On the hottest London day of the year, with temperatures soaring into the nineties, the friendly staff at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Avenue (just a stone's throw away from the Thames Embankment) escort me down into their subterranean world. It has always amused and sometimes shocked me how unglamorous the backstages of our London theatres can be. A warren of understage dressing rooms and technicians' cubby holes utilizing every available inch of this expensive plot of real estate. Outside, the Avenue is peppered with watchful and expectant autograph hunters, clutching albums and photographs, ready to pounce on an arriving star like over-enthusiastic trainspotters. Little do they know that the dressing rooms of these stars are not like the Hollywood confections of countless bouquet-bedecked B movies but hot, airless and lightless work-stations with basic comforts and factory efficient sparseness. The dressing-rooms hum with the incessant whirring of huge fans, more First World War Sopwith Camels than ultra modern air conditioning.
Into this Hobbit land rushes Charlotte Emmerson. Emmerson is playing Cora alongside the movie legend, Val Kilmer, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse adaptation of The Postman Only Rings Twice. A character made famous by Lana Turner and Jessica Lange in the States, and even more evocatively portrayed in Visconti's immediate post-war Italian Neo-Realist interpretation, Obsessione , Emmerson's Cora is the archetypal, the original, desperate housewife. Married to a slob of a Greek husband, Cora is described by Emmerson as no great beauty, no Hollywood heart-stopper, but a woman who had once "won a high school beauty contest -- and who knows what the competition was like": "Cora's a hard working girl -- Turner played her as though she hadn't done a day's work in her life. I wanted to get back to the character in the book." The 'book' is James A. Cain's original novel of Postman, which has now been adapted in this new version for the stage by Andrew Rattenbury.
Emmerson's appraisal of the Cora character and her beauty contest past belies the energy and charisma of Emmerson herself. Rarely can a person excite and energize with every word, every gesture. Plug Emmerson into the National Grid and she'd easily power a small city -- who knows, maybe not so small! I ask Emmerson if she is aware of this exciting vibrancy and how much this feeds into her portrayal. "I feel that Cora is highly energised too, but she has nowhere to channel her emotions, her energy -- her passions. Everything about her -- in her life -- is suppressed -- she's hanging on for dear life. Cora is stuck in the middle of nowhere, married to this Greek guy -- maybe there's a lot of my mad normal self about her. Anyway, along comes this man [the Kilmer anti-hero, Frank] and she can explode. Cora seems to me like a bottle of tomato ketchup. I used to be a waitress -- sometimes you'd find a bottle of ketchup that had been forgotten about and left on a shelf -- you know -- you open it and it fizzes and explodes -- ketchup everywhere! That's what I bring to Cora."
Wiping the metaphorical ketchup from my brow, I ask about the original concept behind the piece. Originally produced at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Postman is directed by Lucy Bailey, with whom Emmerson had previously worked on the critically acclaimed Baby Doll. "I suggested the play to Lucy and I adore working with her. I had my first real break with Lucy and owe so much to her." Emmerson describes Bailey's rehearsal technique: "She gives a lot of freedom to people. I worked a couple of times with Trevor Nunn -- he has a clear idea from the start of what he wants to see from his actors. Lucy allows you to change -- she doesn't insist on setting anything. It's not so much experimental as allowing you to really get to know the story. The better you understand the story the better the character can become -- it takes a long time and Bailey gives us that time."
Emmerson describes the constant revision and re-revision of performance, honing the characters and scenes into a whole: "We will return to a scene we thought we'd set over a week before and totally change it. Lucy draws things out of us -- often making us try silly things without us feeling silly about it." "In fact," Emmerson confides with wonder, "we will change a scene just before press night -- that happened here and it really worked!" It is the 'freedom' to explore and make mistakes that Emmerson obviously relishes in this process. "I'm an instinctive person -- I need to work a piece. I have to be off the book before I start -- learn it and throw it away, bin it -- I don't know how anyone can rehearse with a script in one hand -- I'm much too much of a physical person to be tied to a script." Emmerson chuckles: "Anyway, I'm a lousy sight reader!"
There is a great generosity about Emmerson's description of her friend and director, Bailey, as there is about her American co-star, Val Kilmer. She is scathing about what she describes as the negative response to an American star on the London stage. "If a star can bring in the audience, then why not? Why try to hurt us? It is giving jobs to twelve British actors, to a theatre crew -- it's creating all this work -- why complain?" With glee, Emmerson lets me in to her own personal Kilmer secret. "I was in the car with my mate and Lucy rang to say a London opening looked hopeful and that Val Kilmer was interested. I said 'great' then came off the mobile and asked my friend 'who is Val Kilmer?' Of course, I knew the name but for the life of me I couldn't remember what he'd done." Kilmer was made aware of Emmerson's 'problem' and it remains a standing joke between them. "He's such a generous actor, both off and onstage -- he's very kind and supportive to me."
Regretfully, I take my leave of Charlotte Emmerson. "I have to do a phone interview with Radio 4 and I'm ten minutes late" she gasps. With bundles of charm and humility this truly del ightful actor guides me back through the labyrinth to the stage door where staff offer me strawberries and a parting joke. The Playhouse Theatre is obviously charged with an enthusiasm for the hot and sultry sexuality of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Charlotte Emmerson is a great ambassador for her craft and her colleagues. The London streets are just as hot as before, though somehow not quite as hot as the chemistry which is obviously igniting Emmerson, Kilmer and the Playhouse Theatre stage.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005