The Cat and The Canary stars Britt Erkland, Mark Jordan and Tracy Shaw and they told us a little bit about their roles in the mysterious, spooky new play.
The star of stage and screen Britt Erkland tells us about her latest challenge, appearing in spine‐tingling tale The Cat and the Canary.
Hi Britt. You’re starring in thriller The Cat and the Canary. What’s the play about?
It’s a story about a big, deserted mansion on the Bodmin Moor. The owner died 20 years earlier and he has instructed his solicitors to assemble all the possible heirs to go through the will. There’s an assortment of people from all over the world that come into this spooky house, and loads of surprises ensue from the start.
It is an interesting story with many twists and turns. It’s very much in the tradition of Agatha Christie and the type of thriller British audiences love. I think our audiences will get a big surprise and that’s all I’m going to say.
What made you want to be part of this production?
First, I’m always up for a challenge. I always have been. I have done almost everything you can think of in my career. This is definitely not a role I’m used to; this play is not a farce, for a start! It’s something a bit more challenging for me.
Fantastic. So, who are you playing?
I play the housekeeper. She has been in this house alone for 20 years before this midnight meeting with all the assembled heirs and the solicitor. She’s probably had quite a solitary life and had to find ways of surviving that solitude, the cold and the war. She hasn’t had any physical company, but she feels she has had spiritual company. She’s very stern. Her job is to guard this house until the heir takes it over and that’s what she’s done for 20 years.
What makes this such a challenge for you?
I haven’t been on stage since my last panto in 2013. And I was never a rep actor – I was a movie star. I finished school when I was 17 and went to drama school for two years, then toured with a variety show and did a film in Rome. The next thing I know, I have a contract with Twentieth Century Fox and I’m sent to London. That’s where I meet Peter Sellers and marry him. Although I wanted to be on stage, being a movie star didn’t hold the prestige of being a good stage actor – not in Sweden where I came from. I don’t have the background that most actors my age have, which is my main challenge on this tour.
You’ve been working for more than 60 years. How do you keep yourself fit enough to tour?
I’m very fortunate that I’ve always worked out. In March 2018, I did Strictly Come Dancing in Sweden as the oldest participant ever. But I don’t take anything for granted. You have to be alert and stay on top of everything. A lot of this is your own mental attitude to life as well, not just what you eat and how you move. You have to have a very mobile mental attitude.
That sounds like a fantastic philosophy.
The Heartbeat and Emmerdale star Mark Jordan tells us about his spooky new play.
Hi Mark. You’re starring in thriller The Cat and the Canary. What’s it about?
This story takes us on a journey through a huge mansion that may or may not be haunted. A family have arrived to hear the reading of a will in this very old spooky house. They’re the only six remaining family members and they’re waiting to find out who the heir to this mansion could possibly be. But, if the person who has been offered it is seen to be mad, then the will is opened up to everybody else. So it is a question of “Who is going to act in an uncouth manner to try and get their hands on the money?”
Why did you want to be part of this production?
Well, they were kind enough to send the script along and it was just an absolute joy to read. It’s got a flow to it and you definitely feel desperate to find out where the skullduggery is coming from. But also everybody has brilliant comedic lines in what is a very serious piece; it’s that dark humour where you can’t help but laugh even if you think you shouldn’t. And I was blessed with the fact that they offered me the bumbling, useless character. That’s me; it’s got my name all over it.
Tell me a bit more about who you’re playing.
Paul studied as a vet. He kept promising that he would go off and do better things, explore the world and make his mark, but actually finished studying and went back to his village, Wickford, and got stuck in the same routine. His world has got very small instead of expanding. I think he has great hopes to have his life changed by what might be read out in the will. Unfortunately, his character isn’t the hero type that would go off and try and solve the problem. He’s quite scared. He’s in the middle of the moorland. There’s thunder and lightning. Everything makes him jump out of his skin.
The show has a brilliant cast. What are they like to work with?
Tracy Shaw and I have worked together before – we played a husband and wife on Casualty. We had a marvelous time. I thought she was a great lady, and when I knew she was doing this I was buzzing.
The thought of having Britt [Ekland] and Marti [Webb] in your company is just “Wow!” I’ve grown up knowing those names; they are legends. No matter how many years you’ve been in this industry and no matter how old you are, you still get a bit giggly when you hear a name like that in a production meeting.
The play was originally written in 1922 and has been adapted into a number of films. Had you seen any versions before you started working on it?
I’m fascinated with this. The original silent film was a major success and it’s quite a cult film that plays around the horror festivals. The 1939 remake starring Bob Hope has lots of images that are incredibly strong. Those images are obviously not what we’re using, because we’re making this story our own, but having seen all these things sets the tone perfectly.
Given there are at least three film versions of The Cat and the Canary, what more do audiences get from seeing it live on stage?
Coming to this is going to be an event. The house is a character in itself. It’s alive. It’s used to put tension, fear and trickery into the show. I just think it’s great. It makes people jump and the audience nudge each other going ‘Look, that corner, can you see?’ It fills people with ideas and makes their hearts pound in their chests.
How are you feeling about touring around the UK?
