Byline: BRUCE DESSAU
Tameka Empson almost postponed our interview when she came down with a cold, but she's a true trooper.
It is the day after the first preview of The Big Life and we are sitting in a quiet room backstage at the Apollo Theatre, yet there is nothing quiet about this pocket battleship of a comic actor. She is 5ft nothing of undiluted vivaciousness, talking 19 to the dozen between the occasional high kick. If this is Empson under the weather, I dare not think what she's like when fighting fit.
This bubbly ex-stand-up's attitude to her job is simple: 'Get your head round it, suss it all out and have fun with it.'
And it clearly works. She made her name as one of the pranksters on the BBC hidden-camera show 3 Non-Blondes and she now applies the same sense of fearlessness to her stage role in The Big Life as 60-year-old Mrs Aphrodite, who sits Muppet-like in an upstairs box and provides a playful commentary on the action.
The musical, set in Fifties London and following the rollercoaster lives of a group of West Indian immigrants, is a classic showbiz success story. It started as a modest, ska-infused musical adaptation of Love's Labours Lost at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in April 2004 before Evertonian entrepreneur Bill Kenwright (the man behind Blood Brothers and Festen) picked it up, making it the first black musical about the black British experience to hit the West End. But, emphasises its star in a moment of seriousness, 'Just because the cast is black does not mean that other people can't relate to it or enjoy it.' There certainly seems to be a trend for ethnic-infused productions, with everything from Bombay Dreams and the Harlem-set Simply Heavenly to another Stratford East transfer, Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen, faring well. 'The West End needs that breath of something new,' Empson says.
The Big Life is also a swansong for Stratford East's artistic director Philip Hedley, who recently retired after 25 years. Three days after the show opens he goes to Buckingham Palace to collect a CBE for his work in the theatre.
Hedley is full of praise for Empson's performance: 'I can see her [the character] having a life of her own, like a black Mrs Merton. TV people should really come to see her.'
Empson was originally offered an all-singing, all-dancing role, but was tied up with Lenny Henry's BBC1 show. Then director Clint Dyer came up with an idea that meant fewer rehearsals. Empson smiles broadly at the memory. 'He said, "Your name is Mrs Aphrodite, just do what you want," which was perfect.
It gets me back to my stand-up days, thinking on my feet.' Or off her feet to be precise, she giggles.
'When I thought I'd be onstage I was thinking I'd have to be healthy, eating salads, salads, salads. As I'm sitting down all night in a big floaty dress I can eat what I like!'
She based Mrs Aphrodite on her own mother, Molly, one of the Windrush generation that arrived full of hope. …