Tonight, actress Kathy Burke makes her Sheffield Crucible directorial debut.
I’m standing upstairs in the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, talking to a photographer, when I sense a movement down the corridor.
Turning, I see it’s an old friend. I’m about to say hello when I realise I’m mistaken, this is no old friend. “Awright, ah’m Kaffi,” says Kathy Burke.
That’s the thing with Kathy Burke. You would never mistake, say Kim Basinger (one of the actresses also nominated when Burke won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1997) for an old friend. But Burke, you would.
Maybe it’s because she looks so much the opposite of a movie star, so “normal”. Or maybe it’s because she has slipped into the national consciousness, and everyone knows her face, thanks to her myriad of television and movie roles. It’s difficult to say.
Over the next half hour I realise it might even be because she positively exudes friendliness that you mistake her for someone you already know. There can’t be many movie stars who would suggest halfway through an interview moving into another room so we can “‘ave a faag” – and probably fewer who would say “‘ere, ‘av one a mine – dahn’t blame me if yer get in trable wiv yer girlfriend though”. Burke is in Sheffield at the helm of Blue/Orange, the much acclaimed Joe Penhall play.
An explosive tale of race, madness and an attack on a crumbling National Health Service it won high praise from critics. Tossing into conversation expletives with the same ease and wanton abandon that Jamie Oliver uses olive oil, Kathy Burke says she is loving the experience of directing the highly regarded three-hander Blue/Orange, in its first revival since it set the stage alight down at the National.
“It’s organised chaos in there,” says Burke when she talks about the rehearsal room, a devilish smile across her lips. Chaos it may be, but she’s clearly loving every second of it.
Wearing a thick grey jumper combined with trousers and red trainers, she is surprisingly short. And equally surprisingly – given the characters she has played, like Waynetta slob, an abused housewife on a working-class estate – she is quite pretty.
The general consensus is that Burke is a good sort. Roger Lloyd Pack, one of the cast members of Blue/Orange, loves working with her. The people who work at Sheffield Theatre think that she’s wonderful. It is perhaps the complete lack of pretentiousness that Burke carries around that makes one warm to her.
When asked about her directorial style – which has already been described by Lloyd Pack as very sympathetic towards her actors – she tells you that she understands what it is like to work with bad directors, something which she strives not to be, because “I used to be an actor”, as if you might not be aware of her previous work. Plenty of actors would take great and immediate offence if you were unable to list every role they have ever performed, but not Burke.
As an actor, she first made her name playing several characters alongside Harry Enfield in his television comedy sketch show.
Waynetta Slob, a council estate, chain-smoking deviant of a mother and Perry, the teenage sidekick to Harry Enfield’s Kevin were perhaps her best-known characters. She also appeared in Absolutely Fabulous as magazine editor Magda.
Her comedy characters were impressive creations. But it was in 1993, when she received the Royal Television Society’s Best Actress Award for her performance in the BBC production of Danny Boyle’s Mr Wroe’s Virgins that the world began to sit up and take notice. There was more to this actress than funny catchphrases.
In 1997, the international acting world found out about Burke when she won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her harrowing portrayal of an abused, pregnant housewife, in Gary Oldman’s Nil By Mouth.
Praised as a highly intelligent actor, Burke plays down her skills on the boards and as an intellectual. She readily and enthusiastically admits that she loves reality television – a cue for her to talk about her favourite parts of Celebrity Big Brother.
She also says that she finds Blue/Orange challenging to direct, mainly because the language is difficult “I’ve never had the dictionary out so much,” she says, then adds, self-deprecatingly, “Mind you, the words never seem to stay in me brain anyway.”
Perhaps the lack of a capacity to retain words was the reason she has, in recent years, turned her back on the acting world to direct more?
Surprisingly honest, she even at one point admits that she tries to be a bit careful when talking to journalists, a fairly strange admission when you are, in fact, talking to a journalist. She says that she gave up acting simply because she thought she was “starting to go a bit stale”.
“I really didn’t like it when that started to happen,” she says. “I always used to get this feeling in my tummy, this funny buzz, but I just stopped getting it. I hope that it will come back for acting someday, but it’s not there now.”
The “feeling in the tummy” is something that Burke has rediscovered by working behind the scenes as a director. “It’s so exciting, the casting, working with the design team, it’s like you’ve got this big canvas to muck about with.”
Blue/Orange tells the story of a young man, Christopher, who claims to be the son of an exiled African dictator.
He also believes that oranges are blue, hence the title of the play. Two doctors, played by Roger Lloyd Pack and Shaun Evans, clash over their ideas of how the young man should be treated. “Really, the play is all about status and power. I’ve worked with lots of people who are power trippy and this play is all about that,” says Burke.
“I’m really interested in human nature, how we communicate and how we don’t communicate.” Burke, seemingly realising that she is drifting into intellectual territory changes tack, reverts to type and adds: “It’s about psychology and the brain and the sort of thing that can mess it up.”
And with that she’s back off into the chaos of the rehearsal room.
By Nick Ahad. Original story.