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Brief Encounter With … Suzie Toase

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Suzie Toase is currently starring in Victoria Wood's own revival of her 1978 comedy Talent, which previewed at the Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windemere, and opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory this week (23 September 2009, previews from 17 September).

Toase's previous theatre credits include Into The Woods (Royal Opera House), Guys and Dolls (Donmar Warehouse), Wizard of Oz (Birmingham Repertory Theatre), My Fair Lady (National Theatre and Theatre Royal Drury Lane) and Singin’ in the Rain (West Yorkshire Playhouse and National Theatre), while her television credits include Channel 4’s The IT Crowd and BBC1’s Hotel Babylon. On film, she recently played the role of Alecto Carrow in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

She stars in Talent alongside Leanne Rowe (Dirty Dancing), Mark Hadfield, Jeffrey Holland, Eugene O'Hare and former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry. 

How have you found the preview period?
Well it all happened so fast really. We had a three week rehearsal period and then we were whisked off to the Lakes. So it's been rather frantic, but amazing.

Cumbria's a long way to go to preview a show, did you enjoy the sense of isolation?
Yes, I think it’s really healing - it’s so stunningly beautiful there, plus I’m a Northerner so it's a bit of a home away from home. My father’s side is from Lancashire and my mum’s side is from Yorkshire, so I spent a lot of time in the Lakes as a child.

For those who don't know it, can you give us an overview of Talent?
It’s set in 1978, and it’s about things that happen backstage and on stage at a dodgy cabaret club. It centres predominantly around two characters, Julie and Maureen, who I don’t think were friends at school but knew each other and then worked together. The play follows their evening in the cabaret club, and the different characters they encounter, including two comedy magicians and an organist who Julie has a past with. But I wouldn't want to give too much away.

It’s described as 'a play with songs'. Can you expand on that?
Well it definitely doesn’t feel like a musical. I play the part of Maureen, and her songs are a bit of an internal monologue. My other numbers are quite narrative and they help the story along. I don’t know how it differs from a musical really other than it just doesn’t feel like one. Also, I think because Victoria is so musically gifted she wanted to write songs into it - she wrote the part for herself originally - but she didn't want to write a musical at that point in her career.

Do you think it's aged well?
Well it was written before I was born, so I thought I wasn't going to be able to understand it at all, but it was quite the opposite. There were references to people I don’t know, so I had to spend a few hours googling, but I think it has a very current feel about it – not least because of all the TV talent shows we have now. There are references to certain things that I think you have to be of a certain age to understand, but an audience wouldn’t feel lost. It’s sort of a vintage piece. There’s something for everybody in it.

What’s it like to work with such a comedy legend?
It’s amazing! I tried not to think about it at first because she played the part of Maureen originally and if I thought about it too much it would freak me out! So I chose to be quite cool about that. But she’s just brilliant. She’s amazingly funny, and sensitive, and incredibly generous. It’s been such a fun show to work on, and I feel like I’ve learned so much.

What’s her approach as a director?
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, she gave me the freedom to play and explore and learn Maureen for myself. When I first read it, I thought 'I understand Maureen'. But if I’m struggling with anything, I’ve got an open relationship with her where I can just say “Help!” - obviously she knows the character better than anyone.

Even though it’s been a quick rehearsal process, have you been able to bond with the other cast members?
Absolutely - Leanne and I share a dressing room and we feel like we’ve known each other for months. I mean, most of the things we say to each other are unrepeatable! But the cast is brilliant. It becomes like a little family when you’re away. It’s funny though, I remember watching Mark (Curry) on Blue Peter as a child, and there’s actually a scene in the show where he feels me up - I can't say that's something I ever thought would happen! But he’s so adorable and such a gentleman that he made it very comfortable. I’m wearing a lot of padding in the show so I can’t even really feel it, so I gave him full permission to feel away. He kept asking “Are you sure? Are you sure?” - I was fine, but I kept thinking “I get paid for this?! This is bizarre. This is my job.”

We're seeing a lot of you at the moment, not least in Harry Potter. Do you feel like you’re now moving to the next level in your career?
I certainly hope that I am. I didn’t do that much in the last Harry Potter film, so it didn’t change my career all that dramatically, but I'm in the next one as well so we'll see if that has any impact.

Where do you see yourself in five years' time?
My dream is to get a balance between film and theatre with a little bit of classy telly thrown in. I always want to pick stuff that I believe in; work that I feel is special for whatever reason. And also the thrill for me, being an actress, is that in choosing my characters, I get to reinvent myself every time I work. For example, people used to say to me for years “You’ll never play evil”, which is rediculous. That’s why I was so determined to get the part in Harry Potter, because the character I play is so nasty. I’m a actress, I should be able to do everything. Within my boundaries, I want to try as many types of character as I can.

Finally, summarise why people should come see Talent
Well, apparently we’re just coming out of it, but obviously in a recession you need a good comedy. I think comedy’s always really healing. Plus, Victoria's a phenomenal writer and always produces comedy that’s really intelligently written without being too complicated or heavy. I think it’s a fun night out, and I’ve been told that it lingers afterwards.

- Suzie Toase was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Talent opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory on Wednesday (23 September) and continues until 14 November 2009.


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