Maria Friedman: 'I'm a performer first and foremost'

The award-winning actress and director discusses her new cabaret show at The Pheasantry and joining the cast of ”EastEnders”

'I'm a performer first and foremost' - Maria Friedman
'I had a very unfocused talent' – Maria Friedman
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Your new cabaret show is called Back to Before – what inspired it?

The idea came from me talking to people about how I started in the business and thinking, 'I've got to write this in a book'. But instead I decided to come up with a show that included lots of funny stories about myself and my route into the industry, including songs from some of the shows I've appeared in over the years – from Chicago to Ragtime and Oklahoma!. The thing about doing these shows is that once they're done, they've gone. It's been great fun revisiting them for Back to Before. I've also got some great backing singers who have just qualified from the Royal Academy of Music, as well as a double bass and a piano, so it'll sound fab. I don't know how we're all going to squeeze onto the Pheasantry stage but we'll manage somehow!

Could you give us an insight into your working relationship with your musical director, Jason Carr?

We have a short hand, in that I don't have to ever explain myself, he absolutely understands what I want from the accompaniment. But equally he will push me to where I have to be, in a way that someone else might not have the confidence to do. He's tough on me. I take him into areas he's uncomfortable with and he does the same to me and I think that is probably why we like working together. We keep pushing each other to try new things and we're both open to each other. We've worked together for 20 years now.

Last time we spoke you were directing Merrily We Roll Along – has that experience changed the way you approach performance?

It really has. It's shown me that you can be much freer. I wanted my rehearsal room to be a place where people were confident enough to try all sorts of different things and they did. I've never given myself that luxury, I've always much too hard on myself. So it's made me much freer – I'll try this, I'll try that and it doesn't matter if it's not all spot on.

Is it nice to fully immerse yourself in performing again?

Absolutely. I'm a performer first and foremost, that's the animal I am – I need to do it. Not all the time, necessarily, but now and again.

Having said that, have you further plans to direct?

I do. In fact there's a project coming up that I'm really excited about. I wish I could reveal more but I will say it will hopefully be in the West End, and it's not a Sondheim show.

Consider us intrigued. We have to talk about EastEnders. How did that come about?

Friedman with her EastEnders co-star Kellie Bright
Friedman with her EastEnders co-star Kellie Bright

It was just an offer. [Producer] Dominic Treadwell-Jones saw me playing Mrs Lovett with Bryn Terfel at the Albert Hall a few years ago, and when they were writing this part for EastEnders he said he just kept thinking of someone who was perfect for it but couldn't remember who it was until he got the footage out of the archive. So he sent it to the BBC and said I was who he wanted to play the part. It was lovely.

Can you tell us a bit about your character?

I play Elaine who's the mother of Linda, who runs the Queen Vic with her husband Mick, played by Danny Dyer. I have three grandchildren. She's a fantastic character; funny, witty, vain – she's a sorter-outer, she's very direct. I would say she's a mixture of Peggy (played by Barbara Windsor) and Angie (Anita Dobson). She's a real matriarch. She's so much fun to play!

Was it daunting walking onto that set?

Yes it was. I was absolutely beside myself with terror. I've done years and years of TV, I was a regular in Casualty before musical theatre took over. But even so, the first day was completely terrifying, though the second day was fine; everyone is so lovely and so warm, they made me feel like I was part of the TV family.

Will Elaine be bursting into song at any point?

Ha – I could certainly suggest a karaoke scene! If I can use the role to boost the profile of musical theatre, all the better.

Is it a long-term commitment?

Yes, it is. I have a lot of commitments until the middle of next year so I have to come in and out for a while, but they're being amazingly accommodating. I'm getting to do all the bits I love in theatre as well as TV so I'm very lucky.

And what about theatre roles – anything in the pipeline?

If you'd asked me that last year, I'd have said absolutely not, because I was doing too many other things and also getting to put my children to bed and go out in the evenings, which you can't do when you're doing eight shows a week. But there is something on the table now; it's brand new and we're talking about doing it next year. It's the first time in about ten years that something has sounded really interesting.

Is it Sondheim?

No. In fact it's British people who have written it. And it suits me down to the ground because I'm not keen to do the big blockbusters anymore. I don't know why, but it just doesn't float my boat. I'm more interested in getting involved in something new and growing it and taking the risk.

Are you concerned that risks aren't being taken in musical theatre?

Yes. Without any question, investment has to be put into musicals and we just don't do it right in the country. We need our subsidised theatres to back composers, just like they do playwrights, and help them emerge. They need the right to fail, otherwise they'll never get it right. And I see it in the way that musical actors are trained now – it's all about having three minutes to knock their socks off, X Factor style, and that's how you make an impression. But it's a dreadful way to approach things.

If you were starting out now do you think you'd be able to have the same career path?

I doubt I'd even get seen for anything. I was far too nervous when I started out, I had a very unfocused talent. I only got a break because Ray Cook, the musical director on Oklahoma! [at the Leicester Haymarket, 1980] gave me a second chance. I failed terribly at the first audition – I couldn't even remember my own name – but my boyfriend [Roland Brine] was in it and told Ray I had blown it because I was nervous. So he gave me another go, and I got the role. I'm not sure I'd get that chance now.

You come from a theatrical family – do you think the next generation will follow in your footsteps?

My eldest son absolutely adores music and spends hours and hours in his room with his guitar and microphone singing away. But he likes heavy metal, so I'm not sure he'll go into theatre. And my younger son loves poetry and rapping. He's a brilliant poet, but he's of the generation where everything is done on the computer. It's quite interesting how everybody is gauging their success by how many followers or hits they have now. It's really scary. I think it's almost unhealthy, and I encourage them both to take pride in the work they do regardless of how many hits it gets.

Maria Friedman – Back to Before is at The Pheasantry from 14 to 30 October. Elaine makes her entrance on EastEnders next week.