop her. At least she’s been made aware of all the things that can go wrong – that you don’t work all the time, and you have to learn to do something else, to have a sideline to do alongside it.”


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