Interview: Lesley Sharp

Lesley Sharp’s acting career began in the theatre, though it is through her film and television roles that she has come to prominence.

She recently starred in the supernatural series Afterlife, has worked with Russell T Davies, Paul Abbott and Mike Leigh and received a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Full Monty. After a number of years away from the stage, she is now starring in Simon Stephens’ Harper Regan at the National.

The play has had a mixed reception from the critics but one thing they have been unanimous about is Sharp’s performance in the title role. Wonderful is the word most often bandied about. And it is a gift of a part. Harper, 41 years old and married with a teenage daughter is a complex character, askew, adrift. At the start of the play she discovers that her father is ill and probably dying, but her boss refuses to let her take the time off work she needs to visit him. So Harper goes anyway, taking off for two days without telling anyone. What attracted Sharp to the play I ask? She needs no time to think about this “It was an extraordinary journey for a female character” she replies. Such roles, for women, are “few and far between. New writers tend to write fantastic roles for men, but less so for women.” The quality of the writing was also part of the appeal. “I was a great fan of Simon Stephens’ work, so to be sent a play written by him with a part for a woman of my age was unbelievable. They don’t come along that often.”

This lack of decent, meaty roles for women, regardless of age, is clearly something that concerns Sharp. “As women, sometimes writers often give you the role of a mother, a wife, a daughter, always an appendage to the central character. So it’s brilliant to have a woman at the centre of things.” And in Harper Regan she is very much at the centre of things, on stage almost constantly, pitched on a difficult emotional journey. The play is a layered thing that only gradually reveals its secrets to the audience. In early scenes Harper’s emotional distance, her manner, are a little perplexing. She initially appears as a woman wading through water or lost in fog, she only slowly comes into focus.

“Some people have used the word beguiling about the play. In the first half you get a sense of uneasiness in Harper’s life but it is not until the second half that you understand the fault-line that has been running through things with her husband and then, even later in the second half, you start to understand the fault-line that also exists with her father. It is in attempting to resolve the issues with these two men that Harper starts to resolve the issues with her mother and her daughter as well. The first half is a challenge, the audience is mystified about what’s happening, but the feedback that I’ve had is that it’s actually very satisfying, the way it’s structured, because the questions you’ve been asking yourself in the first half are answered. It’s great because it’s not just this straight story where you know what’s going to happen, it takes the audience on a real journey. They come on the journey with Harper.”

We then start to discuss how Sharp got into acting, was it something she always wanted to do? She nods. Yes. Always. Her route into acting was a familiar one, interested in performing from a young age she joined Manchester Youth Theatre and then, when the time came, auditioned for drama school. “I didn’t get in first time round, so I worked in London for a year and reapplied and got in to the Guildhall and that was it.”

“I’ve been very lucky,” she continues, “as I’ve more or less worked none stop ever since. The first ten years after I left drama school were mainly spent doing theatre, but this is only the second play I’ve done in the last 12 years. I didn’t do theatre for a very long time and it’s fantastic to come back. I love it. I absolutely love being on stage.” Why did she stay away for so long from something she so clearly adores I ask? “Well I did a play after I had my first child and found it really difficult, more difficult than I expected. The amount of concentration required to be on stage, I just couldn’t do it, not with a young family, but they’re a bit older now and they need me to be around in a different way then they did.” Working at the National with its repertory is proving ideal for her “as you get to be with your family and do something that you really love doing. It’s the best of both worlds.”

When I ask her about the roles she would love to play in the future, her wishlist, she becomes even more animated, rattling off ideas: “Lady Macbeth, I would love to play Lady Macbeth. And Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard and Arkadina in The Seagull. Oh, and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Blanche Dubois in Streetcar.” She stops there but I get a feeling that is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

“As women, writers often give you the role of a mother, a wife, a daughter, always an appendage to the central character. So it’s brilliant to have a woman at the centre of things” – Lesley Sharp on Harper Regan.

She is equally voluble when discussing the writers she admires. I ask about Russell T Davies, with whom she has worked on several occasions. “I was working for a company called Red based in Manchester and Nicholas Shindler, who owns Red, has a very strong commitment to excellent writers. I first worked with them on Clocking Off with Paul Abbott. As a result of doing that, Russell saw me. He was doing this series called Bob and Rose about a gay man and a straight woman who fall in love, and I was lucky enough to be asked to do that. We just clicked. There’s something about his writing I find very exciting and we really enjoyed working with each other and then he asked me to work with Chris Ecclestone in The Second Coming, which I did, and then, of course, he has subsequently gone on to reinvent Dr Who, so he asked me if I’d do a episode that he’d written. Hopefully we’ll get to work with each other again in the future because he’s an amazing writer.”

It obvious that the standard of writing is something that really matters to her, both on screen and on stage: “I think that having worked at the Royal Court under Max Stafford Clark and with Simon Curtis, and working with people like Jim Cartwright, David Hare, Howard Brenton, David Eldridge, you get a taste for good writing and it’s very difficult to let that go.” Sharp’s forthcoming projects will see her working once again with acclaimed writers, she’s “just done something with Lucy Gannon” (The Children, a forthcoming TV mini-series) and will also feature in a BBC adaptation of The Diary Of Anne Frank by Deborah Moggach, the woman responsible for the recent film adaptation of Pride And Prejudice. “I tend to be attracted to good writing because that’s really what I learnt at the knee of Max Stafford Clark, that as long as the writing’s good, you’re taken care off.”

Harper Regan is at the National Theatre, London, until 9 August 2008.

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