In the touring production of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Eileen Battye plays Jean, with the show currently running at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until tomorrow before heading to their next venue – the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend – on 2nd May, and the script is written by Deborah Moggach. With an extensive stage career, Eileen made her West End debut in 1979 in The King and I at the London Palladium as understudy Anna opposite Yul Brynner, and, amongst her many roles, she has played Mrs Barnum in Barnum with Michael Crawford, understudied Mrs Birling and Edna in An Inspector Calls at the Garrick Theatre, and more recently, she played Old Sally in Oliver! at the Crucible Theatre. Over the years, Eileen has performed a number of times at the Stephen Joseph Theatre with director Sir Alan Ayckbourn, including in Season’s Greetings and Better Off Dead. We caught up with Eileen about touring as Jean in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, performing at Stephen Joseph Theatre and making her West End debut in The King and I at the London Palladium.
You are currently touring as Jean in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, how is the run going so far?
We are enjoying taking this heart-warming play all over the UK, and it seems to be well-received in all venues. We dance on stage at the end, which seems to leave people feeling happy!
What is Jean like to play and was there anything that drew you to the role?
Jean is a meaty role to get my teeth into, she is outspoken and puts people’s backs up. I don’t think she reads the room very well, but her overwhelming instinct is to say her truth. She is worried about her marriage, and is desperately trying to keep it afloat. I like her and feel that I understand her and her predicament. So she’s complex and therefore very interesting to play.
How is it working alongside the rest of the cast and what are you enjoying most about performing in the show?
It is an unusual and rewarding experience working with so many other people of my own age, in most plays there is only one or two elders, but we are seven in total. I really enjoy telling Jean’s story, and I also love dancing at the end!
Why would you recommend booking tickets to see the play and who do you think it will appeal to?
I hope it appeals to all ages, my granddaughters came to see it and loved it. I think it appeals to older people as it is a story about looking forward and having new adventures, at a time when you might think your life is drawing to a sedate retirement. It’s a very funny script by Deborah Moggach, with lots of gentle home truths about life and being older. Simply put, it’s great fun!
How has it been returning to the stage with this production and what are you looking forward to for the rest of the tour dates?
It came as a lovely surprise coming into this production. Sadly, I lost some work through COVID, and afterwards thought ‘that’s it then’. I’m looking forward to going to Belfast, Dublin and Edinburgh, cities I want to explore.
You’ve worked at the Stephen Joseph Theatre a number of times, most recently in Season’s Greetings and Better Off Dead, what is the theatre like to perform at and can you tell us about some of the shows you’ve been involved with for them?
My first project there was House And Garden, two separate plays which were in two venues simultaneously. It was terrifying! I was – and always am – thrilled to be asked to be in a play there by Sir Alan Ayckbourn. It was an extraordinary experience, weird and exciting to know that the other play was also bowling along in the building and that I would go and join it at some point.
The main theatre is in the round, so you have audience everywhere around you, there is no place to hide. Alan is the most skilled director and he keeps the actors moving around in a natural way, so that an audience member is never looking at someone’s back for too long, and they can always see what’s going on. There are no good or bad seats in the SJT. I remember in Better Off Dead, I delivered a speech sitting on a bench, and I was aware of the audience behind me, so I made sure that I moved around on the bench, and looked at my husband next to me, so they weren’t just seeing the back of my head. That was such a beautiful, touching play, Jessica no longer recognised her husband and thought she was talking to the gardener about her marriage, and really it was a love story about them.
Season’s Greetings is one of Alan’s most brilliant plays, with a fantastic puppet scene, which I adored and found so funny. I played the puppeteer’s wife, who got drunk – it was not the first time Alan has asked me to play drunk! The secret is to try and pretend you’re not drunk.
One of my favourites of Alan’s plays is Improbable Fiction. It begins with a group of disparate people coming together with their own writings, and reading their stories aloud to each other. In the second act, the stories were being acted out by us in costume, interwoven, and it became chaotic and hilarious and I loved every moment of it. Actually, I’ve loved every moment of all of his plays that I’ve been fortunate enough to be in.
