When Clare Grogan takes the stage in Barefoot in the Park this weekend, it will be something of a dream come true. The Altered Images singer and star of Gregory’s Girl has always been a fan of Neil Simon’s New York-set 1960s rom-com, in which newlyweds Corie and Paul navigate their way around the era’s social mores as much as their new apartment. In Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new co-production of the play with the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, Grogan plays Corie’s scene-stealing widowed mother Ethel.
“It's really extraordinary and interesting and fun and scary and a bit overwhelming and overall quite joyous to just have the opportunity to be doing it,” Grogan gushes of the experience on a Valentine’s Day break from rehearsals. I have a very clear memory of the first time I saw the film with my mum and dad and my sisters, and have just loved it ever since, so I was genuinely thrilled that someone was going to put it on stage.”
Grogan expressed her enthusiasm on Twitter, and was surprised to receive a call from her agent, who said PFT artistic director Elizabeth Newman wanted to talk to her.
“We had a chat on the phone, and then Elizabeth said, how would you feel about playing the mum, Clare, and I went, I'd love to. I think the decision was very much based on my circumstances at that time, because my dad had just passed away, and I just suddenly thought it would be a really great way to reconnect with my parents, I really did. I felt like, why am I being asked to do this? It's not to say no, it's to say yes. I’ve moved heaven and earth to make it happen in terms of other things that I was meant to be doing, but I just found myself not able to say no, and that there was something going on with that.”
Grogan’s gut instinct ties in with her reasons for falling in love with Barefoot in the Park in the first place.
“I'm a hopeless romantic,’ she says. “I was very young when I saw it, but I loved the idea that that's kind of what married life would be about, that you'd have this lovely apartment and true love, and also I just thought it was really funny. My sister Kate and I, we used to have our own video, and we used to rewind that bit where the mum falls down the steps again and again, and laugh harder and harder every time.
“The great thing about it is that on the surface, it seems almost quite like a sitcom, like Dharma and Greg, or the best episodes of Friends. Yet, underneath it, there’s layers and layers of other stuff going on, and that's the beauty of it, because as we go through life, we don't wear our pain or our happiness all the time. We're so good at masking ourselves, and I think Ethel is masking how she really feels at this point in her life.
“She's lost her husband, and now her daughters, who’ve left to get married, and she has to start this whole new chapter in her life. Although Ethel is over the moon about that, she finds herself living alone for the first time, and gets left behind, not knowing what her role is in life anymore. She's been a great wife, and a really good mother, and suddenly she doesn't know where she fits in.
“That empty nest syndrome is a lot of mums and dads experience. They really don’t know what to do with themselves, and have almost forgotten who they are. So, for me, the journey is kind of Ethel not knowing who she is, but finding a little bit of her youthful self again, and finding out that there are no restrictions, and that it's only you that restrict yourself. At the time it was written, for a woman of those years to make that leap was quite difficult. All sorts of liberties were coming up for young people, but maybe not for her generation.”
It feels like things have come full circle for Grogan. Having begun her career by combining acting success with pop stardom at a precociously young age, as she prepares for Barefoot in the Park, a new, she has also been fronting a new, all-female line-up of Altered Images.
“It's quite extraordinary to realise that this will be my fortieth year doing all of this. There's something genuinely quite poignant about that, that I started out in this place when I was a teenager with all this ambition, and it's not been straightforward, because it never is. But I think have really held on to my enthusiasm for something that has not always been my best friend. I've always had work, but sometimes it's been tricky. And I just I think there's something great about the fact that I'm simply still getting to do what I set out to do, and not many people have that.
“I started at the top, so there really was only one place for me to go for a while. And that's when the real work kicked in, that's when I became a performer in earnest, because I had to start again, almost.”
To be doing Barefoot in the Park, then, is perfect, not just for Grogan, but for the times we’re living in right now.
“I think it’s a really weird environment we're living in at the moment in society, and that’s kind of heart-breaking,” she says. “But doing Barefoot in the Park, it's about coming back to the belief that people are quite nice, because they are mostly, and I think we lost sense of that for a while. I think that we just need to connect with the notion that ultimately most of us are looking for the same things in life.”
“Love, hope and adventure,” says Grogan. “That’s all you need, really.”
Barefoot in the Park, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, March 12-March 29; Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 3-25.
The Herald, March 12th 2020