Sheila Gish takes a sweeping look around the cramped confines of the poky room backstage at the Old Vic. Blonde and ample-bosomed, her neck still dusted with stage white powder she speaks as one who has spent more than 30 years in the theatre. "I LOVE the theatre - I feel my feet grow out of the boards," she declares, impassionato.
That is not to say you wouldn't recognise Ms Gish from occasional appearances on the television but critical acclaim has always centred upon her appearances on stage. Last year she won an Olivier Award for her portrayal of Joanne in the musical Company. On Sunday she appears in a new April de Angelis play, Playhouse Creatures, at the Old Vic, which has opened to excellent reviews. She plays Mrs Betterton, one of the first ever actresses in the 1660s permitted on to the British stage after Charles II relaxed the men- only rule.
Renowned for her depiction of Lady Macbeth, Mary Betterton was married to actor-manager Thomas Betterton, the same Betterton who gives his name to the street in Covent Garden. "She was the noted tragedian of the time and went on and on until she was retired in favour of younger models. It drives her mad because she can no longer do the things she wants."
Plus ca change ... she echoes the complaint regularly made by contemporary middle-aged actresses. Yet now in her fifties, Ms Gish is delighted that so far this sidelining has not been reflected in her own experience. "I haven't found that in the theatre and I feel very fortunate. But it wasn't until about 1981 that I started to evolve as a career actress rather than as a jobbing actress. Everything I've done since then have been very particular choices."
She is consistently drawn towards those roles where people are what she terms "fatally flawed". "They have something that undermines what might otherwise be a sound personality. Off-the-wall people. What I don't do well is the adjusted woman next door." In Company, the opportunity to play an embittered lush, Joanne, veteran of three marriages, was right up her street. "You don't do drunk acting. If you observe serious alcoholics they're frightfully good at not appearing drunk at all." It was, incidentally, her first appearance in a musical since a 1960s production of Robert and Elizabeth. "I never thought I could sing. So I started off by speaking it in a Rex Harrison way. Then I realised I could actually sing. It had always been a mystery why my speaking voice was so goddamned loud and my singing wasn't. Obviously it was because I wasn't using my natural voice."
If theatre work is plentiful, good-quality television is much harder to come by. "That is a youth market on the whole and now everyone's trying to second guess the public, thinking, `What do 1, Acacia Avenue want?' Her last major foray into television was in the ill-fated and critically savaged Brighton Belles, Carlton TV's pale imitation of the Golden Girls. "That was an interesting one," she says drily. "I thought about it for a long time and even when I decided to do it I wasn't certain I'd made the right move. I was anxious about the age-range aspect because I was aware it was propelling me into being older than I was. And I think I was right. Up to then everything I'd been offered on TV had a 40-year-old price tag on it. After it parts had 10 years stuck on them." And if truth be told it really wasn't very good at all. "I've seen some things on TV that were a damned sight worse. But we should have had new scripts rather than just change Chicago to Huddersfield.."
She met her husband, the actor Denis Lawson, when they were appearing together in the TV adaptation of the Kingsley Amis novel That Uncertain Feeling. Both were already married. "There are very few things in life where you feel you have no choice but that was one." Not what might be considered a sensible move? "No, sensible is what it was. It was brave because there are no guarantees but you either feel trust or you don't. Now everyone's better off for it. We have the life that we both like and our children are all extremely happy."
Her twenty-something daughters, Lou and Kay Gish, have also followed their mother into the profession. They, apparently, are not surprised by the roles their mother accepts. "They say I'm extremely eccentric. I really don't see it." Still looking as if she's had a quarrel with a bag of flour she abruptly dashes out of the room.
`Playhouse Creatures', Sundays and Mondays, booking: 0171-928 2651.
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