Before the pandemic closed theatres, Liz Crowther had been touring in The Disappearing Act around the UK, and the previous year, she’d been in the cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Visitors at the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham and The Wisdom Club at Bury St Edmunds Theatre. Liz has played Grandma (and Ensemble) in Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild, and she has appeared in over 25 plays for the Orange Tree Theatre, including The Memorandum. Currently, Liz is preparing to open in the stage show Es & Flo, in which she’ll be playing Es, at the Wales Millennium Centre this week, starring opposite Doreene Blackstock as Flo, before heading to the Kiln Theatre in June. Also a screen actor, Liz has been involved with many projects over the years, including playing regular character Sonia in Shoestring, with some of her more recent credits being episodes of The Dumping Ground, Outnumbered and The Chelsea Detective, and she has filmed for the Christmas 2023 episode of Vera, as well as a small role in episodes of the upcoming BBC series The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies. Answering our questions, Liz chatted to us about her upcoming role of Es in Es & Flo, working with the Orange Tree Theatre and her screen career over the years so far.
How was your time performing in The Disappearing Act before the pandemic closed theatres?
The Disappearing Act was the last play that I did before lockdown, and it was a wonderful physical theatre show that we devised. It was by Open Sky Theatre, who I’d worked with before – Claire Coaché (who was in the year above me at Lecoq) and Lisle Turner. When I was 50, I decided to go back to my movement roots as I’d trained as a dancer at ArtsEd originally and started my career dancing in pantomime for Bonnie Langford’s mum at Richmond Theatre and various other places, and I danced Clara in The Nutcracker at the Festival Hall, so I wanted to expand what I had been doing. I went to Lecoq for a year where I was lucky enough to get a job with Kenneth Branagh in the last week of term in a show called Ducktastic at the Albery Theatre (now known as the Noël Coward Theatre), which was a brilliant show with The Right Size – Sean Foley and Hamish McColl. The Disappearing Act had all Lecoq actors, so we all spoke the same language and knew about devising together, and we toured small venues like The Courtyard Hereford, Shrewsbury and Cheltenham and it was absolutely wonderful. It was very hard work but we made a rather beautiful show about a female magician, who we all played at different ages – 20, 40 and 60, and examined the very male world of magic and being a woman performer and mother. Claire and Lisle are really clever at making wonderfully visual and physical theatre. It was movement-led and we got to learn some great magic tricks. We were going to take it to Edinburgh but we couldn’t because of COVID, sadly.
In 2019, your stage shows included A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Visitors and The Wisdom Club, can you tell us about performing in them?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was directed by Dominic Hill at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, and it was a fantastic, dark production. I had worked with Dominic before and loved his approach. Both my parents – Jean and Leslie Crowther – were in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in 1949. My dad played Flute and my mum a Fairy. I played Starveling, one of the Mechanicals. There were also productions of it on at the Bridge and the Globe, so it was wonderful to go and see these other versions because they had different matinee days. We had some amazing actors in our show: Gabrielle Brooks – who was later nominated for an Olivier for Get Up, Stand Up!, Mei Mac – who’s just won an award for My Neighbour Totoro, Myra McFadyen – a brilliant Scottish actress, Amber James, Susan Wokoma and Emily Rose-Salter – a deaf actress who devised Oberon’s last song in BSL, which we all performed together and which was incredibly moving. It led me on to doing a British Sign Language course, which I must take up again because I was so happy that she was part of our company.
Visitors was up at the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham, which appallingly has lost its Arts Council funding, which is just terrible because it’s a wonderful theatre that performs such diverse work. Visitors was a lovely re-meeting with the director and actor Robin Herford, who played my husband in the show, and he hadn’t been on stage for 25 years so it was wonderful working with him. It’s a beautiful play by Barney Norris about an ageing couple who have run a farm for years and years. The wife has dementia and their son doesn’t want to take over the farm. Chris Lawson, the director, did a beautiful job and it was wonderful working in that theatre.
The Wisdom Club was at Bury St Edmunds Theatre where I’d never performed, which I think is the only restoration theatre still going in Britain apart from probably the Haymarket. It was a wonderful four-hander about old age (which Visitors was also in a way) and about finding your sense of purpose. It had an excellent cast and was written by a brilliant local Bury St. Edmunds writer, Danusia Iwaszko, and directed by Roger Haines. I loved being in Bury St. Edmunds, that was fascinating, and it was a really good play… very funny and touching. It was so nice to have both plays focusing on older characters.
