We caught up with Caroline Harker who plays Sheila in Alan Ayckbourn’s hilarious comedy Relatively Speaking, which opens the Autumn season at Salisbury Playhouse in September. Caroline played the Queen in our production of comedy Handbagged in April 2019.
You’re coming back to Salisbury this September to perform in Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking. What can we expect?
“I’m playing a lovely part called Sheila in Alan Ayckbourn’s play. She’s a bit of a still point in a moving comedy world. Sheila and Philip are married and their relationship is clearly under strain. They’re at a certain age, they’ve got a lovely garden out in Buckinghamshire and into that garden come Greg and Ginny. And the situation becomes increasingly complicated and hilarious and it’s full of misunderstandings and you think all the time it’s going to fall apart but it doesn’t, it just sustains. It’s a very funny play.”
The play was Ayckbourn’s first big West End hit – why do you think that is?
“I think it works like comedy clockwork maths. You just keep thinking that it’s not going to add up and it’s all going to fall apart. It delights because it teeters on the edge of collapsing but it never does. It’s just very funny and very clever. You just sit there in disbelief.”
You’re no stranger to comedies – both Handbagged and Relatively Speaking are comedies. Glenda Jackson is quoted as saying: “Comedy … is much harder to do than drama. It’s not true that laugh and the world laughs with you. It’s very hard to make a group of people laugh at the same thing; much easier to make them cry at the same thing. … That’s why great comic acting is probably the greatest acting there is.” Do you agree with this statement? Would you like to see more credit given to great comedic performances and comedic writing?
“Yes I do agree with what Glenda Jackson said. I wouldn’t tangle with anything Glenda Jackson said. And I do think that in comedy there should be an element of depth and in tragedy there should be an element of light. When you see an actor playing a huge tragic role and mining that tragedy for all the light and all the humour that they can, in my mind that’s the best sort of acting there is. Life is like that; sadness sitting right next to humour. You’ve got to believe the situation but you’ve also got to laugh.”
You were in Salisbury earlier in the year when you were playing the Queen in Handbagged – is it a happy coincidence or were you missing Salisbury so much you had to come back?!
“I was delighted to be asked back. I feel I’ve just scratched the surface of Salisbury and at the Playhouse the audiences are really warm and really buzzy and the atmosphere backstage is wonderful. I can’t tell you how much I like the wardrobe, everybody in there. All the backstage crew, the production office, all the offices. There’s a real mix of people but everyone is warm and welcoming and it’s been a pleasure to be there and I feel very happy to be there and have no hesitation about returning.”
What do you like about the city?
“Well I haven’t seen as much of the city as I would like because when we were doing Handbagged we never left the stage. At first I thought that Salisbury consisted of the ring road, the car park, Sainsbury’s and the rehearsal room. But it started to reveal itself slowly – and I feel that if I’d been there longer I would have discovered so much more. There’s that sight of the spire as you drive in. I used to drive in from Odstock where I was staying and I loved it although I never got up the spire because it was booked up when I tried to go.
“I liked the little market stalls that suddenly appear and I bought some sweet pea plants that are now growing very happily up a wigwam outside my front door in London and that makes me think of Salisbury. I loved the beautiful architecture. Suddenly you get this ancient beautiful building sitting there on the street. I like the nearby rolling countryside. I also like the way that Salisbury winds down at the end of the day. There’s this sort of closing up that goes on and I love that. The silence on the cobbly streets – whereas London seems to hot up at night – so I like that very peaceful feeling. And this whole crowd comes in to go to the theatre. You can see them arriving from your dressing room and I used to really like that. Our dressing room windows overlook the car park and you see people coming in to go to the theatre and they sort of pass people doing parkour at the car park. It’s just a real good mix. I found a very warm and happy atmosphere.”
Favourite places to eat? Cafes? Pubs? Any other nooks and crannies that you discovered in Salisbury? Could be hidden things, walks?
“I found a little café up an alley, but I don’t know what the name of it was. It was off Fisherton Street and it had cats in and lots of artwork and I found that a real haven. I absolutely loved that place (sounds like The Yard – Ed). I went to Boston Tea Party because they were incredibly friendly there and Eve Matheson who was in Handbagged with me, she used to go there and she told me about it and I used to sometimes sit in the window there. They were just very warm and friendly and relaxed and it was very buzzy and you could do your work. Families were out shopping for a cup of tea and a large piece of carrot cake. I loved that. We also used to go to the Haunch of Venison pub. Absolutely fantastic, we loved that place. If we could, we’d sit by the fire in the upstairs room by the little lit up hand in that little nook or we’d go downstairs. They were always welcoming and really warm and it was just perfect. We were a very small cast and we just used to sit there and chat over the day. Loved that. And I loved a Thai restaurant called the Rai d’Or in a pub. The food is so good, it’s completely fresh and delicious and they’re very welcoming. Our director told us about them and we went there a few times. I didn’t really have enough time to discover the hidden walks etc but I will do when I go there this time because that’s just my sort of thing. On the last day there I did sit under a tree in the shade under the Cathedral and thought back over my time in Salisbury and I thought it was absolutely beautiful.”
Anything that you didn’t get round to doing when you were here last time that you’ll be making a beeline for?
“I want to walk to Old Sarum, someone told me to do that, and I’m definitely going to get out, if I have a chance this time, to Avebury and Stonehenge. And I’ll find my secret café again with the cats in. I stayed out in Odstock as I mentioned but I won’t have the car this time so I’ll be living in town. I can do early morning walks across the Cathedral close, I’ll walk along the river and I’m looking forward to sitting in the Haunch with the rest of the cast and having a glass of red wine and, this time, I’m going to go up the spire. I really can’t wait to do that. There’s an awful lot more to discover about Salisbury and I’m delighted to be given a second go at it.”
Caroline Harker appears in Relatively Speaking in the Main House at Salisbury Playhouse from 4 – 28 September. For more information, visit https://www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk/whats-on/main-house/relatively-speaking/