Theatre & Dance

Patsy Ferran on stage stardom, performing with Paul Mescal, and Pygmalion: ‘I only ever watched the first 75 per cent of My Fair Lady’

When Patsy Ferran was a little girl, her favourite film was My Fair Lady, the musical adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s archetypal rags-to-riches drama Pygmalion.

“The story in my family is that I didn’t speak at all until I was about four or five,” says the star of the recent West End revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, “but I could recite every beat and line of My Fair Lady, to the point where I broke the tape because I would watch it on repeat.”

There was a catch, though: she didn’t want it to end, and so it never did. The young Ferran simply bailed early, always stopping the video after imperious linguist Henry Higgins had successfully made over cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, but before the two had a falling out.

“I only ever watched the first 75 per cent,” Ferran tells me, leaning forward in her chair. “The things I watched as a kid, any story, I wouldn’t ever watch the end. I don’t know what that says about me!”

Now, however, she’s finding out what happens at the end of Shaw’s story, in about the most comprehensive way possible. We’re at a studio in Deptford, where the Olivier Award winner is deep in the middle of rehearsals for a massive Old Vic revival of Pygmalion, in which she’ll star as Doolittle opposite Bertie Carvel’s Higgins.

Messy of hair but zen in demeanour, the 33-year-old was raised in Southampton but born in Spain to Spanish parents. Though she never even had an accent, she always puts it out that she’s Spanish for the sake of her mum, who has a habit of writing to newspapers to correct them if they say she was born in England (“I’m very proud of her for doing that”). And her mum can be justifiably proud in turn, because her daughter is now one of the most acclaimed stage actors in Britain.

Though she has been a professional performer for less than a decade, not a single performance in Ferran’s career so far has missed the target since she graduated from Rada in 2014. There was her scene-stealing debut opposite Angela Lansbury in a West End revival of Blithe Spirit. Then there was some more eccentric stuff, like her solo turn in the Royal Court’s oddball comic monologue My Mum’s a Twat. And there’s been the fruitful relationship with director Rebecca Frecknall that bagged her a Best Actress Olivier award for 2018’s Tennessee Williams obscurity Summer and Smoke.

She’s often talked up as a future theatre dame in the Judi Dench mould, but she still looks very much like a gawky teen: last time she was at London’s venerable Old Vic theatre, for 2021’s Camp Siegfried, a play about a Nazi summer camp, she played a 16-year-old. Now she’s back for her reckoning with Pygmalion, playing Eliza – a woman in her early twenties, tops.

She hadn’t actually intended to do a second play this year: her phenomenal turn opposite Paul Mescal in the Almeida’s revival of A Streetcar Named Desire was going to be it for 2023. But then Pygmalion came up, directed by Richard Jones, renowned for his tough, chintz-free revivals of classic plays, and she could hardly say no.

“That story was a big part of my childhood,” she says. “So if someone goes ‘Do you want to play Eliza Doolittle and Richard Jones is gonna do it,’ I just had to do it. I remember getting shaky knees because I got so excited about the idea of doing it. I can’t question that reaction.”

Ferran is an expert at not saying no: last year she postponed her own honeymoon at the last minute so she could take over the role of Streetcar protagonist Blanche DuBois after the original lead, Lydia Wilson, was forced out by ill health during rehearsals. Frecknall, who was directing the production, called Ferran up and asked if she could bail her out. Ferran consulted with her husband-to-be and family, who all said she should do it, then said yes, “although I almost said no because I didn’t want to be the person who would put their career before important relationships”.

Having been persuaded that this was not the case, and with her honeymoon painlessly rescheduled, Ferran now just had the matter of taking on what is widely regarded as one of the greatest roles in theatre at basically zero notice.

“When I got the call from Rebecca asking if I was available to fill in at the last minute, I had 24 hours to get to know the play before my first day of rehearsal. Obviously, when I read how much I had to do, I was the closest I’ve ever been to a panic attack,’ she says, looking somewhat haunted by the memory.

Perversely, though, the novel experience of taking on a part in 24 hours was almost more appealing to her than the specific role of Blanche, which she’d never personally coveted.

“I had never had any real desire to play that part,” she says. “But there was something really appealing about the challenge of seeing if I could learn lines in a short space of time.”

I have a detached relationship with seeing my face on a poster

Patsy Ferran

Whatever the background, her performance was jaw-droppingly good. Mescal’s mephistophelian Stanley was excellent, but he’d had weeks to rehearse. Ferran just rocked up and turned in a beautifully compassionate take on the role, reclaiming the character from middle-aged cougar clichés. (She recently admitted that she “aspire[s] to be a masculine female actor”, saying: “I respond to the lack of vanity in performance which men are allowed more frequently than women.”) Her Blanche felt totally original: a still-young woman, clearly terrified by the world, who uses sex to try to establish a modicum of control over the chaos of life. And it won her a second Olivier Award nomination, with the prize eventually going to Jodie Comer for one-woman show Prima Facie.

It seemed impossible that Ferran could have come up with this take in a little over a day – and in fact, she didn’t. It just sort of… came.

“I didn’t have time to create a character,” she says. “I think that if I’d had more time, and this was a plan that we’d had months in advance, I might have felt the pressure to become more like a Vivien Leigh-type figure. But I didn’t have time. I just had to learn my lines, and know where I was standing, and say the lines in the right order. And actually, I learned that anyone could play that part. If you just bring yourself to the role, you will be successful. And after nine years of acting, that was a big revelation.”

One thing she didn’t mind was the lion’s share of the attention being focused on Mescal. Unlike him, she had no screaming fans at the stage door for her every night. And while she’s confessed to having had a Mescal fangirl moment herself, when she watched his film Aftersun halfway through the run – she’d not really known who he was before – that’s not the life for her. She studiously keeps her husband’s name out of the public record – he’s a fellow actor – and says her own relative fame is just something she tries not to think about, because it would freak her out.

Patsy Ferran at the 2019 Olivier Awards, where she won Best Actress for her ‘Summer and Smoke’ performance

Patsy Ferran and Bertie Carvel in rehearsals for the Old Vic’s ‘Pygmalion’

Related Articles

Bir cavab yazın

Sizin e-poçt ünvanınız dərc edilməyəcəkdir. Gərəkli sahələr * ilə işarələnmişdir

Back to top button