Show People 67: Uncompromising positions: Kelly Hunter

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the RSC's critically acclaimed Blue Angel transferred to the West End, it closed within seven weeks. So Kelly Hunter, who gave a startling performance in the Marlene Dietrich role, hit on an idea. A cut-price rip-everything-up production of The Threepenny Opera. The theatre was dark, the acoustics were great, and no one was doing anything. What happened? 'The theatre managers wouldn't pick it up,' she says. 'They had a whole list of reasons. We have to pay for this, we have to pay for that.' Her pale, pointed face brims with disdain. 'You're just talking to a bank.'

We're talking in a Polish restaurant in Shepherd's Bush. Across the road each night, Kelly Hunter gives a fraught performance as an abused woman with a fractured personality. Not Fade Away by Richard Cameron provides this gaunt, long-limbed actress with something characteristically uncompromising.

As Lola in The Blue Angel her stark, sinewy figure looked as if it had been etched by Egon Schiele. In high heels and suspenders, she slunk down stairs or stroked the ribs of a chair. But the memory of Dietrich was banished: Hunter sang 'Falling in Love Again' like a working girl getting on with the job. Then, in an ill-fated Trelawny of the 'Wells' as Evonia, the over-the-top actress, she left you wishing she was playing the lead. In Not Fade Away her multiple personalities range from picnicking kids to a leering Yorkshire tart singing Rolling Stones songs at karaoke nights.

In the Polish restaurant, Kelly Hunter scrunches up her ginger hair, folds her long, bony fingers across the glass of mineral water and fires off the kind of opinions that would make her agent tremble. Theatre at the moment is 'very grim': everyone is scared of failure. 'Art is an extremely dirty word': entertainment is not. And the National is ruled by having hits. The RSC is no better. 'It just all seemed about hits-a-go-go] Most directors want to jolly everything up. Put in lots of balloons.' Meanwhile, the West End gives us the Chippendales. 'I don't know who the West End is meant to be catering for. I think it's collapsed.'

What no one is doing is shows by 'brilliant young writers' she knows like Gregory Motton, whose plays are performed more often in France than they are in Britain. 'These writers should be allowed through. Instead of people thinking that David Hare is a new writer.'

Where were you born? Her face sinks when I ask. 'I usually make this bit up. I had this terrible habit of lying when I was younger.' Where were you born? 'I was born round here. I was born round here. Now you don't believe me. I was born in Battersea in 1963.' She grins. 'Did I always want to be an actress?'

Where was your school? 'Putney. Parsons Green.' What was it called? 'Oh, bloody hell. Um. Lady Margaret's. It's on the Green.' Did you go to drama school? 'No.' What did you do? 'If this is all you write about I will personally come and flatten you]' Come on. 'I literally started as a singer.' Why don't you want to talk about this? 'I find it utterly boring.'

She left Lady Margaret's, sang in clubs, then got into the original production of Evita as the mistress who sings 'Another Suitcase in Another Hall'. At 19 she got a break, when Peter Hall chose her to play the lead in the musical Jean Seberg at the National. It was a critical disaster, but also 'a great grounding'. She went on to do Sally Bowles in Cabaret in the West End, then went to Paris to play the same part in French.

When her best friend died of Aids she quit acting and spent two years working for the Terrence Higgins Trust. She dealt with fund-raising - 'I found I was quite good at it' - and organised 'Shop Assistance', where 150 celebrities, from Bros and Boy George to Lionel Bart, worked in shops in Covent Garden. The day raised pounds 250,000. 'I was completely burnt out by the end. I really wanted to act again. I didn't think I ever would. I was going to make this great big comeback, but then I couldn't get a job. It was a terrible lean time. I did some awful things.' What? 'Oh, here we go. Real rubbish. Do you really want to know?' Yes. The answer was Wodehouse - Behind the Scenes in Plymouth.

No drama school, no university and no holds barred: if you're good enough it can be quite an advantage. The raw edge to her work is going to keep her in it. Her latest break is her first film part, as Robin Williams's Stone Age lover in Bill Forsyth's new film Being Human.

Cheerful and combative, Kelly Hunter left me with two injunctions: 'Come to the first-night party' and, of the interview, 'Don't tone it down.'

'Not Fade Away': Bush till 27 Mar (081- 743 3388). See main paper for Irving Wardle's review.

(Photograph omitted)