ACROSS her four-decade career, Jane Horrocks has played a weird and wonderful variety of characters. But none could be considered quite as unusual as her latest: Nell, a very old woman, without legs, stuck in a dustbin.
‘I had a costume fitting yesterday and I thought, “This definitely isn’t the most glamorous of roles,”’ she chuckles, reflecting on her part, opposite Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, in a new revival of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
Best loved for her long-running turn as ditzy PA Bubble in sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, Jane has performed in everything from Shakespeare to Brecht, but this is the first Beckett play she has appeared in — and the famously cryptic playwright is presenting a new kind of challenge.
‘The writing is very dense and very oblique and really impenetrable,’ as she notes. But the trick to understanding Beckett? To not worry about understanding it in the first place. ‘Even if you don’t really know what he means or what he’s trying to get at, it’s like poetry — you let the words wash over you and then something may resonate.’
Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a blind man, his servant and his ancient parents contemplate nothingness, Endgame (being performed as part of a Beckett double bill at London’s Old Vic) is a typically bleak take on themes of death and mortality from the Irish playwright. They are subjects that Jane can’t help but reflect on more and more, as she moves through her fifties. ‘I’m at that stage where your parents are dying, your friends’ parents are dying, even your friends are dying. Of course, you think about that an awful lot, and your own death.’ Nevertheless, unlike Beckett, she is determined not to get too hung up on the point of it all, she says.
‘He’s got quite a pessimistic view of life, and it’s not mine. Well, I’m trying not to make it my mine,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve got a lot of pessimism but I try to squash that.’
Jane knew she wanted to perform ever since, as a young girl, she used to impersonate her favourite singers — Gracie Fields and Judy Garland — a unique talent she subsequently channelled into her remarkable, Olivier award-winning performance in Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, which was written especially for her. After leaving school, she went to RADA, where she gratifyingly ignored advice to ‘mellow’ her Lancashire accent. ‘It’s my identity, so in a way they were saying “ditch your identity” and I wasn’t prepared to do that. But it’s been my fortune so I’m really glad I didn’t.’
Indeed, Jane’s striking intonation has been key to the singular brilliance of Bubble, who she played ever since Ab Fab began back in 1992. Bubble was a character she understood immediately, she says. ‘It was just one of those things, I was very comfortable in her shoes.’ But while she has a great affection for the character, she has no burning desire to do more Ab Fab, following its 2016 big-screen outing.
‘I think moving forward and discovering new territory is far more interesting. I don’t know how much I really learn from repeating things.’ If she was asked, could she be persuaded, however? ‘You never say never, but I don’t know.’
Upcoming projects include ITV period drama The Singapore Grip, in which she plays an upper-crust colonial wife opposite David Morrissey, and a new stage piece she is working on. It will be another ‘gig theatre’ crossover show in which she sings, following 2016’s If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me at the Young Vic and 2017’s Cotton Panic at the Manchester International Festival.
It’s clear that these kinds of experimental projects are what fire Jane up these days. She says there is still an industry bias against actresses as they reach their forties. She notes jokily how in the 1990s she starred as the sultry Sally Bowles in Cabaret alongside Endgame co-star Alan Cumming as the Emcee, and is now playing his mother. But she’s determined not to moan. ‘I just think if there ain’t the work there, make your own.’
She believes the key to life is to keep ‘throwing things up in the air’. That now includes an imminent move to Brighton from the capital. ‘I thought, “Let’s move to a different place and see what happens.” I don’t know it that well, but I’ve spent a bit of time there and I just love the vibe. It’s very young and very vibrant and I feel energised by the place.’
■ Endgame/Rough is at the Old Vic until March 28, oldvictheatre.com