Maria Friedman on bridging the gap between the Queen Vic and the Old Vic

The star of stage and soap talks about Radio 3 in Concert, EastEnders, and the differences between acting for television and acting on stage

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The Old Vic and the Queen Vic, though both famous London locations, represent very different ends of the cultural spectrum: a theatre where Laurence Olivier performed Othello; a pub where Danny Dyer plays the landlord.

The actress/singer Maria Friedman, however, unites these diverse worlds, having recently directed the musical High Society at the Old Vic between stints at the Queen Vic as the mother-in-law of Dyer’s EastEnders character.

Back from a new year break in Sri Lanka, Friedman again has a diary divided between the West End (directing and appearing in Monday’s concert to mark the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards) and the East End (returning to Albert Square next month to complete her current set of episodes as Elaine Peacock). 

Friedman lives in Hackney, east London, where we talk in a café, watched protectively by her Lhasa apso, Dot – named after her character in the musical Sunday in the Park with George, which brought her the first of the seven Oliver nominations that have resulted in three wins. Composer Stephen Sondheim has been a key influence on her, with a production of his Merrily We Roll Along, her directorial debut, also winning multiple prizes. 

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With such credentials, some theatrical types were surprised to see her in EastEnders. “There is still snobbery,” she says. “When I told people I was doing it, there was a bit of ‘why?’ But the answer is: ‘Why not?’ There’s a tiny group of actors who get offered everything. And the rest of us have to find interesting stuff to do.”

The biggest adjustment was to the hectic schedule of a series screened four times a week: “You’re always filming at least three episodes at once: pick-ups from ten weeks ago, a Christmas or a Halloween episode. So it’s like a fantastic puzzle.” Before each scene, the actor has to remember what has happened to the character at this point. Has the baby been born? Have the aliens landed yet?

Because there’s no rehearsal time, lines have to be known in advance, so, while driving to Elstree, Friedman used a “rehearsal app” – which allows the actor to record all of the other lines in a scene, leaving gaps for their own. She and her husband, actor Adrian Der Gregorian, enjoyed impersonating her fellow cast members. She gives me a few pitch-perfect notes of her croaky, smoky Dot Cotton and her squeaky-geezer Mick Carter.

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Last month, one viewer of the soap tweeted, “What’s Linda’s mum doing as a nun?” after Friedman appeared as the Mother Abbess in ITV’s Sound of Music Live. Although Friedman is used to live theatre, the TV show was “terrifying, an out-of-body experience”. As there were 17 cameras, positions on the set were carefully worked out in advance. Friedman, for example, was directed to start Climb Every Mountain on a bench in the abbey, standing up at an agreed point in the lyric. “But the cross I was wearing round my neck got caught under the bench, and I realised I couldn’t get up. This is all live on TV!”

She calculated her options while singing: she could stand up as planned, but with the risk of sending the bench crashing over backwards; or reach down to untangle the crucifix, which might give viewers the impression that the Mother Abbess was committing a sin of pleasure. With the camera operator adjusting to her unscheduled movements, she eventually freed herself. “I waited ages to watch the recording, because I thought I’d see every second of that panic. But it was fine. Luckily, the camera was on Kara [Tointon] for the worst bits.”

Any slip-ups in the Oliviers anniversary concert will be seen only by the Royal Festival Hall audience, though the Radio 3 audience will hear them. The evening takes the form of a huge medley, in which every song either comes from an Olivier-winning show or has an Olivier-winner singing it. Elaine Paige will reprise Don’t Cry for Me Argentina, accompanied by Andrew Lloyd Webber on the piano. 

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One of Friedman’s own numbers – Being Alive from Sondheim’s Company – has a particular poignancy. Next month she hopes to be declared five years clear of breast cancer, although celebrations are tempered by having reached the milestone once before. “The second time is much worse. It’s been absolutely horrific. The worst thing is what’s going on in your head. But nearly there. Look!” She points to eyes that have filled up as she speaks. “It’s a big hurdle.”

The inevitable effect of cancer on her performing energies was what initially led her to direct, which she continues to do. But she would like to have directed more: “After Merrily, which won everything, I wasn’t offered a directing job until High Society. Somehow, a woman in her 50s who’s not in that hip, Oxbridge, intellectual set and who used to do musical theatre doesn’t fit.”

She has pledged never to offer a rehearsing performer a burst of illustrative singing, and has so far avoided doing so – but admits to sometimes resolving her frustration at home by hitting the notes that she wants to hear. With her health returned, she’d like to show again what she can do on stage. “My voice is the best it’s ever been and I really miss performing. I can direct, and I love it, but doing EastEnders and The Sound of Music has made me think: ‘That’s who I am!’” 

Radio 3 in Concert: Launch of the Oliviers premieres Monday at 07:30 p.m. on Radio 3

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