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Sitting in her dressing room at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Pearl Mackie is using a series of props to show me how to get to her favourite bar in her native south London. ‘There’s a tapas place in Pop Brixton. You walk in here, and there’s a vintage shop, and then there’s a stagey bit…’ She moves my dictaphone and her coffee cup around the table to demonstrate the route to the bar, which turns out to be Donostia Social Club. ‘It’s really little, but it does amazing food!’
The 30-year-old is on her first day of technical rehearsals for a new West End production of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ and is clearly delighted to be back on stage. She’s appearing alongside Toby Jones, Zoë Wanamaker and Stephen Mangan in the alienating and disturbing comic drama about two B&B owners holding a party for their lodger. Mackie plays Lulu, a friend of one of the owners who finds herself in trouble.
This dark play might seem a leftfield choice for Mackie, who became a familiar teatime face as Doctor Who’s first lesbian companion, Bill Potts. She gained such mainstream fame she was even made into an action figure. (‘That was good – she was on top of my Christmas tree!’) But Mackie’s acting roots are in the theatre, having cut her teeth in the likes of ‘Obama-ology’ at the Finborough Theatre and the National Theatre’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’. Now she’s back in the West End and she couldn’t be happier.
You were last on stage in 2016. Are you excited to return to the theatre?
‘It’s scary. I’m in Dame Maggie [Smith]’s dressing room. There are loads of photos of her on the wall outside, so it’s absolutely terrifying.’
The cast of this production is pretty all-star. How have rehearsals been?
‘Everyone is doing phenomenally in their roles and together, so the piece will hopefully be affecting. Which I think is what Pinter intended, and definitely what Ian [Rickson, the director] is intending. It’s not there to just go: “Oh, well done, that’s nice.” That’s not the theatre I enjoy. If it makes you ask questions, then it’s doing its job.’
What’s your character, Lulu, like?
‘At first it baffled me as to why she spent so much time with these people because they’re quite a lot older. But I think there’s common ground. They’re all looking for more than their situation. Lulu longs for a lot more. When she comes to the party, she gets much more than she bargained for.’
Are you a fan of birthday parties in general?
‘I love a birthday party! It’s the only time you’re allowed to just have the people you like surrounding you.’
Have you always wanted to be an actor?
‘When I was a kid I used to watch a lot of films with my mum when she was doing my hair on Sunday evenings. I watched Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St Louis” singing “The Trolley Song” and I was like, “I want to do that!”’
You grew up in Tulse Hill and now live in Brixton. How do you feel about how the area has changed?
‘I feel split about it. The Village is really cool. I like going to a lot of the restaurants with friends, and it’s a nice place to hang out… But on the flipside of that, there are a lot of businesses being pushed out that have been there since I was a kid. There was a Portuguese deli on the corner that used to be the best place ever, and that had to go a little while ago because they couldn’t afford the rent. You feel like it’s lessening the community spirit.’
You’ve just finished being in ‘Doctor Who’. How has it been to be part of something so iconic?
‘I don’t think it’s something that ever leaves you – in a nice way! I’ve met a couple of previous Doctors and companions who have said: “You feel like you’re a part of it for ever.” Which is great, because though the show continues to evolve, no one will play my part again. It’s unique in that way.’
How was it playing a character with such a strong feminist and queer following?
‘Brilliant. I think Bill was pretty feminist. Especially in the Christmas special. There was a lot of her interacting with the first Doctor, who has archaic ideas about women.’
Your mum, Suzy, founded the feminist collective See Red. Do you call yourself a feminist?
‘Why would you not? Everyone should be. Fundamentally, if you believe in equality, you are
a feminist. It’s such a mad one that this conversation is still around. My mum’s generation was fighting that battle.’
Do you play a lot of feminist characters?
‘I’d say no, probably. Which I think is something that’s quite interesting with this character [Lulu]. She doesn’t have a great time. Something that Ian and I discussed was how do we make this authentic to when it was written , to how the character was written and the experiences she has, while looking at it from a modern feminist standpoint? It’s quite a challenge!’
Are you a fan of West End theatre?
‘I haven’t seen much in the West End recently. I like to see a lot of stuff at the National, and the Royal Court, and the Young Vic. But I do hope that a lot of young people come and see “The Birthday Party”.’
‘I think it’s so important for West End theatre to be accessible to young people. It’s often so expensive that it’s just impossible for them to see it. A play will have had a limited run in a smaller theatre, then it’ll transfer to the West End and ticket prices will be astonishingly high. That’s the way of it, it’s the running costs. But there are a lot of cheaper tickets available for this, which is good.’
‘The Birthday Party’ is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until Apr 14.
Book tickets here.