Interview: John Walsh meets Imelda Staunton
It's Broadway in the Depression. The streets are full of unemployed drifters and sad-eyed losers, hoping to strike it rich gambling on the gee-gees or the roll of dice. Thrills are hard to come by in this aleatoric wasteland, but one place you can guarantee them is the Hot Box nightclub. A white piano, a quintet of foxy babes in a bewildering variety of shapes who parade about in spangly tulle and acres of leg - and then, from behind the tacky red Hot Box curtains, there bursts an extraordinary sight: a miniature, 5ft Meissen shepherdess, but with added fishnet tights and huge pumpkinny smile. She sings Frank Loesser's farmyard-love classic "A Bushel and a Peck" with a catch in her voice, a weird eldritch squeak, and she sways across the stage wielding her pastoral crook like a guitar or a scythe, so that the tall horse-limbed dancing girls have to duck out of its way. She is a tiny force of nature. She is irresistibly gorgeous. At the song's climax, with the Hot Box babes going chook-chook around the piano, the shepherdess throws handfuls of corn to the first few rows of the audience, who grab it ecstatically. Gentlemen in expensive suits try to establish eye contact with the singer who is so cheekily, so Diamond- Lil-ishly, making them eat out of her hand...

But this is not Broadway, nor the Depression, nor a nightclub, nor a porcelain figurine. This is the National Theatre's new production of Guys and Dolls, which Richard Eyre first staged in 1982, to the collective rapture of London theatregoers. In those days, Imelda Staunton played the smallest and dumpiest of the Hot Box girls, dancing behind Julia McKenzie, who sang Miss Adelaide, the shepherdess role.Two years later, McKenzie left and Staunton, with a certain apprehensiveness, took over. Now, 12 years later, she's back in the part. And watching Guys and Dolls again, one is amazed how much Staunton has not just made the part her own, eclipsing all memory of McKenzie's rather drooping and pathetic Adelaide, but how she has made it seem a far greater role. In La Staunton's hands, "the well-known fiancee" becomes a complex figure - good-hearted but calculating, chronically disappointed but endlessly optimistic, dim but not gullible, dying to marry her feckless boyfriend, Nathan Detroit, impresario of the permanently floating crap game, but longing to knock him into shape, slushily romantic but one of the girls, a wisecracker, a shrew, a sexpot... Why you'd think you were watching some bittersweet American version of Everywoman there on stage.

The key word is "bittersweet", of course. Imelda Staunton has been playing bittersweet for years, on stage, on television, in movies. Her presence in sitcoms like Is It Legal? or comedy dramas like Up the Garden Path or literary-canon movies like Sense and Sensibility or comedy-mysteries like Joan Smith's televised novels always complicate their texture because of the air of frustration, of unfulfilment or bravely-borne melancholy, that wafts around her like parma violets. Audiences seem to like the way her watermelon smile, her smart-cookie manner conceals a broken heart. It also means she can play anything, from Shakespeare to Chekhov to Sondheim to a telly sleuth, without undue strain.

But who is she really? Is her disposition sweet or bitter? The first shock, when you meet her, for lunch at the National's ritzy Mezzanine restaurant, is how alarmingly Celtic she looks. Out of make-up, out of costume and character, she is a mass of red curls, angry blue eyes and rough windblown complexion. She resembles a Galway tinker, only without the shawl and the cardboard box. Her hard little eyes could be those of an IRA moll. And though you soon warm to her straight, confiding manner ("What exactly is osso buco? Is it? Yergh") one remains a little wary of her. Prolonged exposure to Mayo redheads would suggest that she could have a filthy temper. Does she? "No, I don't have a temper," she says pleasantly. "Although of course that's not healthy. I can't even say `No, I'm not doing that...' without getting upset. I can't argue. I can be very clear about what I want, but I won't shout about it. I'm better at getting ahead of things. I'm not good at conflict, but I'm good at sensing it in the distance and defusing it."

I thought of Adelaide's on-off romance with Nathan, their screaming matches. their ill-matched temperaments, her determination, his constant retreat. Could she empathise? "I think Henry [Goodman, who plays Nathan] and I have a very good relationship. You feel he really loves her. He gets distracted a lot but, when he's with her, he really loves her. You feel it's not just a battle on her own, that I've really got to get this guy." Staunton habitually mixes up characters and actors like this, when talking about the part. It's as if her identification with Adelaide slides in and out of character all the time. So does her sense of Adelaide as a girlfriend, a singer, a fictional character and a good part to play. As we teased out the moral strands of the play, she said, "What I think is, the four main characters all grow up a bit in this story. Sarah [the Salvation Army virgin] who thinks, this is how my life is going to be, gets shown it can be other things as well, Adelaide decides she'll marry Nathan no matter what he is, Nathan gets a job on a news stand, Sky Masterson discovers it's all right to do something virtuous - they all make good journeys, and that's always interesting. And of course, if you get to sing in a nightclub at the same time, that's a nice perk costumewise..."

Staunton gives a tremendous on-stage impression of a Tin Pan Alley trouper. She practically bursts with emotion during "Adelaide's Lament", she hams up the Monroe-esque "Take Back Your Mink" with vigour, she rants like a termagant in "Sue Me", turning the last "When I think of the times..." into a single exasperated, wordless screech. It comes as a slight shock to discover that she doesn't actually care for the form at all.

