Great fun as a “woman with a past” on the Chichester stage

Frances Barber – last in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre a little matter of 26 years ago in Uncle Vanya – returns to the venue this summer in The Unfriend.

Frances Barber - Photo Manuel Harlan
Frances Barber - Photo Manuel Harlan

A new play by Steven Moffat directed by Mark Gatiss, it runs in the Minerva until July 9.

“But I really can’t tell you too much about it!

"I don’t want to give the game away – and I am not just trying to be mysterious!

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    “But I am playing Elsa and she is an American that Peter and Debbie meet on a cruise, and often when you go on holiday, you exchange emails, never expecting them to contact you again and thinking that it would be rude to do so. It is just the kind of thing the English do.

    "But this time she does turn up.”

    And the fact is that she is a woman with a past…

    “When I first read it – and obviously this has been postponed for a couple of years – I thought it was totally hilarious.”

    Speaking just a few days before the piece began its Chichester run, Frances added.

    “And now we're at the stage where I don't think I'm funny in it anymore! I think I've lost all confidence – which is obviously all part of the process you go through.

    "The audience are the final piece in the jigsaw and the audience are what we definitely need right now.

    “But Mark is fantastic to work with.

    "He directed me in a ghost story and we've worked together three or four times on TV. The lovely thing is that I feel as if we have a shorthand between us and I do think that does help.

    "Obviously I love working with people I have never worked with before.

    "That's part of the joy of being an actor but it is lovely to have that connection. You know how each other think. There are others in the cast I've never worked before with so it's a really lovely mixture of people I know and people I don't.”

    And the point is it's great to be back on stage after the pandemic, though Frances says she was more or less able to work all the way through

    “I did a film with Derek Jacobi in the south of France and I went and joined Ian McKellen's Hamlet.

    "I was very lucky.

    “But I do think it is a testament to the wonderful play that Steven has written that we all wanted to keep our diaries clear so that we could come back and do it when we were able to.”

    And also when was right for the play.

    “I really didn't want to do it at a time when people were still wearing masks in the theatre. I think people need to feel totally relaxed and to be able to laugh.

    “When we did Hamlet I think people were still worried and I think we noticed that at the beginning.

    "Hamlet isn't a comedy of course or at least it shouldn't be! But really for this play we need the audience to be completely relaxed and just to come out and be able to have a good laugh especially after all the misery that we have had.”