I believe Alan taught me an enormous amount about theatre and acting. His plays can be so funny and are peppered with ‘jokes’ which are based on the character and situation. He always stressed that we should play the scene realistically and not go for the laughs. But interestingly there is a technique in timing that does get the laugh, which you somehow learn through doing his plays.
In 2014, you played Old Sally in Oliver! at the Crucible Theatre, how was this?
This was a marvellous production by Daniel Evans. I had forgotten how much high energy is needed for a musical! I’m not a dancer but I’ve been able to learn a routine and hoof away behind the dancers. This choreography was earthy and folky and very satisfying for a non-dancer. Of course, the music was heavenly to sing, I loved being back in a musical after many years of straight plays. Old Sally is a small but crucial role in identifying Oliver’s background. She croaks out the information but then dies in her chair, which was picked up by two strong men and carried off stage, a great way to exit.
What was it like performing on the UK Tour of Life and Beth as Connie?
Connie was another role that Alan had asked me to play where she gets drunk! Some of that is off stage, so I had a lot of fun with the part. We went to some great venues, like Oxford, I always love seeing round our gorgeous cities when I’m on tour.
You previously understudied Mrs Birling and Edna in An Inspector Calls at the Garrick Theatre, what do you remember most from this production?
This was the iconic production by Stephen Daldry with the doll’s house perched on the set and which opens out after the family dinner. I went on as Edna a few times but, memorably, one matinee the actress playing Mrs Birling felt unwell after the opening scene and I scrambled into my costume and went on for her next entrance. The actor playing The Inspector stays on stage from his first appearance so he couldn’t be told that the understudy had taken over. I noted a flash of surprise in his eyes when I arrived but he carried on with consummate sang-froid.
What are some of your favourite memories from playing Mrs Barnum in Barnum opposite Michael Crawford?
This was such a joyous show to be part of, it was my first West End role. Michael Crawford is a superb professional and I learned so much from him, such as focus and always trying to give your very best. We gathered at the theatre every evening at five o’clock to go through all the circus routines. We learned from our wonderful circus trainers, Terry and Danuta, how important teamwork was, people’s lives are at risk in circus work and everyone relies on each other for safety. I was taught to juggle, and had to sing my closing number while juggling, I managed not to drop the balls too many times.
How was it making your West End debut as understudy Anna in 1979 in The King and I with Yul Brynner at the London Palladium?
I was understudying the wonderful Dame Virginia McKenna, I did five auditions to get the part. On a Monday I was called into the theatre to go on that evening as Virginia was unwell, to rehearse with Yul Brynner. Only a week or so previously we had done an understudy run in front of Mr Brynner (as he liked to be known) and it was relayed back to me that he was happy with my performance. So he only wanted to go through the dance. I was thrown into full costume, hair and makeup as the producer had called a press conference! This was in August, known as the ‘silly season’ in terms of news, that is, nothing much to report. So, he seized the chance to get some publicity for the show and the photo was in the Daily Mail and Evening Standard. I don’t think that could have been very nice for poor Virginia at home nursing her cold. I remember thinking how strange this was, when I haven’t even done a performance yet. At the dance run-through, which is a polka, I stepped on Mr Brynner’s foot, I felt awful, he was only wearing flimsy sandals! But he was incredibly gracious and barely winced.
Yul Brynner was a highly professional actor and I learned from him the importance of complete focus on what is occurring on stage, from everyone in the building. It is only about two-and-a-half hours of our time, and that is what we’re being paid for, not too much to ask, I believe.
Can you tell us about some of the other theatre shows you’ve been part of over your career so far, which has included An Ideal Husband, Pygmalion, Henry VIII, Into The Woods and The Sound of Music?
