Angela Lansbury is an icon loved across the globe, but what draws you to her as an individual and inspired you to dedicate your one-woman show to her?
She approaches song and song craft much the same way I do. We’re both English with a British style of drama training, and like her, I like to use song as a vehicle to tell a story and provide drama. Realising that sparked my interest. Also, she had the courage to learn as she was going. Broadway directors criticised her and undermined her confidence, yet she overcame the challenges. She had so many knock-backs but always managed to triumph through. They said she had a thin little voice and even re-voiced her songs sometimes. And now look at her! Still going strong!
When people think of Angela, they see the Hollywood actress without understanding the changing political environment she established her career in. How was Lansbury herself involved with feminist preoccupations, and how much was her work informed by the political climate?
If you look at the parts she had a say in — for instance, Murder She Wrote, even before her own company took over the production, and TV musical Mrs Santa Claus — she made sure the characters were assertive but not aggressive and not intimidating to the male audience. She wasn’t a tub-thumping feminist but certainly did what she could to show women, especially older women, portrayed in a positive light.
She also managed to avoid McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities. She was never called up despite her hard left grandfather (George Lansbury) and her association with Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. But then, at the time, she still wasn’t a big star and McCarthy was looking for big scalps.
What are you hoping to achieve with the show? What message do you hope the audience will leave with?
As far as I’m aware, it’s the first time her story has been dramatised, so I hope to explore to some extent the family heritage and circumstances that influenced her. Also, I want to draw attention to the wide range of work her career has encompassed — film, Broadway musicals and plays, and Murder She Wrote.
Primarily though, it’s an entertainment, so I hope everyone has a really enjoyable time. If there is a message, it is the one from the story of her life, which is a kind of ‘If at first you don’t succeed…’ or ‘Pick yourself up and start all over again,’ and that’s the sort of story everyone likes.
Your dedication to using the arts to celebrate the struggle for women’s freedom is commendable. Has feminism long been a part of your work or something that surfaced organically throughout your career?
To tell the truth, it all started when my father took me to see Mary Poppins and explained to me what the mother, played by Glynis Johns, was going on about, singing about votes for women. That’s really when it all started!
Later, I lived in the People’s Republic of China and studied both the changing status of women there, and also how the performing arts were used to propagate certain political messages. I’ve long been interested in the ‘her’ story part of ‘his’ story.
In terms of my career, my interest in women’s history drew me naturally to pioneering female characters, and somehow, inside myself I always knew right from an early age that I would use my love of drama, song and poetry to entertain and inform audiences on real women, many of whose stories have never been told. This is perhaps particularly true of my show Wartime Women: the Khaki Cabaret, which examines the various roles women have played in warfare, particularly the two World Wars.
Do you think that the subject of women’s suffering and the still very real threat to their rights in parts of the world is given enough attention in the arts?
Probably not, but artists are becoming very cowed. Look at recent productions which have been closed down, some even before they reached the stage, for fear of upsetting someone or other. Look at what happened in Birmingham when Sikh extremists forced the closure of a play depicting rape in a Gurdwara. Can you imagine anyone putting on a play about FGM, forced marriage or the hijab? Recently, the National Youth Theatre cancelled a play about British youngsters joining ISIS. We live in times when it can be dangerous to speak out.
The show is rich with material. How did you decide on which speeches and songs to include in the show?
It is a feature of my work to use the real words of the people concerned whenever possible, and I’ve done the same here. I found an article and speech made by Suffragettes her grandfather George Lansbury had helped. They are fascinating and had to get in!
All the songs are linked to the narrative in some way. It was almost uncanny that so much of Angela’s repertory of songs seemed to fit very well into parts of her life. When Patrick Lambe produced the first draft of the script, it was much longer, so it was then a matter of paring it down and the decision of what to include was always based on what worked dramatically — and that was always the deciding factor.
What do you think Angela would say about your show today?
I really hope she would like it. She is an intensely private person, though, so it is difficult to say. She does know about it, as I wrote to her before I embarked on the project, and I had already met her pianist. She knows about my previous show,Wartime Women, and she was kind enough to say my work is original and unique and wished me the very best.