Feature: We Saw Them First/The Actresses - Five Plays Whose Female Players Later Became Stars

Fleabag herself began in the theatre, and a recent Oscar winner once played Jessica Lange's onstage maid

By: Feb. 08, 2021

Feature: We Saw Them First/The Actresses - Five Plays Whose Female Players Later Became Stars

Last week, we looked at the early stage work of a quintet of actors who have gone on to celebrated work, and a wider public, onscreen. But the same trajectory is every bit as true of Britain's dazzling array of actresses. Emily Watson was not long finished with a 1994 National Theatre revival of The Children's Hour before she leapt to attention with her Oscar-nominated turn in Breaking the Waves, while Bridgerton's blissfully imposing Lady Danbury, Adjoa Andoh, is no stranger to devotees of such London venues as Shakespeare's Globe, the National and the Kiln.

What follows below are five actresses fondly remembered from their early stage work during that time before one celluloid assignment or another cemented their fame.

Imelda Staunton, Uncle Vanya, Vaudeville Theatre, 1988

Starry Chekhov is no stranger to London as those who saw the Richard Armitage-Toby Jones Uncle Vanya on the West End this time last year can attest. But I retain a particular fondness for one of the first London stagings I ever saw of Chekhov's ever-piercing play: a Michael Blakemore-directed revival that starred the legendary Michael Gambon as Vanya, Jonathan Pryce as Astrov, and, in a performance of heartbreaking power, Imelda Staunton as the lovesick yet loyal Sonya - worlds away from the same performer's Martha, Momma Rose, and Mrs. Lovett that at the time were still to come. So, too, were her Oscar nod for Vera Drake and screen renown as Harry Potter's Dolores Umbridge (see below).

Olivia Colman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Lyric Theatre, 2000

Olivia Colman seems to gather awards like moths to a flame, but it's astonishing to think that two decades ago the Oscar-winning star of The Favourite (see trailer below) was on the West End playing the maid, Cathleen, in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night that offered a career triumph to a previous Oscar-winner, Jessica Lange. (Lange later won a Tony for a different production of the same play in New York.) Colman's presence in O'Neill's epic proving that there's no such thing as small players regardless of the size of the part, the Oscar hopeful again this year for The Father actually feels like a Mary Tyrone currently waiting to happen. Is there a producer in the house?

Carey Mulligan, The Seagull, Royal Court Theatre, 2007

Chekhov offers repeated stage catnip, rarely more so than in the emotional translucence that a then 21-year-old Carey Mulligan brought to the role of the aspiring actress Nina in the director Ian Rickson's shattering revival of The Seagull. (Seen first at the Royal Court, Mulligan's unofficial stage home in London, the production later travelled to Broadway.) A difficult role that can devolve into posturing, Nina tapped into the same sense of a withheld power awaiting release that has characterised Mulligan's rise and rise ever since, not least onscreen just now in Promising Young Woman, which looks likely to bring the onetime lead in An Education a second Oscar nod (see trailer below).

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Hay Fever, Noel Coward Theatre, 2012

Not long before her meditative, sex-mad Fleabag spun out from the Soho Theatre into the TV stratosphere, Phoebe Waller-Bridge was all but stealing the show in the late Howard Davies's exhilarating revival of Hay Fever, starring Lindsay Duncan as the effervescently self-regarding Judith Bliss. (As it happens, Olivia Colman was in this production as well, prior, of course, to her gloriously aspish supporting turn in Fleabag.) Cast as the Blisses' daughter Sorel, Waller-Bridge nailed Coward's whiplash wit with such acumen that one salivates at her perhaps one day taking on Private Lives, complete with a made-to-order Elyot in her small screen "hot priest," Andrew Scott: bring it on!

Cush Jumbo, Josephine and I, Bush Theatre, 2013

Among the productions put on hold by the pandemic has been a Hamlet, directed by Greg Hersov and starring Cush Jumbo in the title role, which is due to happen as and when the Young Vic reopens. In the meantime, one looks back with a mixture of admiration and awe at Jumbo's self-penned solo play about the American-born French chanteuse (and more), Josephine Baker, which the author-performer premiered at west London's Bush Theatre in 2013 (see curtain-raiser below) before taking it to New York in the wake of her Broadway debut opposite Hugh Jackman in The River. Jumbo has of course ridden a steady wave to celluloid success on TV's The Good Wife and The Good Fight and, one imagines, has considerable greatness in store for us yet.

Fleabag photo credit: BBC/Two Brothers/Luke Varley

Who do you remember seeing way back when, well before the rest of the world knew who he was? Let us know @BroadwayWorldUK


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