Playing Lady Markby in An Ideal Husband was great fun, she has lots of very funny lines – Wildean quips – and the part is over by the interval! I love the story of Pygmalion, it is such a great play by Shaw.
Into The Woods is a beautiful and clever musical by Stephen Sondheim and the director was the brilliant Richard Jones. After auditioning, I was disappointed not to be offered a part, but then they came back to me and asked me to understudy six roles, basically all the older female parts. It was a complex score to learn and I loved the challenge, the links between scenes were very difficult to rehearse as I was running around singing nearly all the parts!
At the technical rehearsal, I went on for the Stepmother and luckily I’d learned it, though I had no costume at that stage. I did go on later as the Stepmother in a beautiful green dress, and also as Jack’s mother. It was a terrifying experience going on, as the score and staging were so complex.
When it came to the cast change after six months, I was asked to take over the role of the Stepmother, which is unusual for an understudy and I was thrilled, but sadly the show closed soon after.
I played Patience, a lady in waiting, in Henry VIII as part of an RSC season. It was very special knowing that I was included in this famous company. I was ‘play as cast’ and had small parts and understudied. I was covering Susanna York in The Merry Wives of Windsor when she broke her foot, and I was fortunate enough to play the role of Mistress Ford for five months. This was a wonderful experience for me as I had come from the world of musicals, I had trained as a singer, and it is usually difficult to make the transition from musicals into straight theatre, unless you are a name.
You also have screen experience in shows such as Doctors and WPC 56, what is it like filming for screen?
I enjoy the simplicity of filming, you just learn your lines and stand on your mark. You don’t have control over wanting another take, so you’d better get it right first time. Nor do you have any control over the editing, but there is relief in knowing that someone else is in charge and making decisions. When you are on stage you are in control, you have so many options and things can go wrong, so it’s scarier. I’m grateful that they’ve asked me to be in Doctors twice. I’ve played a different character each time but strangely she’s had the same surname!
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I knew that I wanted to act when, out of the blue, I won the junior drama cup for playing Mole in Wind in the Willows at my ballet school, Hurst Lodge, when I was 11. I was so thrilled that someone thought I was good at something! However, my sister, who was four years older than me, was very talented and went on to win a scholarship to RADA. This caused uproar in our family as my parents were strict Christians and thought the stage an unsuitable profession. I was concerned about just following in my sister’s footsteps so I took up singing instead. I worked as a secretary and did amateur operatics, and after a few years I applied and got into the Royal College of Music.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?
A big old-fashioned musical with a fantastic score, I adore the stage production of An American In Paris they made a few years ago with classical dancers, and which my local cinema shows by popular demand. I loved Prokofiev’s Cinderella at Sadler’s Wells a few years ago.
I play alto sax with a wind band, and sing in a chamber choir. I find music making with others very life-affirming. I play tennis and love hanging out with my family. I listen to the radio all the time, mostly Radio 3. It is the most fantastic service, worth every penny of the licence fee, let alone television and iPlayer. BBC Sounds provides the most wonderful mixtapes when I’m on the move, I can’t praise enough the presenters, producers and teams’ dedication to their listeners!
What advice would you give a new actor starting out?
Market yourself, the profession is a business and you are a super product! You need to take your body and mental health very seriously, treat yourself like an athlete. Read loads, educate yourself about anything and everything, and write – a part for yourself or a play or a TV script etc. We have to consider generating our own work.
If you are a shy person (as many actors are) and would find marketing yourself cringeworthy, try thinking of your professional self as a different persona – strong, confident, talented and charismatic – you are an actor after all! Don’t turn things down in the early stages, get involved as much as you can with anything going, you never know where a project might lead or who you’ll meet on the way. Keep a note of directors and casting directors you’ve met and let them know what you’re doing.
Have other strings to your bow to keep your spirits up. Don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go well, it’s probably not your fault if you don’t get a particular part, it was their choice, just the wrong one! I’m afraid there is a large element of luck involved, good and bad, it probably balances itself out in the end. So, best of luck!