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Julie Legrand - The Rivals

When Julie Legrand was growing up in Pitlochry, where she lived until she was three, she saw from afar the dubious glamour of an actor's life. This came via the family cottage in the garden that was let out as digs for members of the original Pitlochry Festival Theatre's incoming ensemble, who would perform in the theatre's summer season.

“I knew from an early age that something very special was going on down at the bottom of the garden,” Legrand says today. After more than thirty-five years as an actress on stage at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in West End musicals, as well as a leading stint in Footballers Wives on TV, Legrand is now steeped in the special world she witnessed as a child.

After more than twenty years away, this week sees her return to the even more special world of the Citz to play mispronouncing matriarch Mrs Malaprop in Dominic Hill's revival of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's eighteenth century comedy, The Rivals. As the show opens in Glasgow this week following runs at the show's co-producing partner theatres, Bristol Old Vic and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, it is a role Legrand is clearly relishing.

“She's a dream part,” says Legrand. “Mrs Malaprop is one of those roles you most want a crack at. She's such a delight. She's a social climber who probably had a private tutor, and read all these things with a scattergun approach without really taking everything in, but she's doing her bit, bless her. I wondered before I started performing as her how many people would recognise all of the malapropisms that she uses, but even if they don't quite get them all, people are happy to hear it. In the play she misquotes Shakespeare several times, but it doesn't matter if you don't get that, because it's funny anyway.”

The Rivals was Sheridan's first play, and its comedy of errors concerning Mrs Malaprop's attempts to marry off her niece was initially a critical disaster. Arguably it was the strength of the play's lead character that helped save it. Sheridan's creation not only left her mark dramatically, but introduced a new word to the dictionary to define the unintentional mispronunciation of words that Mrs Malaprop made so hilarious.

“Sheridan's mother, Frances Sheridan, had written a play called A Trip to Bath,” says Legrand, “and that play had a prototype of Mrs Malaprop which Sheridan developed for his play.”

Mrs Malaprop is the latest in a long line of larger than life characters Legrand has portrayed, ever since she finally gave in to the acting bug and studied drama at Webber Douglas Academy in London. Shortly after leaving drama school, she was introduced to director and designer Philip Prowse, one of the three co-directors of the Citz from 1969 to 2003, and after auditioning for him was cast in his epic production of A Waste of Time, Robert David MacDonald's take on Marcel Proust's sprawling novel, A la recherche du temps perdu, originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past.

As well as appearing alongside Havergal and MacDonald in a now unimaginable cast of twenty-seven, Legrand acted with Rupert Everett and Gary Oldman in a show that played in Amsterdam as part of the 1981 Holland Festival. Legrand also toured to Caracas the same year in Chinchilla, another Prowse production of a MacDonald play.

“It was such an exciting time,” Legrand says. Working with Rupert Everett and Gary Oldman, and later with Tim Roth, was such a thrill, and A Waste of Time was such a joy to be part of. The production was so off the wall, but it also looked so very beautiful and glamorous, and those three guys were so wonderful to work with. I remember Philip told me to go and put on a costume that had been used in another show, and then once I'd put it on he literally just started cutting away at it, and made something beautiful and new, and which looked wonderful onstage.”

Legrand returned to the Citz in 1982 for Prowse's season of plays by Jean Genet, appearing in
The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens. She returned again for a production of John Webster's The White Devil, Chekhov's The Seagull and William Congreve's Restoration comedy, The Way of the World. Legrand last appeared on the Citz stage in 1994 in Pinero's nineteenth century melodrama, The Second Mrs Tanqueray.

“It was a glorious company to be part of,” says Legrand. “I hold that time very dear to my heart. We were all desperate to work at the Citz, and I returned there whenever I could.”

Somewhere inbetween all this, Legrand worked extensively at the company now known as the National Theatre of Great Britain, and more recently carved a niche for herself in West End musicals, including two years playing Madame Morrible in Wicked and the stripper Electra in Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Gypsy.

“Musicals came later in my career,” she says. “That door opened, and I jumped through it.”

Legrand was last in Glasgow when she played the Nurse in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Romeo and Juliet. It is another nurse, however, who many audiences will know Legrand best. As Nurse Jeanette Dunkley, Legrand was a series regular in Footballers Wives, the glossily kitsch drama that looked at the roaring and scoring among the WAGS as much as the players.

“Dear Nurse Dunkley,” says Legrand. “I was cast in the first episode, but nobody had any idea how it would be received, and I ended up doing four series. But Nurse Dunkley was another one of those wonderfully iconic characters, who are mad and bad and dangerous to know.”

This has been something of a running theme throughout Legrand's career, which has seen increasingly take on parts that border on the comically grotesque.

“It's wrong,” she says, “but the baddies are always such fun to play. Not baddies exactly, because Mrs Malaprop isn't a baddie, but you wouldn't want to know them in real life. Madame Morrible in Wicked is obsessed with power, and all these richly painted and multi-layered characters are the most fun to play by far.”

For The Rivals, Legrand suggests that Hill's production has taken things a little bit further than audiences might expect from such a stalwart.

“It's a really clever thing that Dominic's done,” says Legrand. “He's brought a slightly modern twist to the play, and he's roughed it up a bit. A lot of the time period pieces can be too pristine, and watching them is sometimes like seeing them through a glass, but he's grabbed this play by the scruff of the neck, so the stench of the street at that time is still there, but there's the odd modern reference as well. By doing that, it shows that love and everything that goes with it never changes.”

The Rivals, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, November 2-19.

The Herald, November 1st 2016



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