"Audiences like Guys and Dolls because it's a very good play. The songs are good too, yeah, but you could perform it without the songs and still have a very good play. I just don't like a lot of musicals. I think a lot of them are crap. They're weak. Often you get a crap script and a couple of good songs, and you're supposed to think you've had a good night out. It's just not good enough." Gosh. Was there one she really really hated? "Oh, there was Mack and Mabel, which I did at Nottingham - great songs, terrible book. It's so frustrating. And I always want the songs to further the action. Not many of them do. The show stops, it's a song, the show starts again. It's so..." She speared a mouthful of monkfish, having turned down the Bayonne ham that was supposed to accompany it; she's a meat vegetarian, but not a fish vegetarian. "And when I was asked to do Into the Woods, they sent me a tape to listen to, and the music went [she adopts a prancing, children's-TV delivery] `Into the woods alone alone, into the woods...' and I just went [she mimes switching off a tape] Off! I don't think so." But she was in Into the Woods... "Oh, Richard Jones persuaded me to do it and I enjoyed it very much. But I'm not a great fan of Sondheim, and he knows it and is very nice to me." You don't like his lyrics? "I just like a tune."

The tuneful, musical-hating Staunton grew up in north London. Both her parents were from the west of Ireland, her father a building contractor, her mother a hairdresser. "She was the fiery one, my father was the calm one. That's where it all [ie acting] comes from, the Celtic thing." The family (Imelda was an only child) lived over the shop. As a child, her taste in showbiz was for mid-century Americana. "I was a bit of a Frank Sinatra fan, people like him. When I was 11 or 12, I used to watch Dean Martin and Sinatra movies. I loved all that. I was a rather old-fashioned child. I liked Tony Curtis when I was 11. I always liked the Forties, at least the showbiz period. And I noticed how, when we got our costumes for Guys and Dolls, all the guys said, `Why don't we dress like this anymore?' "

She went to a convent school, the La Sainte Union in Highgate, run by an order of French nuns, and has happy memories of the place - she's been back as a distinguished old girl, to talk to the Sixth Form. Part of the curriculum was a class in elocution, run by a Miss Stoker. She took a shine to the small but volcanic Imelda, encouraged her and steered her towards Rada. "I'm not sure what she saw in me. Maybe a future. But I was quite versatile, and she used to get me to perform at drama festivals. I used to do funny pieces like "The Maid on the Phone". You remember The Three Faces of Eve, that Joanne Woodward movie? She re-cast it for me as a monologue. And then she started a drama class after school..."

The super-critical Miss Stoker got her protegee into Rada. She left at 20, in 1976, and her career took off. She joined the RSC and then in 1982, only six years after drama school, the National Theatre. She went through a dozen "small funny lady" parts (including The Fair Maid of the West for the RSC), before determinedly branching out into Chekhov and Dennis Potter; she was the deeply nasty Nurse White in The Singing Detective. Of the people she has dealt with, she comes over most luvvie-ish about David Toguri, the Japanese American choreographer of Guys and Dolls ("He's an absolute genius. He makes dancers look like actors and actors look like dancers") and most defensive about Kenneth Branagh, who directed her in both Much Ado about Nothing and Peter's Friends. "I'm very protective about him because he's quite fantastic but the press don't seem to think so. Anyone who's ever worked for him knows his drive and energy and enthusiasm. You couldn't find a better producer, a better enabler than him". Was she in the Branagh Hamlet? "No. It's a bloody oversight..."

I reminded her of the Goldie Hawn line in The First Wives Club, about how the only roles currently available to women are the girlfriend, the District Attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Staunton laughed, having rarely been out of work for more than a fortnight. "That's an old one, the whinge about women in the theatre. I think playwrights are writing better and better parts for women. But you have got to keep taking parts as long as you can and not turning things down, because when you're 50 or 55, you'll start to run out.

Though she recently turned a mere 40, there is a distinct trace of incipient grande dame about Imelda. It's only noticeable when she's talking about her peer group of leading ladies, as if she has now joined their august company and it was time everyone knew about it. "There are lots of good parts around at the moment. Have you seen Janet McTeer in A Doll's House? The most breathtaking performance you'll ever see. If she doesn't get an Olivier award for that - if bloody Diana Rigg gets one [for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?] and Janet doesn't, I'm going to be most pissed off..."

From her current perspective - happily married to the actor Jim Carter, with a bay daughter Bessy Beatrice, aged three - she considers the chronic yearning of the "character" actress, forever wondering where the next hob is coming from. "I suppose I did spend a lot of time thinking, `I wish I was playing that' or `Why can't I be in that?', and I'm so glad to have stopped all that. I've lost that pathetic need. It's not that I don't care any more. But if I didn't work for the next year or so, it'd be fine, as long as we could pay the mortgage".

But what would she do if she didn't act? "I could get a job in a drama school." She means it. Imelda Staunton is giving up singing Adelaide at the end of the present NT run in March, and not coming back for the big, all-thro'-the-summer run. But since she's turned the part into the biggest prima donna role on the London stage, was there anything more important?

"My life?" she says with an interrogative lift. "I just want to be at home with the baby. We may do another series of the sitcom [Is It Legal?] in August and I can't think of anything nicer than to have April, May and June at home. I have my cake and I want to eat it all. I want to play this part and I want to go home". And with that, the equilibrial and straightforward actress who currently inhabits the soul of ditzy Everywoman with such passionate conviction on the Olivier stage, took herself off to be photographed, practising her Baader-Meinhof scowl for the camera.

`Guys and Dolls', Olivier, RNT, London, SE1 (0171-928 2252) now previewing