It’s official. Kathy Burke is a national treasure. Stephen Fry confirmed as much in his appearance last week on BBC2’s Room 101. Wishing to condemn Room 101 to Room 101, he proposed an alternative repository for everything fluffy in life: Room Lovely. The very first thing he suggested placing in Room Lovely was Kathy Burke.
“She’s just great,” Fry rhapsodised. “She’s got everything that’s great about being great. She’s incredibly clever and charming – she writes brilliant plays as well as being a wonderful actress and extremely amusing. If she appears on television or in a film, we immediately think ‘oh great’. And she’s gutsy. If I was a woman, she’d be a definite role model for me. She shows that it’s possible to be a woman without going all mincey and weird on you.”
Phew. Quite a herogram.
Without waxing quite so lovey-dovey, these are obviously the qualities – magnetism, passion, approachability – that playwright Jonathan Harvey, 33, wanted to tap into when he asked Burke to direct his latest work, Out in the Open, which opens this week at the Hampstead Theatre in London.
Out in the Open is a witty play about the lengths a group of pals will go to in order to shield one of their number from the harsh truth about his recently deceased boyfriend. Thirty-three-year-old Tony is just starting to come to terms with the death of his long-term partner, Frankie, and his coterie of mates are bending over backwards not to reveal how duplicitous Frankie really was.
Harvey made his name in 1993 with Beautiful Thing, a play he later adapted for the big screen. He and Burke, 36, are old friends, having been introduced in the mid-Nineties by theatre director Dominic Dromgoole. In 1995 Burke directed Boom Boom Bang-a-Bang, Harvey’s comedy about the Eurovision Song Contest, and worked as star and script editor on his BBC2 sitcom, Gimme Gimme Gimme. A third series is planned for the summer.
I am sitting with the pair in Burke’s kitchen. On the wall is a still from Nil By Mouth in which she starred. After an exhibition of photos from the film, Gary Oldman offered to buy her any picture she wanted as a present. Tellingly, she chose one in which she does not appear.
Burke brings the same self-effacing characteristics to her work. “Like Judi Dench or Julie Walters, Kathy is someone people want to spend time with,” Harvey explains, making the friend sitting next him blush. “There’s a real warmth about her. She could play Eva Braun and you’d warm to her.”’
”That’s my next project,” Burke chips in. “Carry On Eva.”
Their relationship is full of these moments, where they playfully top each other’s gags, but Harvey ignores the interruption. “That’s what makes her so strong as a director – she understands people so well. Of all the directors I’ve worked with, she understands me best. Kathy and I see the world in similar colours. There should always be a rapport between the writer and the director; they should always be able to be really honest with each other.
“Admittedly, that can lead to tension – we did snap at each other during the auditions for Out in the Open, but we rang each other up and apologised the same evening. Never let the sun go down on an argument.
“We’ve remained friends despite working together. Her other great quality as a director is that she is brilliant with actors. Being an actor herself, she has a shorthand with the cast and knows how to sort out their problems.”
Burke echoes the fact that there is a real bond between herself and Harvey. “I love the way he takes the piss out of his own writing,” she says. “He’ll say something like, ‘This bit is too much like a soap opera, let’s lose it’. He’s very open to suggestions – a lot of writers are much more precious.
“Also, he understands that little people’s pain can be great. I get off on simple stories about real people facing up to a truth and coping with it. That’s what Jonathan deals in. I love the fact he doesn’t flower his writing up by trying to be too intellectual.”
Burke clearly relishes the opportunity to realise her own vision. She admits that she is so wrapped up in the rehearsals for Out in the Open that she often forgets to call the lunch-break until three o’clock is approaching.
“It’s not hard getting out of bed in the morning when I’m directing,” she enthuses. “I wake up before the alarm goes off. I just love going in and making sure everyone’s all right. I’m like their mum – ‘Has everyone eaten enough fruit this morning?’.”
She goes on to explain why directing gives her a buzz that she can never experience while acting. “I’m fascinated by human beings and all their hang-ups. So I love it when I can prise that out of an actor – ‘What is the emotion here?’ You never get those opportunities as an actor because you don’t want to tread on the director’s toes.
“It may sound wet that directing makes me feel so anxious. When you’re acting, you can be selfish and just worry about what you’re doing. When you’re directing, though, the whole thing is a worry – everyone comes to you with their problems.”
Burke has given outstanding performances in work as varied as Nil By Mouth, Harry Enfield and Chums and Elizabeth. She is soon to be seen opposite Lee Evans in the film The Martins, a comedy of social embarrassment, something of a Burke speciality. But – whisper it – she may be tiring of acting.
“It tends to involve getting up extremely early in order to sit for two hours in front of the make-up mirror. As I’ve got older, I’ve found that more and more tedious – especially when it takes two hours just to make you look normal. I’ve never been ambitious, I’ve never said ‘I want to play Lady Macbeth’. As an actress, I can be lazy and a pain because I’m bored. Directing, on the other hand, gets me really excited.”
She is particularly fired up about Out in the Open. “It’s about the lies you tell friends to protect them,” Harvey chimes in. “Secrets always work well in the theatre. A character could be reading out a shopping-list, but the audience know that the subtext is ‘I want to sleep with you’. They know that sooner or later the secret is going to come out – and that’s the hook which keeps them sitting there.’
“Honesty is not always the best policy. When you don’t want to hurt someone, lying can be justified. I’d hate it if everyone was always perfectly honest with me – ‘No, actually, I don’t fancy you’.”
Frantically busy, Harvey is already gearing up for his next big event: the opening of Closer to Heaven, the musical he has written with the Pet Shop Boys. The piece, which previews at the Arts Theatre in London from 15 May, has been five years in the preparation, and Harvey can scarcely contain his excitement about seeing it finally finished.
“It’s quite racy,” he says. “It focuses on Dave, a young lad fresh off the boat from Ireland. He gets a job as a barman in a gay bar and falls in love simultaneously with a man and a woman.”
When I leave, the pair are still affectionately winding each other up. Harvey is imagining the reviews for Out in the Open: “Beautifully written but terribly directed.”
“Yeah,” rejoins Burke, “if only Stephen Daldry had been available.”