How was the experience playing Grandma (and Ensemble) in Running Wild and being part of the Michael Morpurgo story?
Running Wild was a Regent’s Park and Chichester production and was adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel. I hadn’t realised before that he doesn’t like fantasy and he always has to start from a factual point. This one was about a story he’d seen in the paper of a young woman who had been rescued by an elephant in the tsunami in 2014. It’s about grief, friendship and love and we had some astonishing puppets by Toby Olié. We all played other parts so I was a hunter, a birdwatcher, half a crocodile… I had loads of quick changes and it was wonderful to do a bit of puppetry. On the last night, when Grandma says goodbye to the beautiful elephant puppet called Oona, I could barely blinking well speak. It was wonderful to work with the three very talented children playing Lily (the main girl) and it was a lovely company. Three of the puppeteers from Running Wild won an Olivier Award for Life of Pi and two were youth theatre members from Dale Rooks’ group at Chichester. As with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was directed by Tim Sheader, who was a trainee of Sam Walters at the Orange Tree Theatre, who first encouraged me massively.
Can you tell us about some of your other highlights from your stage career?
Some of the other highlights of my stage career are working at the Orange Tree Theatre. I’ve performed in about 28 plays there, and I was in All in the Wrong, which was the first production they opened in the new theatre when they moved from above the Orange Tree pub into the old school that the theatre is in now.
My very first play at the Orange Tree was The Memorandum – Vaclav Havel’s play – when he was still in prison. I remember us marching to demand his release and it was the year of Charter 77, which the Czech people got delivered to the government. In fact, Tom Stoppard and Ken Tynan marched with us to the Czech embassy because Ken Tynan was writing an article for the New Yorker on Tom Stoppard, who was born in the same year as Vaclav Havel. I played a secretary in The Memorandum (and showed the typing skills that got me the part of Sonia the receptionist in Shoestring), and the play had a strange language called Ptydepe, which showed the ridiculous bureaucracy of those times in Czechoslovakia.
I had the incredible good fortune of meeting Vaclav Havel in 2007 at Orange Tree Theatre’s 30th Anniversary evening of Charter 77 with all the signatories that were still alive. Vaclav Havel shook my hand and thanked me for playing Maria. Blimey! Such an honour to meet him. It was absolutely extraordinary. Sam Walters, who ran the Orange Tree, went on a Churchill Fellowship to Prague in 1989 and found himself in the middle of the Velvet Revolution. It was an evening I shall never forget. I’ve never seen Sam Walters so emotional.
Another absolute highlight for me was performing in a trilogy of plays based on Middlemarch, which we did in 2012/13, adapted and directed by Geoffrey Beevers. I played 12 humans and a dog. It was a fantastic cast and experience of storytelling, and honoured George Eliot’s stupendous novel. I’d never read it before so that was a really exciting job and it required a lot of stamina too, which was brilliant. On five days of the run, we performed all three plays in a day at 10am, 3pm and 7:30pm, and Sam and Auriol Walters cooked us a feast in between the second and third shows. What a memorable experience!
On screen, you played Nancy Cooper in an episode of The Chelsea Detective last year, what was it like being in the cast and filming your episode?
That was very exciting! It was a lovely cast and we filmed in probably the poshest house I’ve ever been in by Battersea Park with Adrian Scarborough, who is just brilliant.
We understand you played Joanne in short film Sunday opposite Lizzy Watts as Emily, can you say about this?
That was very nice because we were given a very free rein to interpret the script as we wished by the two directors, who had been editors and had worked for the BBC for a long time. I think it’s entered into quite a few film festivals now. I really like making short films, but sometimes things are very, very prescriptive so it’s lovely when a director trusts you and you feel relaxed. Lizzy Watts is also with my agent – Scott Marshall – who are fantastic!
How was your time filming episodes of The Dumping Ground and Outnumbered?
Outnumbered and The Dumping Ground are quite funny ones in terms of telly!
