Josie Lawrence is best known for starring in the hit TV improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The Old Hill comedian talks to David Johns about her love of making people laugh, serious acting, music and even ballet!
Being a bit of a ballet buff myself, the offer from Josie Lawrence was a tempting one. “Come and see me in my new comedy play at the Rep, and I’ll try and throw in a ballet move onstage just for you!” I’m guessing the gesture was made in jest, but with the Old Hill comedian and actress it’s difficult to be 100 per cent sure.
During a huge career encompassing comedy, serious acting, music and musical theatre, ballet is the one performing art that Josie hasn’t tried her hand at – well, not officially… yet! But she is a fan, especially of Birmingham Royal Ballet. “I saw Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake and it was just breath-taking,” she says.
While Josie is best known to a national audience for her TV appearances in the improvised comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? she is a big supporter and regular visitor to Birmingham’s theatre scene. Her role as Sarah Bernhardt in next month’s UK premiere of comedy play Edmond de Bergerac at the Rep will be her sixth play at the theatre. “Being a Black Country girl, I’ve done a lot of plays in Birmingham,” she says. “I’m always coming back to see family and friends. I stay a lot with my sister Janet in Blackheath. I’ll be there while I’m playing at the Rep.”
We caught up with Josie on the eve of the start of rehearsals for her new role which came as a result of a phone call last year from director Roxana Silbert who Josie has worked with before. “Roxana asked me to do a read-through for the play and I thought the script was very funny and was keen to do it. You never know if plays will eventually be put on or not, but then later on my agent called me to say we were doing it in March and opening in Birmingham. It couldn’t be more perfect.”
Josie and older twins Janet and John were brought up in Cradley Heath where her father worked for British Leyland and her mother was a dinner lady. Josie says she knew as early as the age of five that she wanted to be an actress when she grew up. By the time she was 16 she had joined the Barlow Players acting group in Oldbury. She left the Midlands at 18 to study at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, gaining an Honours degree in theatre. Josie’s career started out as a serious actress but when she joined a music group she came across improv comedy for the first time, seeing the audience invited to supply lines and ideas for improvisers appearing in an after-show cabaret.
“I stayed behind and watched one night and then said could I try it because it looked brilliant and it was one of those things I found I could do. You suddenly find your little baby.” After that Josie joined the Comedy Store Players and then a new TV show which was called Whose Line Is It Anyway? “That show really took off and that’s really when people started noticing me.”
Josie says she “likes to make people laugh” but as good a feeling as that is, she has always fought against being ‘boxed in’ by stereotyping – which can clearly be seen from a quick glance at her CV which includes appearing on TV in soaps EastEnders and Doctors, series such as Miss Marple and Poirot, several films and in theatre with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. She is also a regular on radio shows such as Just A Minute. As a member of the Comedy Store Players based at London’s famous Comedy Store she features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running comedy group. And in 2016, Josie created an all-female improv group, intriguingly named the Glenda J Collective (maybe the name is a passing homage to actress Glenda Jackson who Josie says “was my idol”).
“I like to keep myself busy,” says Josie in an obvious understatement. As well as Edmond de Bergerac which will tour through until the end of April, Josie is appearing in an Amazon/BBC six-part TV series with David Tennant and Michael Sheen called Good Omens and will then be working through to September on another new project. “I am not allowed to say much about it right now,” she says, “but it is a musical.”
Harking back to her young days and knowing that she wanted to become an actress so early in life, Josie is also an outspoken advocate for protecting arts funding in our schools. She is a fierce opponent of the ongoing cuts to budgets which she describes as “frightening”.
THE YOUNG ONES
She says: “What happens to someone like me if the opportunity is no longer there in the schools? And regardless if kids eventually become actors or not, the arts can be very helpful to their development in things like gaining confidence, expression and self esteem.”
Josie believes strongly in maintaining her ties with the area where she grew up. She is patron of Sandwell theatre group, The Young Ones. “I see their shows,” she says. “I’m actually going along to see their latest production next week – they’re doing Grease which should be brilliant.”
Her commitment to her roots was reflected when she was awarded a Doctor of Arts by Wolverhampton University and the Freedom of Sandwell. “Wherever I go, whatever I do, the Black Country is always home,” she says.