Interview: Imelda Staunton

Imelda Staunton Imelda Staunton - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Mar 12 2012

Imelda Staunton talks about her new role as 'Sweeney Todd's pie baking psychopath, Mrs Lovett

'I look like a Borrower!' objects Imelda Staunton, who has just done a photo shoot with a meat pie that would dwarf far larger Mrs Lovetts than this one. 'People will think that I jumped out of it!'

If it really were one of Mrs Lovett's notorious pies, then no one would get out of it alive. The shocking popular tale of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street and his crust-baking consort has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the penny dreadful era, spawning numerous stage and screen adaptations and even a ballet.

Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical version has proven to be one of the most enduring: it was the basis for Tim Burton's highly acclaimed movie with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, and now Staunton and Michael Ball, her co-star in this hit Chichester Festival Theatre production, are bringing it to the West End, pies and all.

'I was actually a veggie for 20 years,' says Staunton. 'I only started eating meat because my daughter said, “Mum, can we please just eat chicken?”'

Her appetite for roles is, thankfully, less wholesome: her obligatory Britpack cameo in the 'Harry Potter' films as prim, toad-like torturer Dolores Umbridge was, for my money, far more repellent than many of Harry's more monstrous adversaries. More recently, she has shone on stage as a grotesque, lascivious landlady in Joe Orton's 'Entertaining Mr Sloane' and a poisonous little sister in Edward Albee's 'A Delicate Balance' at the Almeida.

'Bad is good,' she says. 'In fact, I enjoy playing the bad roles so much that I do worry sometimes that I must have
a very dark side.'

Her breakthrough film role as a backstreet abortionist in Mike Leigh's 'Vera Drake' was more morally ambivalent. It earned her Bafta and Venice Film Festival gongs for Best Actress, but she was too grounded in her family life with husband and daughter to accept the offers that came flooding in afterwards. 'I like some change,' she says. 'But
I don't get itchy feet. I love my home. I love my garden. I like my life. I didn't want to go to America and do this or that. I live here. I work here. And I daresay I'll always get another job. With children, you make those decisions,
so that's that.'

Post-'Vera Drake', Staunton's profile has been for gritty Brit drama rather than singing and dancing - the opposite of her co-star Michael Ball, who finally shook off his reputation as an amiable foghorn after he profoundly impressed critics with newfound darkness and depth as the Demon Barber.

But Staunton does have music in her DNA: people sang and played in the home where she grew up, the daughter of Irish parents, in an Archway block that was later bulldozed to make way for London's ugliest roundabout. And she has done her fair share of singing and dancing: she won her second Olivier Award for her performance in Sondheim's 'Into the Woods' and she met her husband, actor Jim Carter, in Richard Eyre's major 1980s revival of 'Guys and Dolls' at the NT, going on to play bunged-up chanteuse Miss Adelaide in that same Cole Porter musical when it was revived at the National in 1996.

'Playing a role twice means that you're coming at it with an advantage,' she says. 'Even in your muscles, you know you can do it. There was a 15-year gap between the two times I did “Guys and Dolls”, so lots more things came out. I'm hoping that might happen again with “Sweeney Todd”'

The casting of Staunton with Ball is a canny marriage of class and commercial appeal. And the two of them evidently have great rapport: at the end of our conversation at the Jerwood Space rehearsal rooms, Ball sidles over to call Staunton back to work and sucks up to her hilariously, pretending to be her servile masseuse. 'He's very, very clever,' she says, after Ball has bowed and scraped his way out. 'Being on stage with him when he lets rip with his singing is unbelievable: the noise he makes!'

Under Jonathan Church, Chichester Festival Theatre has become a West End hit factory: it also originated this season's other major West End musical revival, 'Singin' in the Rain'. But Staunton stresses that Jonathan Kent's production - which earned glowing reviews - has high aspirations as well as broad appeal.

'You wouldn't expect to see me jumping out of a pie, or skipping through a jolly chorus number, would you? Sondheim writes with so many shades and so much complexity. We've worked hard to make it as good as it possibly can be. And we want to make it even better second time round.'