During the pandemic, I made some art projects for the children in my street when we were only allowed out for an hour a day. Some of them would then come and knock on my door and say ‘are you in Outnumbered?’.
I met a young lad with autism recently, who is sharing a house with my godson George, and we bonded over my scene in The Dumping Ground, which he’d memorised in absolute forensic detail!
What are some of your stand-out memories from working on screen since the start of your career, which includes your first role of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, playing Sonia in Shoestring, Susan Roberts in Watching and Sandra in Growing Pains?
Sonia in Shoestring is something I remember very fondly. We worked at Ealing Film Studios, above the tank that The Cruel Sea was filmed, and also in Bristol. That was a very groundbreaking series. It was very diverse and had a lot of extraordinary characters like the ones played by Toyah Willcox and Gary Holton, and had some incredible directors like Ben Bolt and Marek Kanievska. I’m still friends with Doran Godwin, who played Trevor Eve’s girlfriend. They released it on DVD recently and it was hilarious seeing that a private detective drove around the countryside in a huge, bright orange estate car expecting to be invisible, and how nobody wore seat belts, people smoked all the time, and there were shocking naked calendars in some of the office scenes! They also had quite groundbreaking episodes. I remember my friend Sharman Macdonald playing a woman in a woman’s refuge in one of the episodes.
I got that role from being in The Memorandum at the Orange Tree. I was playing a secretary called Maria so I had to learn to touch type things that the audience could actually read. My desk was so close that I remember once having somebody’s pint of beer put on my desk! That sort of thing used to happen all the time – it was hilarious!
Can you tell us about performing with Separate Doors?
I worked with Separate Doors last year (and I will again!), which is a wonderful company that aims to increase the representation of actors with learning difficulties in theatre, film and TV, and to give actors with limited speech and literacy skills a strong voice and a way to take their place alongside non-disabled actors. They use the Silent Approach (used to help our theatre industry change), which means that mostly rehearsals are done with gestures and the odd word from the director, but otherwise using just the words of the play text, which the actors without learning difficulties learn before rehearsals start. The actors with different skills will have been sent a video outlining their role in the play and the setting and then they are fed in lines or improvise around a tight theme. This is because there is usually so much complex language that can seem exclusive to some differently challenged actors and is very confusing to them. Some actors have creative enablers taking notes for them and supporting them, and on stage we had four actors – one: the ensemble lead, and three Silent Approach mentors paired with an actor with a learning difficulty, though not everyone needed a mentor. It enriches theatre and it’s a very, very important company. I’m very proud to be working with them.
We did a project of four short plays (by four writers tailor-making plays for us) and we did it at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre and Derby Playhouse. Those four short plays had a wonderful choreographer – Angela Gasparetto, as well as Ness Brooks directing. It was a remarkable thing to put together. We had the wonderful CBeebies presenter George Webster, who has Down’s syndrome and is a fantastic performer, who recently won a BAFTA for his CBeebies work. There is always a long movement session accompanied by music connecting the actors at the beginning of each rehearsal and all actors are present all the time. The movement made me very happy seeing as I attended Lecoq School when I was 50 because I wanted to reconnect with my movement roots.
I felt it enriched the audience’s experience and all of us within the company. They recently had a project at Theatre 503 at the end of February.
What are stage workshops like to be involved with and what do you enjoy about workshopping new material?
I like an actor’s input because quite often now there are so many creatives on a job so it’s very nice to be able to offer an awful lot of stuff and then to have it sifted through and put together and to improvise a lot. Sometimes you have to present a bit of work at the end of it, which can sometimes feel pressured, but it’s good to then also put stuff together, see what you’ve got and to see how it flows.
I think we did about three separate workshops of The Disappearing Act over several years before we did the actual show, and the show that I’m about to do – Es & Flo – I workshopped twice as well, once in November and once two years ago. I did a really good workshop with some other Lecoq people of a version of a Jacques Tati film recently. I also did a wonderful one at the RSC, which was sort of an OAP version of As You Like It with the wonderful director Omar Elerian, who directed The Chairs at the Almeida. There were a lot of ancient actors talking about being older actors doing Shakespeare, and that was much slower and more reflective. I remember a lot of tears but also a lot of laughter! Each workshop can be so different.
Do you have any favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch?
