Arts: Playing straight

Josie Lawrence made her name as the Queen of Improv. Nowadays she's being taken seriously as an actor. So what's her real line anyway? By James Rampton
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The Independent Culture
In the early Nineties, Josie Lawrence was hotter than the current weather in Cyprus. "With Whose Line Is It Anyway?, things just went `whoosh' for me," the actor/comedian recalls. "People wanted me for this and that - all those articles like `What's In My Fridge?' and `Who's Under My Carpet?'."

But as surely as night follows day, backlash follows success. Lawrence's solo series on Channel 4, Josie, was scythed down by the critics like a particularly overgrown poppy. "I can talk about it now," she gulps. "I went to Italy to make the film Enchanted April and picked up a two- day-old English newspaper. The reviewers gave me such a knock; they said `this is not funny'. I was sitting next to Joan Plowright and she said, `this can happen in this business'. She told me about the bad reviews Larry had had. She was the perfect person to be sitting next to. It doesn't hurt to be thwacked from time-to-time. Kicks can strengthen you. But there's a point where you have to say, `no more kicks, I'm strong enough now'."

Although the series had its high points - people still come up to her and remember fondly her "tired and emotional" sketches and Gracie Fields send-ups - Lawrence reflects now that "I should have made it more wacky, like the stuff I do at the Comedy Store. Perhaps I was trying to say [affects her best Joyce Grenfell accent] `but I'm an actress'."

No one doubts that she is an actress now - and a top-class one, at that. As the song says: she got knocked down, but she got back up again. Dusting herself down after the critical pummelling, she immediately threw herself on to the stage. She was soon starring as Beatrice in the Manchester Royal Exchange's production of Much Ado About Nothing, for which she won the Manchester Evening News Best Actress Award, and as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the RSC, where she picked up the Dame Peggy Ashcroft Award for Best Actress.

Even then, people initially accused her of first-degree counter-jumping. "There were a couple of occasions when theatre directors said, `we won't see her because she's a comic'. It wasn't a wrong assumption. I didn't resent it, I understood it. But then as soon as you get good theatre roles, they know you can do it."

She is proving that once again in Alarms and Excursions, the new four- hander by Michael Frayn that co-stars Felicity Kendal, Nicky Henson and Robert Bathurst and opens at the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End on 10 September. Over the course of eight vignettes bound together by the broad theme of (lack of) communication, Lawrence plays everything from a stern wife on holiday to an air stewardess delivering a safety demonstration laden with sexual innuendo. All in all, she displays the versatility of Daley Thompson.

Dressed all in black, Lawrence is contentedly sipping a fruit juice in the bar of the Theatre Royal after a matinee of Alarms and Excursions that seemed to go down well with the good burghers of Bath. She gives off the relaxed air of someone who, after a few wrong turnings, has safely found her way home.

For all her recent successes in the theatre and on television (including three series of the ITV cricketing sitcom Outside Edge), Lawrence remains refreshingly immune to the luvvie virus that infects so many ac-tors. Given to casting her eyes down in a manner reminiscent of another tall and glamourous woman, she is almost painfully modest: "I've never been flirted with or been asked back to the casting-couch," she sighs with mock-sadness. "Perhaps they're scared I'll break it."

Now, at the age of 39, her one regret is that there are not better roles for women actors as they get older. "I guess that's what it's like in this business," she laments. "I'd like to have said to Shakespeare, `I like your work, William, but why do you write so much for men?' Also, I enjoy a girlie chat. In our dressing-room at the Comedy Store, it's always bloody football and cricket. I loved it when Eddie Izzard was there because then we could both talk make-up together."

In all her "straight" theatre, Lawrence has found her grounding in improvisation a great source of comfort. "I just want to entertain people - whether they're laughing or crying. Impro helps because if you can go on and make a thousand people laugh with no script, then a scripted piece should be no problem."

She has clearly not forgotten her roots. Whenever she can, Lawrence dashes back to London for a Sunday night appointment with the impro troupe, the Comedy Store Players, that she has kept most weeks for the past 12 years. "I wouldn't like to be one of those people who gets known for something and then pooh-poohs it when they do something else. I'm proud that I'm known for making people laugh because I know how difficult it is. If it doesn't go well, it's the worst thing in the world. If it does, it's the best. It's like sex - you still keep doing it. Impro is good therapy for us. You often think, `where did that come from?'. If they sat me down in a psychiatrist's chair and asked me what I get up to on a Sunday night, they'd probably keep me in there."

All the same, Lawrence shows no signs of wanting to kick the habit. "I've been at long Sunday lunches with friends, and when they've been able to have that extra glass of wine and I've had to go off to work, I have been jealous. But once you get on stage, you forget that. I really wouldn't mind carrying on till I'm an old dear lifting my Zimmer frame on to the stage."

She'll just have to be careful the other Players don't try to use it as a prop.

`Alarms and Excursions' opens at the Gielgud Theatre, London (0171-494 5519) on 10 September