Who is she? Your mother?

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

‘FR OM T R E I F to kosher,” ob­serves Sue Kelvin. She i s l o o k i n g back on — to u s e a Da v - i d M a m e t phrase — a life in the the­atre. It started with Fly­ing Pig, the com­pany Kelvin co-founded af­ter leav­ing drama school, and grew into a ca­reer which has placed the 50-year-old ac­tress at the top of the list for any di­rec­tor looking to cast a Jewish ma­tri­arch.

It is a sur­pris­ingly rich roll-call of roles that in­cludes Golda in Fid­dler on the Roof, self-pity­ing Debbie in Steven Berkoff’s Sit and Shiva, the over-bear­ing mother in Beau Jeste, a rabbi’s wife in the forth­com­ing movie Re­unit­ing the Ru­bins, and not for­get­ting Kelvin’s well-re­ceived ti­tle role per­for­mance in So­phie Tucker’s One Night Stand, which was writ­ten by Kelvin’s hus­band Chris Burgess.

For Kelvin’s lat­est in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ar­che­typal Jewish mother she plays the ti­tle role in Hetty Fe­in­stein’s Wed­ding An­niver­sary, a new mu­si­cal which opened at the New End The­atre in Lon­don this week and which is writ­ten by the same writer, in­deed, the same hus­band, as her So­phie Tucker show. So, has she had enough al­ready with play­ing Jewish moth­ers?

“It’s funny,” re­flects Kelvin dur­ing a break in re­hearsals, “I did Fid­dler on the Roof with Henry Good­man, and I worked with him on Sond­heim’s As­sas­sins [Kelvin played the Jewish an­ar­chist Emma Gold­man while Good­man played the as­sas­sin Charles Guiteau], and Henry re­ally hates the idea of type­cast­ing.”

In which case, he would prob­a­bly loathe the idea of tak­ing on the role of Hetty’s hus­band Harry (played by David Burt), who re­fuses to cough up the cash to cel­e­brate his pearl wed­ding an­niver­sary.

Harry’s re­fusal forces Hetty to won­der whether the past 30 years were worth it, and it is this re­flec­tion on three decades of mar­i­tal ups and downs that forms the ba­sis of the show.

“It’s ba­si­cally the story of a mar­riage,” says Kelvin. “I think any­body who is mar­ried will re­late to it. And even if you’re not, you will recog­nise your par­ents’ mar­riage.”

Kelvin was born in Manch­ester and raised on a diet of not just Jewish food, which is the sub­ject of one of the songs in Hetty Fe­in­stein’s An­niver­sary, but on stor i e s a b o u t the great Jewish vaude­ville diva So­phie Tucker. “When I heard her mu­sic as a child I im­me­di­ately felt a kind of con­nec­tion with her,” says Kelvin. “And when­ever So­phie Tucker was in Manch­ester she would stay at my aunt’s. My grand­mother would pick her up at the Palace The­atre af­ter her show, take her round to my aunt’s and they’d talk and drink and play poker into the night.”

It is for this rea­son that, out of all the roles — both Jewish and gen­tile — played by Kelvin, in­clud­ing Chicago’s Mama Mor­ton and Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables, Tucker re­mains the piv­otal one.

“She was strong and funny and fiercely in­de­pen­dent,” says Kelvin of the heroine who she heard so much about but un­for­tu­nately missed out on meet­ing her.

“I haven’t en­coun­tered a Jew of cer­tain age who hasn’t seen her or met her. She was just a great net­worker. She was a bit like Hetty, who is also very, very funny.”

But for all the in­flu­ence of Tucker on Kelvin’s ca­reer, the mem­o­ries to which this com­edy ac­tor most of­ten turns when pre­par­ing for a Jewish role are of her pa­ter­nal grand­mother. “She was a very strong and dom­i­neer­ing ma­tri­arch,” she re­calls.

“She was a caterer and would lit­er­ally bake 144 loaves of bread for Fri­day night. But you can’t not soak up the at­mos­phere — the gos­sip, the alive­ness and the hu­mour. And al­though I’m not re­li­gious — I’m very sec­u­lar, in fact — but cul­tur­ally I very much iden­tify with Ju­daism and I en­joy it very much.”

But star­ring in a show about the vi­cis­si­tudes of mar­riage — “there’s a lot of sad­ness in the show as well” — is all very fine. But when the script and the songs are writ­ten by your hus­band of 21 years (they have two chil­dren) the words “linen” “dirty” and “pub­lic” come to mind.

“Look,” says Kelvin in a no-non­sense way, “if it’s true, it’s in there. Be­cause that’s what mat­ters.

“Peo­ple have to recog­nise them­selves if they are go­ing to en­gage with what is on stage. If they don’t, it’s not re­ally worth go­ing. And you only get hu­mour out of pain and re­al­ity. But in the end this is a warm and emo­tional show.”

And as for Henry Good­man’s fear of type­cast­ing, Kelvin is not both­ered at all. She knows what she is good at and is happy to stick with be­ing good.

“Let’s face it,” says the ac­tress be­fore re­turn­ing to the re­hearsal room, “be­ing Jewish is some­thing I can tune in to. I tend to play a lot of Amer­i­cans too. But if you were to give me a Noel Cow­ard play, I wouldn’t know what to do.” Hetty Fe­in­stein’s An­niver­sary is at the New End The­atre, Lon­don N3 un­til De­cem­ber 6. Tel: 0870 033 2733 for tick­ets

Sue Kelvin with David Butt in Hetty Fe­in­stein’s Wed­ding An­niver­sary

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