CAUGHT IN THE WEB
“The name is Scottish — well, Gaelic,” Mairi Babb says.
She brought it with her when she came to Canada at the age of five. She also brought a love of telling stories. Maybe that’s what made her want to be an actress.
“My high school drama teacher got me interested in going on the stage,” she says. “He had me doing all these farces in Victoria where I was growing up. It was great fun.”
A dark-haired, animated woman, Babb says she loved to sing and wanted to go into opera professionally.
“I was 17 and I was told to wait until my voice matured. Well, while I was waiting I was doing all these straight plays and I fell in love with doing them.
“I was interested in more serious ones too, of course. I remember doing a Pinter play with a friend in high school. And my first professional show was, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver.”
In Winnipeg, where she lived later, she acted with Manitoba Theatre Centre and Prairie Theatre Exchange.
“The people are intrepid in that city,” she says, laughing. “They even do outdoor theatre in the winter. No one holes up, they just keep going.”
Babb has just finished a stint at Port Dover’s Lighthouse Theatre doing Norm Foster’s “Screwball Comedy.” Surprisingly, comedy is part of the next play she’s tackling in Hamilton at Theatre Aquarius.
“We don’t think of Agatha Christie as someone who writes funny lines,” Babb says, “But her 1952 play ‘Spider’s Web’ has a fair share of them. Of course it’s a murder mystery, with all of Christie’s usual clues to keep you guessing.
“For me, her stories are treasure hunts. If you pay attention you end up solving the mystery along with the characters on stage. There’s a sense of ownership. People love the act of figuring mysteries out.”
“Spider’s Web” was written for the English actress Margaret Lockwood, who appeared in such classic British movies as “Wicked Lady” and “Jassy.”
A stage star as well, Lockwood saw Christie’s megahit “The Mousetrap,” which was packing in audiences in London’s West End. Lockwood asked Dame Agatha if she would write a mystery for her and she obliged.
“Spider’s Web” didn’t quite match “The Mousetrap” for longevity. The show is still running now in its 67th year, but the play turns up now and then in summer stock and at regional theatres.
“I play Clarissa, a young upperclass woman with a terrific imagination. She likes to tell stories and make things up,” Babb says.
“Nothing exciting has ever happened to her, so in her own mind she makes up great adventures. She lives through predicaments she invents. One night the ultimate predicament happens to her. She discovers a body. That’s when she gets to put her imagination to use.”
Babb is pleased to be working with director Marcia Kash again. “I played Miep in ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ here at Aquarius in 2009 and I enjoyed being directed by Marcia. She’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with.”
Babb admits she’s a bit daunted by the role she’s playing this time round.
“It’s a star part. I’m seldom offstage. I’m immensely grateful to be trusted with it. I’m just working hard to get it right, but really, how do you eat an elephant? It’s just so huge.
“Of course, this is a great ensemble cast and the show is going to look amazing on the Aquarius stage. It’s set in a great drawing room with lovely furnishings. Then there are the clothes I get to wear. It’s going to be a beautiful looking show designed by Patrick Clark. I think audiences will leave feeling they’ve been entertained,” she continues.
True confession time: During our interview, Babb admitted she had never seen an Agatha Christie play on stage.
At the same time there were some things she would not disclose, her age for instance. When asked, she screwed up her face and let a grin wash over it.
“I’m ageless,” she finally says with a laugh. “In this business, as soon as someone attaches a number to you you’re put in a box. Better to leave such numbers unrevealed, don’t you think?”
Mairi Babb plays Clarissa in Theatre Aquarius’ “Spider’s Web.”