The wait­ress beck­oned by Mike Leigh

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment 35 - BY JOHN NATHAN

‘ITHOUGHT I’d made the wrong de­ci­sion”, says Alexis Zegerman. The one-time wait­ress, es­tate agent and of­fice worker is talk­ing about a pe­riod in her life when it seemed that get­ting work as an ac­tor was be­yond reach.

Her mother, Adele, who left school when she was 15 and was de­ter­mined that her chil­dren would get the best pos­si­ble ed­u­ca­tion even if she had to pay for it, had hoped that Alexis would choose some­thing a lit­tle more se­cure.

“You could be a bar­ris­ter. They act,” her mother had said. But Zegerman was de­ter­mined.

How­ever, af­ter uni­ver­sity, where she got a first in English, and af­ter two years work­ing part time as a wait­ress and as an es­tate agent show­ing peo­ple around Hamp­stead flats she could never af­ford; and af­ter turn­ing to play­wright­ing as a des­per­ate creative out­let; and af­ter barely a fringe-the­atre ap­pear­ance since she had left drama school — af­ter all this, she got a call from Mike Leigh.

“Sud­denly things started to hap­pen,” says Zegerman, her wide smile still be­tray­ing some of the sur­prise she felt when in 2005 Leigh cast her in his Jewish Na­tional The­atre play, Two Thou­sand Years.

Zegerman played Ta­mara, the ide­al­is­tic sis­ter to the nou­veau-re­li­gious Josh, played by Ben Ca­plan. Then came the even more high-pro­file role of dead­pan Zoe, best friend to Sally Hawkins’s Poppy in Leigh’s most re­cent movie Happy-Go-Lucky.

“Work­ing at the Na­tional with ac­tors like Adam God­ley (cur­rently in the West End show Rain Man) in a Mike Leigh play — it was all so mind blow­ing. And then work­ing with Mike Leigh — ‘top film di­rec­tor’ — on a film set was ex­traor­di­nary. The very first time he gave the in­struc­tion (to the cam­era man) to ‘turn over’, I ac­tu­ally thought he was talk­ing to my stom­ach.”

At 31 there is ev­ery chance that Zegerman will be­come a mem­ber of that exclusive club whose mem­bers are some of this coun­try’s great­est per­form­ers, such as Ti­mothy Spall, Jim Broad­bent or Les­ley Manville — the Mike Leigh regulars. But for the mo­ment act­ing is to take a back seat to writ­ing. To­day per­for­mances be­gin of Lucky Seven, Zegerman’s first full-length play which re­ceives its pre­miere at North Lon­don’s Hamp­stead The­atre. Not bad, con­sider- ing she only started writ­ing be­cause she could not get work as an ac­tor.

Zegerman honed this secondary, though it ap­pears not lesser, tal­ent on the Royal Court’s young writ­ers’ pro­gramme. It led to her work be­ing per­formed on Ra­dio 4, which has just com­mis­sioned Zegerman to write a com­edy se­ries called Mum’s On the Run.

“I just want peo­ple to laugh,” says Zegerman, though when she says it she is talk­ing about her stage play.

Lucky Seven is based on the fa­mous TV doc­u­men­tary Seven Up, which ev­ery seven years has fol­lowed the lives of its sub­jects ever since they were chil­dren. In Zegerman’s stage ver­sion, di­rected by An­thony Clark, her three pro­tag­o­nists are up­per-class Cather­ine (Susannah Harker), mid­dle-class Tom (Jonny Weir) and work­ing-class Alan (David Kennedy), a Jewish East En­der who sells ladies’ knick­ers for a liv­ing.

“It’s not a play about re­al­ity TV,” says the 31-year-old North Lon­doner.

“It’s more about our in­ter­est in th­ese three char­ac­ters and whether they man­age to break the shack­les. I mean, Alan is a work­ing-class Jew from the East End, so I hope there will be peo­ple in the au­di­ence who recog­nise things about him. Cer­tainly he’s drawn from my fam­ily back­ground. My mum’s fam­ily came from the East End, some of them moved to Es­sex, some to North Lon­don. I think most of all it’s a play about hope and dis­ap­point­ment and as­pi­ra­tions and whether we ful­fil them.”

It is the day be­fore re­hearsals, and Zegerman has just re­turned from Ger­many, where she filmed her sec­ond movie. Storm is about a mod­ern war­crimes trial in The Hague and Zegerman has been cast along­side Kerry Fox and Stephen Dil­lane.

“I play a re­ally bitchy press sec­re­tary,” says Zegerman, de­light­ing in the con­trast be­tween her lat­est role and the few oth­ers she has played in a short but stun­ning ca­reer.

“I don’t think one day goes by when I don’t think, ‘This is won­der­ful’. I feel lucky. I re­ally do.”

Alexis Zegerman: “Work­ing with Mike Leigh was ex­traor­di­nary”

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