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Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange

Philip Hamer interviews one of the UKs best actresses for Confidential before she appears in The Children’s Hour

Published on March 3rd 2008.

Maxine Peake at the Royal Exchange

When you ask Maxine Peake why she has returned to the theatre after making her reputation creating iconic television characters her face lights up: “I would do only theatre if I had my way. I love it. I can still remember Michael Sheen’s remarkable performance as Romeo almost 20 years ago which was the first stage performance I saw.”

I think some of my fellow students at Salford were arguably more talented than those I met at RADA.

She recalls her trips to Bolton’s Octagon Theatre as a schoolgirl from her nearby home in Westhoughton. Later, whilst a student at Salford University she would nip down to the Royal Exchange Theatre, which is where she saw Sheen. From 5 March she’s back at the Royal Exchange but this time as the star of the show in Lillian Hellmann’s remarkable play The Children’s Hour. Peake made a very successful debut at this theatre in Rutherford and Son in 2005.

Surprisingly there is no tradition of drama in Peake’s family. There are some hints as to why she turned ‘artistic’, as they used to say in disparaging tones. Her grandparents were “true Communist” and Peake had a mother who dabbled quietly in painting and drawing both of which made a strong impression. Not that this fully explains the success of a ten year career which has seen her feature prominently in iconic TV shows as Dinnerladies, Shameless and Early Doors.

She also says that the role of the fecund Manchester music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s played a major part in cultivating her interest in the arts. “I’m so sentimental about that time so much so that when I look at kids these days I realise that they’ve not got what I’ve had.”

Her love of theatre was honed under an inspirational drama teacher at Bolton’s Canon Slade School and after experience with the Royal Exchange Youth Theatre she pursued a performing arts diploma course at Salford following in the footsteps of such luminaries as Ayub Khan Dhin, Christopher Eccleston and fellow Boltonian Peter Kay.

“My God that course was tough,” she says. “It was an introduction to so many related disciplines that several students just fell by the wayside. So much was expected of you. It was really tough.”

But it provided excellent preparation for her time at RADA about which she candidly comments: “I think some of my fellow students at Salford were arguably more talented than those I met at RADA.” It was in her final year that she got an early break when Victoria Wood cast her as Twink the droll youngest member of Wood’s team of works canteen cooks in Dinnerladies.

Peake has created a career conspicuous by its versatility. She has never played the same part twice. Though she’s not impressed by suggestions that she has been unusually brave in the roles that she has taken.

“Sometimes I think that I should just play the same part and make a nice living. But then I think, let’s have a go. You can only fail. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, your career. It’s about making your own decisions and seeing it as a learning process. I’ve got a hell of a long way to go as an actor. I’m not frightened of failing.”

In May 2006 Peake really did take a huge risk playing the Moors murderer Myra Hindley, one of the most reviled women of recent times in the TV drama See No Evil.

“It’s that deadly chemistry between her and Brady that has always fascinated me. But I always remembered that the Brady and Hindley case provokes extreme reactions in people”. Though brilliantly performed the production received mixed reviews.

In 2007 she courted further controversy playing Tracy Temple the lover of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott played by John Henshaw.

“In the parts I’ve chosen I must’ve been saying something about certain women. For Temple that relationship will’ve been linked to her love affair with the world of power as much as she was attracted to Prescott. It illuminated her grey, routine existence.” She will be seen in March on BBC 4 as the lover of the tormented comic Tony Hancock played by Ken Stott.

Peake feels that there are many similarities between Lillian Hellmann’s The Children’s Hour and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “In fact I think Miller half inched Hellmann’s ideas,” she says mischievously.

Both plays examine the power of language and the way its malicious use can destroy lives but Hellmann’s was written in 1932, some years before Miller’s. In The Children’s Hour Maxine plays Karen Wright, who with her close friend played by Charlotte Emmerson, has established a very successful all- girls boarding school. Wright is on the verge of marriage when a malicious pupil invents a story that threatens to destroy the school, the marriage and their entire futures.

Like Miller, Hellmann provoked the ire of senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt in the US in the 1950s and paid a heavy price when her lover, the great crime writer Dashiell Hammett, was imprisoned for his beliefs. Peake is proud to be in a play that predicts all too uncomfortably the period in America’s past that still reverberates in the post 7/11 world: a place where language has been cruelly manipulated to suit political ends.

You feel that her radical grandparents would have approved.

The Children’s Hour is on at the Royal Exchange Theatre from 05 March 2008 to 05 April 2008. Tickets from £8.50 to £28 (concs from £3) on 0161 833 9833 or www.royalexchange.co.uk

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2pm boysMarch 3rd 2008.

I think I saw her outside M&S last week.

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