This is the first tour I’ve done since my kids were born. In my heart I was thinking they were three or four and wanted to check if it would be alright if Daddy was away for a bit. They’re 21 and 19 and they thought ‘Are you insane? We’re more than capable of looking after ourselves. Leave us alone.’ So then that touring aspect became really exciting.
And I think it’s mega important to tour shows. I know the importance, myself. When I was a nipper, my Nan took me to the Palace Theatre to see shows with Tommy Steele and I was mesmerised by them. Then later, the Royal Exchange hosted productions that have stuck with me and almost haunted me.
Audiences must still know you best as Heartbeat’s PC Phil Bellamy, as you played the role for 16 years! What impact did that have on your life?
It had a huge impact. The show, itself, was a monster. As it became this huge show with viewing figures of 21 million people, I became very recognisable. It was a great learning curve as well. I had the wonderful Nick [Berry] and Niamh [Cusack] in it for so long too, and their centered view of the world was a great asset for me to learn things I might not have when I was younger. The whole journey helped me learn about myself and grow.
Do you have stand out memories from that time?
The whole Gina and Bellamy journey was fantastic, but when the child was premature and died in the same episode, that had the most phenomenal reaction from everyone. It was probably the best on‐set experience I remember, because the crew and everyone involved were so helpful and serious. The mood was completely different than it had ever been through the whole 16 years I was there. There was silence on set all the time, when there was usually laughing and joking. It was a weirdly amazing fortnight to shoot that. That will always stick in my mind as unique.
Finally, what can audiences expect from a trip to see The Cat and the Canary?
They can expect to be surprised and shocked, and to enjoy lots of laughs and lots of screams.
The former Coronation Street star Tracy Shaw tells us about her spooky new role in The Cat and the Canary.
Hi Tracy. You’re starring in thriller The Cat and the Canary. What’s it about?
Mr West was a millionaire who died quite some time ago. His solicitors have collected the whole of the family together 20 years later to announce who he named as his heir. They all arrive in the middle of nowhere in Devon, at the big old creepy house where he used to live. His housekeeper still lives there, keeping the house in the same way it was when he was there. There’s obviously a lot of tension between the family about who is going to inherit this money. Right at the beginning of the play, the heir is announced, but then the plot thickens as people start disappearing.
It sounds fantastic. Who do you play?
My character is Annabelle West. She’s a successful writer who fled this country a few years ago to get away but has come back to her family. She also spent some time with her grandfather years and years ago in this house. The psychological complexity of this piece really is quite huge, especially for my character.
The show has an impressive cast too. What are they like to work with?
The actors I’m working with are so talented. Britt Ekland is our “housekeeper”! She’s just marvelous. I grew up listening to Marti Webb’s most fantastic voice. Ben Nealon from Soldier Soldier is brilliant, and so is Gary Webster from Minder. Mark Jordon, who played my husband in Casualty a few years ago, is a pleasure to work with again. It’s an absolute honour to be working on such a stimulating project with lovely actors that I really admire.
What hooked you about the project and made you want to be part of it?
I don’t think I’ve ever had the chance to work on a piece before that we’re updating because of the reality of how we watch theatre and TV now. Things are faster and not as obvious now. To do that work tastefully to a play written in the 1920s is quite difficult, I think. And to not just produce your average whodunit. We want people to come and watch and be enthralled. We have the most amazing set. The play is set in a big old house, so it’s got these fabulously eerie paintings with eyes staring. As an actor, with this job, I feel like the cat that got the cream.
People might think that because you’re a well‐known TV face you just get offered roles. Is that not the case and how hard is it to keep putting yourself through auditions?
It’s tough, and there are times when I think “Maybe my time’s up.” But I absolutely should be sitting there with another hundred people that look similar to me. It keeps me really grounded and I never take anything for granted. Then when I get that part and get back on stage or on TV, I feel like the luckiest person alive because I do a job that I love. That’s what this business is like. There are a lot of knocks, but you occasionally get a job that’s as stimulating as this one. I’m really grateful.
How do you feel about taking The Cat and the Canary around the UK?
The Cat and the Canary Tracy Shaw Q&A Matthew AmerI love going on tour. I miss my children, obviously. But I get to visit these lovely places around England, work in these gorgeous theatres and entertain people. That makes me feel alive. I’m such a theatre geek in the sense that I just get excited about the history and the way they’re built and the tiles backstage.
That’s surprising because audiences must know you best for your television work…
I sort of fell into TV, but I still adore it. Because I did so long in Corrie I feel it’s second nature to me, but there’s something about theatre that just makes you feel alive. That’s why I took on this job as well – you have to work your brain so much harder. I have to be so alive every night, really on my toes.
You most famously played Maxine in Coronation Street. What was it like to be part of such a phenomenally well‐loved drama?
It was magic, really. Growing up, I used to spend a lot of time with my Great Grandma and we watched Corrie religiously together.
I learned TV in Corrie. I love working with people I can learn from – admiring them and constantly learning – and I worked with the most amazing people on that show. I’d only just come out of drama school and I was catapulted into a world I was unfamiliar with. I rolled with it and never regretted it for a minute. It’s the most prestigious programme I’ve ever worked on and I’m thoroughly proud to have been part of it.
The Cat And The Canary is at The Princess Theatre, Torquay 27 January – 1 February before continuing its UK Tour.
For tickets click here