Nicola McAuliffe, one of the West End's most versatile actresses, is currently having the time of her life, camping it up as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. As she reveals to Theatrenow, she's also embarked on a career as a novelist.
The Baroness's dressing room backstage at the Palladium is more Liliput than Vulgaria, but there's no shortage of theatricality — not least because La McAuliffe is wearing enormous purple eyelashes (in character, of course — she's just begun to make up for the evening). She seems to have taken on some of the Baroness's ferocity in the process:
You've enjoyed some wonderful notices as Baroness... "I never read notices!"
But nonetheless they're... "Never!" Clearly a delicate issue. Fortunately she's much happier talking about her work rather than other people's opinion of it. That work is remarkably varied, ranging from Shakespeare to Arnold Wesker, who wrote the play Annie Wobbler specifically for her.
Why do you think that — with the exception of Chips With Everything at the National — Wesker is relatively rarely seen these days? "I'm not sure, but it's certainly true that his work is not as immediately accessible as, say, that of Peter Nichols.
"It's also a question of getting his language right. He writes with a particular rhythm, with a music to the lines, and the plays need to be performed with that in mind or something is lost. He wrote a play once about an abbess, set in Norfolk, and I saw it performed in a production that used a West Country accent all through. Hopeless. Like playing Mozart as if he were Rossini!"
Music, and opera in particular, seems to be one of your great passions? "Yes. I was lucky enough to have been trained properly by Mary Thomas — someone who, rarely, was as good at teaching how to sing opera as she was at singing it herself. And having a trained voice has been a huge help throughout my career."
You've directed opera as well? "Yes, which was great fun. It was a production of Don Giovanni, and the difficulty was in remembering to direct rather than just enjoy the music that the singers made. During rehearsals I just wanted to say, 'That's lovely! Keep going!' and listen to the glorious music rather than stop them and give directions."
Speaking of fun, you have a wonderfully campy Samba in Chitty, which comes after another fun piece, Chu Chi Face. They must be fun to perform? "They are, and they provide a bit of spectacle, which is what Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote the music for the original film, wanted for the second half of the stage show — there was a distinct lack of big musical numbers at the equivalent point in the film."
The numbers also give you a chance to wear some amazing costumes. "They do! I tend to keep clothes that I've worn in previous roles if I like them, and one corset comes from when I played in Hobson's Choice, while the red one comes from the outfit I wore in A Woman of No Importance.
As we make our way out towards the street, she casually mentions that she has just signed a book contract — "With Bloomsbury! It's a novel called 'Crime Tsar.'"
Is it set in the theatre? "Certainly not, but it was written in one! I'm offstage for about an hour-and-a-half in the first act, so I thought I'd put my time to good use. I also write a sort of internet diary, commenting on the show, that people can read on the web."
As if to prove her determination not to waste a minute of the day, she chats to someone, half-way down the staircase — in Spanish! "I took Spanish lessons during my last show. It's nice to be able to use it occasionally!"
She says, in the course of our chat, that she likes each new role to be very different from the last one. Given her natural air of authority, and a brisk manner tempered by a worldly charm, once her contract expires and she packs away the eyelashes, high heels and corsets, someone should get her back on the straight stage — "Much better than musicals, dear" — playing Margaret Thatcher.
Nicola Mcauliffe's internet diary can be seen at www.chittythemusical.co.uk
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow