Actresses play actresses in Keeping Up With the Joans which opens in the North East tomorrow. David Whetstone spoke to Susan Penhaligon about her roles in the play, off stage and on.
Susan Penhaligon is appearing in a very special play at the Customs House in South Shields this week, playing a woman who, as she puts it, resides in “a home for the permanently bewildered”.
Keeping Up With the Joans is a special play because it was written by a native of South Shields, Philip Meeks, whose star in the theatre world would appear to be on the rise.
Last summer he won a Fringe First award in Edinburgh for his play Kiss Me Honey, Honey! which tells of two men of a certain age who form an unlikely friendship through their shared love of Shirley Bassey.
Another play, Murder, Margaret and Me, telling of the relationship between writer Agatha Christie and actress Margaret Rutherford (who played Christie’s Miss Marple), is bound for New York for a short run.
Philip, who previously wrote for Emmerdale and is now based in London, first wrote Keeping Up With the Joans for the People’s Theatre’s 100th anniversary. Its potential was revealed in a good amateur production at the Newcastle theatre in 2011.
Now this re-worked professional production from the Greenwich Theatre is also bound for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe but stopping en route for a short run at the Customs House.
Susan Penhaligon and Katy Manning play retired actresses Zilla Mint and Kitty Feathers, residents of the Rye Hill Rest Home for Professional Ladies, who are at daggers drawn, each claiming to have played St Joan in the George Bernard Shaw play on the night Dame Sybil Thorndike was in the audience.
Those for whom Susan Penhaligon is fixed in the memory as a glamorous young blonde actress – a “British Bardot” someone is supposed to have called her – might be brought up short to find her in such a role. They might also get a tart response.
“That is part of the problem – you get stuck, particularly when all those images remain forever on the Internet,” said the actress. “They all remain there and they’re 40 years old.
“I am not reluctant to say how old I am. I’m 65 and when Philip said, ‘Would you like to play this part?’ I thought: how fantastic!
“These are two women of a certain age – we never know exactly how old they are – but they’re in a home for the permanently bewildered and both think they played St Joan on that particular night.
“That’s the premise of the play but it’s about friendship and fame and failing memory and dementia. It’s about growing older.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful part. Gosh, most actresses of my age would do anything for a part like this. It’s just what you want. It’s funny, it’s quirky. These are the sort of parts I’m playing now.”
In fact, when Susan and I had our phone conversation she was in Cornwall nearing the end of a run of All Creatures Great and Small in which she was playing Mrs Pumphrey, the well-heeled owner of a lap dog called Tricky Woo.
The pair, mistress and dog, had been getting on well. “I love him,” said Susan. “I’m working with an actor called Mark Curry who used to be in Blue Peter. It’s his dog. He’s a West Highland terrier called Charlie but he’s very good at being Tricky Woo. He steals the scene.”
With the last performance approaching at the weekend, Susan was busy learning lines ahead of Monday’s first rehearsal for Philip’s play. “I’d have preferred a little break before starting the next thing but I’ve been working for long enough now, 42 years, to realise that, number one, it’s a job.
“I never assume I’m going to get another job.”
In fact, it turns out the longest she has ever gone without work is six months which doesn’t sound too bad. But Susan Penhaligon is an actress who oozes professionalism. She left drama college in London and went straight into repertory theatre in Worthing, playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Fame came through television and particularly Bouquet of Barbed Wire, the controversial ITV adaptation of the novel by Andrea Newman which deals with a dysfunctional family. Susan played student Prue Sorensen whose relationship with her father is key to the plot.
Later Susan played the sister of Judi Dench’s character in the popular sitcom A Fine Romance. But there were lots of TV appearances back then and Susan didn’t deny that another would be most welcome. “You always hope you’re going to get another good TV role,” she admitted.
“If you are not on the TV all the time people think you’re dead. You have to be on TV for people to notice you but I do believe you have your moment in the sun and after that you work. I had quite a long moment in the sun because I had a lot of TV for about 15 years.”
Now, as we chatted, she was preparing to sit down and learn her lines for the next play. “There’s no secret to it,” she said. “You just have to drum them in.”
It may not be TV but Keeping Up With the Joans sounds, on the face of it, like a convivial job. Philip, Susan declared, “is a very close friend of mine from when I worked at West Yorkshire Playhouse. I actually stayed with him in Leeds. He was working for Yorkshire Television and was thinking about writing full time. I encouraged him.
“He has done remarkably well since then, winning a Fringe First.
“I’m a great fan of Philip’s writing, whatever form it comes in. I always see something good in it and the nature of the theatre is that a play will evolve. It can evolve even in reharsal.
“This play is much changed since it was first performed. We had a reading of it last year at the Greenwich Theatre and it went down very well.”
Keeping Up With the Joans reunites Susan with Katy Manning who once played Doctor Who’s assistant, Jo Grant. “We were at drama school together in the late 1960s but I haven’t seen her since those days,” Susan told me. “She went to live in Australia.”
The play, a three-hander which also includes Arron Usher as care worker Gary, runs at the Customs House from Thursday until Saturday with a matinee on Saturday. For tickets tel. 0191 454 1234 or visit www.customshouse.co.uk