With Penelope Wilton starring as the Queen Mum in Backstairs Billy at the Duke of York’s and Patricia Hodge as Amanda in Private Lives at the Ambassadors Theatre, veteran actresses are having their moment in the West End.
Joining them is Gay Soper, a hugely experienced actor with 58 years in the business who is playing Mrs. Boyle in The Mousetrap at the St. Martin’s Theatre. Soper may not be an instantly recognisable name, but she has had a long and honourable career and is one of those brilliant, versatile jobbing actors without whom British theatre could not survive. Her name may seldom have been above the title, but you will almost certainly have seen her, whether it was the original production of Godspell, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or with Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl.
Surely, after so many years in the business and so many West End appearances, she can’t possibly get stage fright?
“I’m terrified, actually,” says Soper. “I’m sure if you were to ask Penelope Wilton or Patricia Hodge at the start of a run, they would say the same: however many times you’ve been on stage before, you are always nervous." Soper reckons it’s a good thing. "It means that in the first few weeks of a run, you are always listening harder when you are on stage—to the other actors and to the audience. It makes you a better actor.”
When you are appearing in The Mousetrap, you are not just appearing in a play; you are appearing in an institution. The Mousetrap opened in the West End in the year the late Queen came to the throne, and it is still there. The Financial Times once suggested that if The Mousetrap (which takes its name from the play within a play in Hamlet) was no longer in the West End, it would feel the same as if the ravens had suddenly deserted the Tower of London.
“It’s iconic,” says Soper. “Everybody has heard of The Mousetrap, so you do feel a responsibility when you are cast. You always want to do your best in any job, but because this play is so well known, you also want to do it and its history justice.” She herself has seen it twice. Once in the 1970s, when a friend was in the cast, and more recently, when she was up for the role of Mrs. Boyle. “I do think that Agatha Christie was a very clever woman,” she says, pointing to the fact that the show is rather less cosy than it might appear on the surface, and it is an enduringly great night out and has been for over seven decades.
She says that the character she is playing, Mrs. Boyle, is a tricky proposition, and she really doesn’t mind the fact that so many actors will have played the role before her. “Knowing that lots of people have played the part before you doesn’t stop actors from wanting to play Hamlet. You just want to make the character your’s.”
Like many of the characters in The Mousetrap Mrs. Boyle is not the most sympathetic woman. But that doesn’t worry Soper, who has experience in this department, having played Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables for three years. “She was a really horrible person, but when you are playing a part like that night after night, you have to find the part of her that isn’t completely horrible.”
Soper says it’s the same with Mrs. Boyle. “I think she’s a very lonely woman.” She argues that the trick during the rehearsal period is “finding the small moments of vulnerability where you can really see the person under the outer crust.”
Long before Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre asked people to “keep the secret” and not reveal the crucial narrative twists, audiences for The Mousetrap have been keeping the identity of the murderer in play a secret. But Soper reckons its appeal for audiences is far more than just wanting to know who did it.
“It’s a play that really takes people out of themselves, and there is something so special about the group experience of sitting with other people and watching a play together particularly at a time when there is so much bad news. There is a reason why there’s that old expression about Dr. Theatre. Theatre really can heal."
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