One of my favourite films is The Night of the Hunter, which is absolutely terrifying! I love French films. I am a French speaker and I looked after some children in France when I was 18, and so going to the Lecoq School there was incredible. I loved watching The Outlaws – that was brilliant, touching and funny. I love watching any physical theatre. I’ve seen most of what’s been on at the National recently and loved The Boy with Two Hearts. The show’s producer – Pádraig Cusack – is actually producing our play Es & Flo. My Neighbour Totoro was absolutely beautiful. I love watching companies like Pina Bausch and individual performers like James Thiérrée, who always astonishes. I also adored Kate Prince’s Message in a Bottle – wow!
What are you hoping the upcoming year brings for you and do you have any future plans you can tell us about?
I am currently rehearsing for the play Es & Flo for the Wales Millennium Centre and the Kiln Theatre as a co-production. It’s a love story about two women who met and fell in love at Greenham Common, and one of them is ill and their relationship is in peril. It’s a fabulous play by Jennifer Lunn and directed by Susie McKenna, and Doreene Blackstock plays Flo and I play Es. It won The Guardian Popcorn New Play Award in 2020 and I’m really enjoying working on it and honouring the Greenham Common Women who have never had enough recognition since the 1981 to 2000 Greenham Women’s peaceful protests (NVDA – non-violent direct action) against American Cruise missiles being on British soil.
I have been doing quite a lot of telly last year. Just before Christmas, I was filming a tiny part in the Christmas 2023 episode of Vera. We filmed it up in Berwick-upon-Tweed and on Lindisfarne, and one of the fantastic things about being an actor is the places you get to go to and also working with incredible people like Brenda Blethyn, who is just knockout. I was very excited to do that. I also did an Inspector Dalgliesh in summer and got to go to Belfast for the first time. Then I did a few episodes (but a tiny part) in a BBC series that’s coming out soon called The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies, with an incredible cast including Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Alistair Petrie and Rebekah Staton. I’d first worked with Penelope Skinner (writer of The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies) in theatre years and years ago on a tour of The Real Thing, so it’s nice when things come back round again.
Do you have any other projects you are involved with that you’d like to share with us?
I’m very, very proud to work for a charity called Scene & Heard, which is a Somers Town/King’s Cross-based child playwriting mentoring project. It’s run by Roz Paul and it’s completely brilliant. They take 10 children on a course and they write a 10-minute play that doesn’t involve anybody human (otherwise the children tend to write about David Beckham or Jackie Chan!). The plays could be about an animal, or an object in their bedroom or a fantasy object, and so you get wonderful plays between a traffic cone and a stick of celery or bacteria and Beyoncé’s gold sequinned skirt. Over 10 weeks, you do an hour-and-a-half workshop each week after school. The children are fed in from two schools, and the teachers recommend who they think will benefit because it gives the children enormous confidence because they’re not being judged on their grammar, punctuation, spelling… it’s not about getting things right, it’s about their imagination and having fun and feeling free. You do lots of drama exercises and games, and each child has a mentor. The mentor writes for a child if they’re not able to write quickly enough and they can just spark off the ideas. It’s a truly wonderful thing. They now have their own premises in Charlton Street. Scene & Heard perform at Teatro Technis by Mornington Crescent tube.
I’ve also worked with Actors From The London Stage, which are based in Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana. It’s the education department run by the fabulous Scott Jackson and Peter Holland (who’s a British Shakespeare professor). They take five-handed productions of Shakespeare around American universities and lead workshops for American students – you direct it yourselves, use minimal props and you’re present on stage all the time.
I’ve been all over the place with Actors From The London Stage. I’ve been in Hillary Clinton’s old college Wellesley, I’ve been to Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Idaho, Missouri and Indiana… I did Romeo and Juliet and I played The Nurse, Prince Escalus, Paris, cousin Capulet and Friar John, and I also did Richard III, in which I played Richard, the first murderer, a lady-in-waiting and a messenger, because everyone has to double up. The workshops are basically to get American students to speak, so it’s all about speaking the Shakespeare, not about where the commas go etc. It’s a fantastic experience, and very enriching.
I saw their most recent production of Romeo and Juliet at the Cockpit Theatre a month ago and it was outstanding.
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