Life

Anne Hailes: Gwen Taylor flies high once more as Lady Bracknell at Grand Opera House

Gwen Taylor Lady Bracknell in the Belfast Grand Opera House production of The Importance of Being Ernest

HAPPY Birthday Ma’am. Yes, her Ladyship is in town and although Lady Bracknell has been in Belfast before, this time she’s appearing in the shoes – and the corset – of actress Gwen Taylor, a woman with a fantastic history in theatre.

Her CV stretches back to 1972 when she left her post in the National Provincial Bank in her home city of Derby. By 1975 she’d made it to the TV series The Sweeney and hasn’t been out of work since – Coronation Street, Duty Free, Lady in the Van, Heartbeat are just a few of the many TV shows and films she's appeared in.

She’s certainly flown high through the years.

“I always wanted to fly,” she told me with a smile, and she wasn’t talking airplanes. “I promised myself I’d fly before I was 80 and in pantomime this year I made it. I was playing the Enchantress in Beauty and the Beast in Derby and I flew out high over the audience on a huge swing. It was so exciting, my crinoline billowing in the wind. I had to take great care to be cautious, however, so I wore green satin bloomers for decency's sake.”

Today is Gwen’s 79th birthday and it will be spent in Belfast with her husband, playwright Graham Reid. This is where the two met in the early 1980s when Gwen was cast as Kenneth Branagh’s mother-in-law in Reid’s famous 'Billy' plays for the BBC.

She’s been back to his hometown many times since most recently appearing as Shirley Valentine in the Grand Opera House, where The Importance of Being Ernest opens tomorrow evening. One of Oscar Wilde’s most enjoyed comedies, this is basically a story of would-be romance, with an interfering mother coming between the young lovers.

Jack wants to marry Gwendolen; her mother, the terrifying Lady B, doesn’t approve. After all, he was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station – enough to make any mother witheringly contemptuous.

Once the set is in place by late afternoon tomorrow, the cast will meet on stage for a ‘fast voice’ run through.

“We sit in a circle and speed read through the script just to get our thoughts together and ease back into the role after travelling. Then we tour the theatre for safety reasons, time the walk from the dressing room to the stage and get established in our dressing rooms.”

The play is in three acts and Lady B is in the first and the third – so what does Gwen do during Act Two?

“I sit in the dressing room following the play on the tannoy, still in character although I have to admit I do take off my big skirts and my corset but, being a lady, I do keep my hat on.”

She admits that Lady Bracknell is a bit frightening to play.

“An iconic part done by dames, so I’ve stamped my own take on the gorgon. It won’t be a Edith Evans, a little more humour although still the determined mother who is adamant her daughter finds a suitable husband.”

Travelling to 12 venues in three months throughout the UK is daunting at any age but Gwen has a secret weapon – her husband. While she come to Belfast by air, Graham arrives by car with all the luggage.

“He makes all the bookings – most often a hotel, as it’s important to have a quite place to rest and a bathroom. And he doesn’t mind being called Mr Taylor.”

A happy cast is all important.

“It doesn’t happen often but If there’s dissent in the cast it’s miserable so you try to stay away from acrimony; it only happens if something isn’t working or there's a clash of personalities. Actors are very vulnerable people. Thankfully we all get on really well and look forward to welcoming everyone to our country house with art nouveau interior design – and big skirts and corsets.”

WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?

I DON’T think the public know just how hard working actors are. Take our own Christina Nelson, for instance. Writer, director, mother and star of I’ll Tell My Ma, her one-woman show opening at the Lyric Theatre tomorrow night. She becomes a feisty 16-year-old schoolgirl; then the mother, a middle-aged woman; and the grandmother – and it promises to be a very funny evening’s entertainment.

But as well as her busy stage life, Christine has another string to her bow. She teaches how to develop the imagination through drama and she gathers information for Belfast City Council to use in their bid for City of Culture 2023.

Last time I met her she was hurrying through the entrance hall of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Ursula Burns's harp under her arm.

“Ursula’s parking the car. We’re off to play and talk to the public visiting the hospital to ask them what they want out of life and then we’ll go into town and ask them there.”

Their ‘car’ is really a van with the back kitted out as a living room, complete with harp, and when they park they fling open the doors and invite people to step inside to discuss happiness. How’s that for imagination?

Talk about taking your harp to the party – it certainly works for Ursula and Christina.

:: Further information: www.goh.co.uk and www.lyrictheatre.co.uk

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