Imelda Staunton at Hampstead Theatre in London
Imelda Staunton at Hampstead Theatre in London © Rick Pushinsky

Imelda Staunton’s face beams down from posters around the entrance to London’s Hampstead Theatre, yet no one in the sleepy early morning café even twitches a muscle in recognition when the actor in person scurries through the door. Small, trim and spry, in navy jeans and a black anorak, she has a purposeful, focused air that deflects attention.

It’s perhaps this un-showy quality that has enabled her to disappear into characters and become one of Britain’s most versatile actors: since she graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1976 she has rarely been out of work, across film, theatre and television. In 2004 she cemented her reputation with an outstanding performance as the 1950s backstreet abortionist Vera Drake in Mike Leigh’s film of the same name.

Today she’s in the theatre before rehearsals start, to discuss Margie, the tough cookie at the centre of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, which has its British premiere next week. It’s set largely in a downtrodden neighbourhood in south Boston: for an English actor that presumably entails an intense focus on accent?

“Oh!” says Staunton, raising her eyebrows with a mixture of despair and relish. “It’s a tough place: it’s a tough dialect. It’s the ‘A’s – M-ahgie, p-ahk, c-ah.”

Nailing accents can bedevil actors, but Staunton, who excels at the tiny revealing details of a character’s behaviour, admits she likes grappling with them. Such subtle indicators of background weigh heavily. Good People is, she suggests, an interesting prospect for an English audience: “an American play about class”. Margie, a 50-year-old single mother, is sacked from her latest dead-end job and decides to brave an approach to Mike, an old flame who escaped the neighbourhood and carved out a nice, middle-class life. Mike is not too thrilled to see her.

“She doesn’t set out to cause trouble,” says Staunton, folding herself neatly into her armchair. “But she doesn’t adhere to any middle-class, polite way of having an evening. She just tells it how it is.”

It’s a fast-paced play and excruciatingly funny in places. But it’s also painful. The title is specific to the location, Staunton explains: “good people” denotes loyalty, support, decency. But the drama also raises prickly moral questions. Is it easier to be good if you are well off? How easily do we persuade ourselves that we deserve good fortune?

“It isn’t a play banging on about the rich and the poor,” says Staunton. “It isn’t a sob story. It’s much more intricate than that. It deals with luck, with work, with survival, and with how you deal with not having a good life. There are people who have very, very tough lives and don’t deal drugs or kill, they just get on with it. Some people are lucky, some are not.”

Staunton counts herself among the lucky. She grew up in north London, the daughter of a labourer and a hairdresser. As an only child, she says, she spent a lot of time with her own imagination. Her first piece of luck came when a school teacher spotted her ability – “she introduced me to all these characters and I really enjoyed the challenge of being someone else” – her second was when that teacher suggested she apply to Rada.

“Drama school introduced me to a world I had no idea about,” she says. “I wasn’t brought up in a literary household at all. So I did get a break.”

But her childhood left her with an abiding respect for hard-working people who knuckle down to things. Indeed, you might see that in some of the characters she has played: her Oscar-nominated Vera Drake, her sympathetic reading of Margie, and even her superb performance as pie-monster Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. All three are resourceful women, displaying a down-to-earth practicality in a difficult environment (though neither Margie nor Vera takes ingenuity to quite such extremes as the crazed Mrs Lovett).

“They’re all women who survive,” she says. “Lovett would do anything, anything to survive. Margie will do so much: she hasn’t sold her body, she won’t beg. Margie is just a consistent fighter. She doesn’t want money, she wants a job. There’s real pride there, no self-pity. And Vera …Vera had a really quiet courage.”

None of them has beauty or wealth on their side; none of them is glamorous or successful. And that, for Staunton, is the attraction: “We’re in a world that celebrates things: success, beauty, money. And I reckon that’s really about 4 per cent of the world.

“The rest of us are just getting on with it.”

Talking to her about Vera Drake, it’s clear that that character is still very dear to her. Leigh’s distinctive way of directing – creating characters not from a script but through improvisation with his actors – meant that she understood Drake from the inside out. “Mike and I created that woman from the day she was born,” she recalls. “In a way that was the most creative I will ever be.”

It was the detail that made that performance so natural and, ultimately, so poignant: no melodrama, no grand statements, just a quiet focus on Drake, humming away to herself as she went about cooking dinners, cleaning grates and “helping girls out”. Staunton says that experience has sharpened her discipline ever since.

“It really taught me to keep my own counsel in a rehearsal room,” she says. “You’re tempted to say, ‘If you just came in that door a bit quicker, that would help me.’ No, they do whatever they’re doing and you just have to deal with it. It makes you really concentrate on your part, get it rich – like a good stock.”

And with that she must leave for rehearsal to attend to the latest pan on the stove.

‘Good People’, Hampstead Theatre, London, from February 27.

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