Saturday, 13 February 2016

Laura Rogers and Charlotte Ritchie - Private Lives

“It doesn't suit women to be promiscuous” according to newly-wedded roue on the rebound, Elyot Chase, in Private Lives, Noel Coward's cynical 1930 dissection of love and marriage. As his ex wife Amanda Prynne so witheringly countered, however, “It doesn't suit men for women to be promiscuous.”

Coward invariably gave his women the best lines in this way, as should be seen when a new touring production of Private Lives arrives in Glasgow next week. While Amanda is played by Laura Rogers, Charlotte Ritchie takes on the less sung role of Elyot's new bride Sybil with a potentially more assertive streak.

“Amanda loves an argument, “ says Rogers during an afternoon off on the Brighton leg of the tour, “and she knows exactly what she wants. She knows how to flirt and how to manipulate her way through certain situations, but she's vulnerable as well, and even though she can bring out the worst in people and the best in people, she can also be like a little girl.”

As for Sybil, when Ritchie first read Private Lives, “I initially thought she was quite weak and quite stupid, but once we started working on it, we decided we really wanted to bring her away from those stereotypes.”

Ritchie has fled to London for the day, and is hanging out in a cafe as she talks

“Elyot and Amanda are incredibly clever,” she says, “so why would they marry someone who was stupid? While Sybil is in some ways very conservative, I try to make her a bit stronger, someone who's clever and has some self-esteem.”

As Rogers puts it, “It isn't as though Elyot has just gone for a younger version of Amanda, but someone completely different to her.”

Ritchie and Rogers will be familiar to Private Lives audiences for very different reasons. Rogers has been seen twice of late on a Scottish stage, both times at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where she appeared in David Haig's World War Two Set drama, Pressure, and in Laura Wade's audacious stage version of Sarah Waters' novel, Tipping The Velvet.

Ritchie has just been seen in the second series of BBC Three's brother and sister sit-com, Siblings, and is currently on show on Sunday evenings in the fifth series of 1960s set light drama, Call The Midwife. Also due is the final series of student flatshare comedy drama, Fresh Meat.

In Pressure, Rogers played Kay Summersby, the Irish-born secretary and intimate of General Dwight Eisenhower, whose influence on one of the War's most towering figures was vast.

“That was a part that will stay in my heart for a long time,” says Rogers. “Kay in real life was such an amazing woman, and her relationship with Ike was such a tragic story.”

Rogers' fiance gave her a signed copy of Summersby's memoir, Eisenhower Was my Boss.

Rogers describes Summersby's story as “heartbreaking, because I really believe she contributed so much to what happened in the play that changed the course of the war.”

In Tipping The Velvet, Rogers was Kitty Butler, the cross-dressing Victorian music hall star who helps turn the life of young ingenue, Nan Astley, upside down.

“I was able to really indulge in that character,” Rogers says. “It's such an iconic book, and it was so nice to see a piece of new writing adapted from it which had so many strong women in it.

Also appearing in Tipping The Velvet was Kirsty Besterman, who played Amanda in the Royal Lyceum's own production of Private Lives, which played during the same season as Pressure.

“Kirsty and I were at RADA together,” says Rogers. “and when I was offered Amanda we were sharing a dressing room.”

Ritchie first sprang to prominence as Oregon, the posh student desperate to ditch her background for something more colourful in Fresh Meat. In Siblings, Ritchie plays Hannah, whose self-serving pursuit of a good life without graft along with her dim-witted brother manages to cause chaos for them both. Only as rookie nurse Barbara in Call The Midwife does Ritchie get to play someone more grounded.

“I never thought for a minute all these shows would come out at the same time,” Ritchie muses, “but they're all such different characters and the shows have such different audiences that I can't imagine anyone watches them all.”

Both Hannah and Oregon, who returns in Fresh Meat as a power-crazed student president, may lack self-knowledge, but this isn't something that bothers Ritchie.

“I can never understand it when people say they don't want to play a character who isn't liked,” she says. “It's much more fun to play the bad guy.”

Ritchie's performing career began as one quarter of million record selling operatic girl band, All Angels.

“I had a singing teacher at primary school,” says Ritchie, who joined Youth Music Theatre aged eleven, touring Japan in their production of Pendragon, “and she knew this guy who wanted to put together a girl band. Within a month of releasing an album we were playing the Royal Albert Hall, then the next day I was doing double history.”

Her move into professional acting was similarly accidental after her mother met a casting director at an all woman's swimming club.

“She asked my mum if she knew a girl who was aged about fifteen,” says Ritchie, who ended up playing opposite Michael Sheen in short film, The Open Doors, before studying drama at Bristol University and doing a comedy revue on the Edinburgh Fringe.

Rogers' interest in drama was piqued by doing musicals while at a comprehensive school in Swansea.

“I'd never thought about doing straight acting,” she says, “then at sixth form college, this incredible drama teacher did a production of The Tempest. All the girls wanted to play Miranda or Ariel, then my teacher said he wanted me to be Prospero, and to play it as a woman.”

Rogers ended up doing one of Prospero's speeches as her RADA audition piece.

“I think that's what helped me stand out,” she says. “One of the teachers said to me, 'What on earth was that?'

Post-RADA, Rogers was cast in TV drama, The Sins, alongside Pete Postlethwaite and Frank Finlay. An early stage role saw her appear in the Edinburgh International Festival production of Celestina, Fernando de Rojas' fifteenth century romp translated by Jo Clifford and directed by Catalan whirlwind, Calixto Bieito.

“I don't think I've ever worked in the same way again,” Rogers says of her experience on the show. “Calixto's English wasn't good, and he just spoke in expletives, telling us to not to use the script, even though we didn't know the lines. It was really freeing.”

With an array of acclaimed performances at the Royal Court, Shakespeare's Globe and West Yorkshire Playhouse, as well as in Bad Girls – The Musical, the roles Rogers aspires to play next are telling.

“I'd love to do more television,” she says. “I'm a big fan of Silent Witness and Prime Suspect, and I'd love to play a female detective.”

And onstage?

“I'd love to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Every director I work with I tell them that, but I'm still waiting for that offer.”

Ritchie too has aspirations for stage work.

“I think it's a really fun thing,” she says. “Apart from anything else, the hours are really sociable. When you're filming, you have to leave the house at five in the morning, and then you don't get home until 9.30 at night, so it's physically very demanding.”

If the latter statement sounds like something Hannah might say, Ritchie's intentions are more serious.

“I'd really like to do new writing,” she says. “I love seeing new plays at the Royal Court, and there are so many voices out there that need to be heard.”

Amanda and Sybil's voices look set to be heard loud and clear.

“Private Lives is so modern,” says Rogers. “It's not dated, and anyone who is in a relationship, or who's loved and lost, will be able to see past one or two of the lines which maybe are old-fashioned and be able to recognise things.”

As Ritchie points out, “People love seeing what goes on behind closed doors, and they love to see couples rowing. I think Sybil represents the sort of slightly irritating woman who reinforces gender stereotypes, but I think she deals with what happens with great dignity up to a point. I hope she learns something from it.”

Private Lives, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 22-27.

The Herald, February 13th 2016


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