A change of scene . . . 48 times
THE IDEA was to meet the company manager at the stage door and he would go and find Haydn Gwynne. As it is, Haydn Gwynne is at the stage door and she goes and finds the company manager. Tall and slim, with dark brown eyes, the actress best- known as Alex, the deputy editor in Drop the Dead Donkey, is caught up in a technical rehearsal. She has a mike-pack strapped to the back of her waist, and a little microphone on her forehead, peeping out from beneath a lock of brown hair. This is quite worrying. City of Angels, the Broadway musical in which she stars, has 48 scene changes. How long will this technical last?
Once the company manager appears, they agree there is time to talk before the bedroom scene, and in between the bedroom scene and the morgue scene. Haydn Gwynne climbs the musty staircase to Dressing Room Number 2 and opens the skylights that look out on a back alley. 'The glamour of showbusiness.' The smart money is on this poky, slanted room being her professional home for at least a year.
The measured instructions of director Michael Blakemore can be heard over the Tannoy. 'We're very lucky,' says Haydn Gwynne, 'that although this show is incredibly complicated, they did it in New York, and they went through all the grief. I gather it was an absolutely terrifying nightmare. It took them three weeks to tech the show and they had to cancel a week of previews. With everyone saying, 'It's impossible, it'll never work'.' With music by Cy Coleman and a book by M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart, City of Angels went on to win six Tony awards, proving, for those who didn't know Gelbart, that M*A*S*H makes smash.
'It opens in this Raymond Chandleresque detective story,' Gwynne explains, 'and without giving the game away, something happens to make you realise that what you are watching is a screenplay being written and conceived by a writer in Hollywood in the Forties. So everybody except the writer and the detective plays two characters.'
he plays Oolie, secretary to the detective, in the black and white scenes from the movie, and Donna, a secretary to the movie mogul, in the colour scenes from real life. The second act gives her a big, brassy up- tempo number, 'You Can Always Count on Me', the most accessible one in the show. 'I actually start it as one character and about a third of the way through the song, during this incredibly brief blackout, I wake up and I'm the other character and I'm in colour.' She doesn't know how this happens. The technical hasn't got that far.
Her last musical was Ziegfeld. A world- famous flop. 'Everyone was spending a lot of time crying themselves to sleep.' The consolation for her was doing three good songs 'with a 28-piece band, centre-stage at the Palladium'. Stand by Miss Gwynne. The Tannoy interrupts. Stand by Miss Gwynne.
She heads downstairs, appearing on- stage, shortly after, wrapped in a white sheet. Shifting to the edge of a double bed, she caresses the leg of the screenwriter with her foot, and pulls a Homburg down low over her eyes. It's all very alluring. For someone who did time in academe, her stockings these days are more likely to be silk than blue. As TV producer Sioned Wiliam, who has cast her in an LWT pilot sitcom Mad and Sandie, says, 'She's a sassy, intelligent, sexy woman. A Katharine Hepburn type.' The sassiness includes turning down requests to appear on chat-shows, dismounting from the Dead Donkey, and, last night in the Bore of the Year Awards, presenting the Luvvies award to John Sessions.
Back in her dressing room the break in conversation is soon repaired. 'What were we talking about? Oh yes.' She stacks thoughts, keeping track of points half-made and questions unanswered. There's more than a hint of the lecturer she used to be. Until seven years ago she worked in the languages department of Rome University.
'The lecturing was a means of going abroad, earning money and living, as opposed to doing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was getting to the stage where I was going, OK, you've got to sit down and address what you want to do. So I came out of the closet, as it were, and admitted to myself that I wanted to be an actress. Up to that moment, if I'd thought about it at all, I thought I'd left it too late.'
She's 32. Before Rome she had acted at Nottingham University and done the Edinburgh Festival. After Rome she let a place at drama school go when Alan Ayckbourn offered her work in Scarborough. The big break was the lead in Nice Work, David Lodge's TV adaptation of his own novel.
This was nice work. As Robyn Penrose, a young academic, her witty, detailed performance included introducing 'non-penetrative sex' to the small screen. But these were nude scenes where you were just as interested in following the thoughts that flickered across her face. 'When I read the scenes I didn't clock them as bed scenes. Normally when you're reading a script, you think, Uh- oh, here we go. But here I was completely taken up by the dialogue and the humour of the characters. It wasn't until after I got the job that I was thinking, of course, they're in bed here, what will they be wearing? Well, not a lot. I remember ringing the director and saying, 'Um . . .' '
'City of Angels': Prince of Wales (071-839 5972), previewing now, opens 30 March. 'Drop the Dead Donkey' has a one-off repeat on Thursday, 10pm, Channel 4.