Cast as Mr Wickham in a school production of Jane Austen’s classic, Felicity Montagu decided to play it for laughs with a quick wink at the audience, bringing the house down. It was the start of an interest which turned into a very successful career.
Montagu is known for her strong comedic prowess and an incredible acting pedigree on stage and screen. Something East Anglian audiences will enjoy when she plays Mrs Bennet in a critically acclaimed production of Pride and Prejudice, visiting the Norwich Theatre Royal next week.
This adaptation by Simon Reade, former artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, was first staged by Regent’s Park Theatre in 2013 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication.
Its arrival in Norwich marks the return of the company which wowed audiences with their smash hit production of To Kill a Mockingbird in 2014.
Montagu has been in everything from Doc Martin, Lovejoy, Mapp and Lucia, A Touch of Frost, Nighty Night and 2point4children to My Family and Victoria Wood As Seen On TV.
More recently she’s played Cousin Pru in The Durrells and Miss Adolf in three series of children’s show Hank Zipzer for which she is currently filming a finale to be aired in 2017.
Her film credits range from Perpetua in Bridget Jones’s Diary to Mrs Mainwaring in this year’s Dad’s Army movie and, of course, the meek and strait laced Lynn who is endlessly ordered around by Alan Partridge in the TV series and Alpha Papa movie which were set and largely filmed in Norfolk. On stage, she’s starred in Quartermaine’s Terms alongside Rowan Atkinson, The Shaughraun and Angels in America.
Montagu’s thrilled to be swapping Lynn’s frumpy cardigan and sensible shoes, not to mention the drab surroundings of the Linton Travel Tavern where Alan resides, for a frock and bonnet in a costume drama.
“It’s wonderful! I have always wanted to play Mrs Bennet,” she said. “And I’m very excited to come back to Norwich. I’m sure Alan will send his love.”
She first came to the city on tour straight out of drama school, then got to know Norwich really well during the filming of Alpha Papa.
“We spent a lot of time at the station when we did the film. I am very fond of Norwich. I love the city. I love the flea market. I remember Cinema City and loved their flapjacks and coffee I hope they still do them. I came back with the family on holiday too, so I have lots of fond and funny memories.”
While her comedy debut in the previously mentioned school play didn’t go down at all well with her headmistress “I was treated like a leper.” she discovered she loved making people laugh.
“I was one of those children always making up characters in my bedroom,” she says. “I loved acting. It is such a wonderful thing to do.”
In sixth form, her potential was finally properly recognised and university and drama school followed. She has acted consistently ever since, but took a 10 12 year break out of theatre when her children were young and concentrated on TV and film instead where the hours were more family friendly.
“I wanted to bring up my kids and be able to rush back at the end of the day to bath them. When the opportunity came to do theatre again I felt ‘can I still do this?’ Richard Eyre offered me Quartermaine’s Terms and I was so shocked I hid the letter. I do love it, but it’s scary. But I went back and I was so grateful.”
She was so keen to play Mrs Bennet that despite already being committed to filming for Hank Zipzer she moved heaven and earth to ensure she could fit in the play too, but there is some trepidation.
“I haven’t toured since I was 22 and I’ve never done a tour like this. But my kids say this is going to be really good for me. I need theatre. I really need it and I really enjoy it.”
She feels comedy comes from points of reality and the emotions thrown up by the actions of Mrs Bennet, as the foolish and scheming mother hunting for eligible husbands for her troublesome daughters, are not that different to those faced by people today.
“It all comes out of pain and feeling uncomfortable. Mrs Bennet is in pursuit of happiness. So she is terribly earnest and eager to please. She has a dilemma as she has all these daughters to marry off.
“She’s a testy role and a very demanding one because she’s a very mercurial character. She changes very quickly on a sixpence. www.jewelrymqsn.top/ I like her self righteousness and her ability to tantrum and to be almost childlike. The element of being a child in a rehearsal room is terribly exciting and I enjoy that; I enjoy the child in her.
“She is a very different character to Lynn. Mrs Bennet is submissive to Mr Bennet, but she is distressed by that, whereas Lynn accepts her condition. Lynn has lots of locks on her doors and is a little person who will always be browbeaten.”
She says she can relate to Mrs Bennet. “She’s a woman who is disempowered, and society is still interested in disempowered women and there are indeed disempowered women in this world, all over the globe, and it makes me so sad. Men can be powerless too. Everything is about power and money in this world really, and most definitely in the world that Jane Austen was writing about. In that respect, the world has not really evolved that much.”
Felicity first encountered the book at school. “It was on the school syllabus and I loved it. I love Jane Austen. She writes very astutely about human nature. She very cleverly extrapolates moments and dramatises them. She just pinpoints human nature very accurately. She’s a great painter really. Like Dickens did, she paints the most wonderful characters.”
How does Simon Reade’s script bring the book alive for audiences? “It’s a terribly difficult thing to do but I think he’s done it very cleverly and you combine that with [director] Deborah Bruce, who’s got a visual eye and a great sense of reality in comedy which is my favourite type of comedy. I don’t really like end of the pier comedy, I love human nature, laughing and crying. I love to make an audience do that.”
Why does she think people continue to be enthralled by this story? “I think it’s because it’s so human. Jane Austen writes very astutely about women and their situation, and whilst women are much more emancipated these days, many of the issues she covers still resonate. I also think it’s very funny and very sad. It’s a very good comedy drama.”
Joining her on stage in Pride and Prejudice is Olivier award winning actor Matthew Kelly who plays her husband Mr Bennet.
“I worked with Matthew 30 years ago on his sketch show, and he’s really fantastic,” she said. ” It’s wonderful because I hadn’t seen him in all those years but walking in the door it was like I’d never stopped seeing him.”
Pride and Prejudice will certainly be a change of gear for her, not least because it will be a treat to get out of Lynn’s sensible shoes and “snazzy” cardigan. Although the Alan Partridge’s “spinster look” was all Montagu’s own devising.