Actors / Playwrights

Alison Skilbeck: Four Women in One

Alison Skilbeck is showing me how to read her feet. “It’s where you put the weight in your body and how you place your feet,” she says. Standing up, she demonstrates, turning her toes in and hunching ever so slightly. “If I were to say to you that I’m a very confident person, would you believe me? My feet are not saying that, are they?”

The playwright and star of the one woman show ‘Are There More of You?’ Alison has made an art of being four women in one. She manages to convince you of this by changing the placement of her feet and the way she carries her long body, by switching her wardrobe and modifying her hairstyle, by adopting a new accent, a different intonation, an entirely new manner. She knows her audience is unconsciously responding to every detail, though if you asked them they might not be able to tell you exactly what made Sophia seem so in control or Sara quite so flighty. Alison believes she succeeds because “people are instinctively brilliant at body language.”

Alison as Claire, Sophia, Sara and Sam. Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

‘Are There More of You?’ has won Alison critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival and in London, the city where she (and her characters) live. In fact, Alison and her husband share the same postcode with Claire, Sophia, Sara and Sam – SW11. “I put them in my street in London. I’m just south of the river,” Alison explains. It’s one of several fine threads that underlie her universe and tie the characters loosely together. “It was very much about the story telling and about acting, celebrating that,” she says, adding “I set myself the challenge of seeing if I could write four different characters, who each tell their different stories but are linked in some way…It is a whole sequence, it does add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

As an actress, Alison knows what it feels like to be typecast. The roles she’s been offered on television have sometimes felt very limiting (her credits include Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Dr Who and Law and Order UK), but she says the first woman in her show is “almost exactly” the sort of character that Alison herself is most often cast as. How will Claire, the ambassador’s wife with the impeccable manners, respond when her life begins to unravel around her? But Sophia comes from another mould altogether. In her distinctive accent, a hybrid of Italian and London cockney, she lets you know that she wants to up the tone of her café – but her mother who lives upstairs does nothing for the atmosphere. Sara, the local spirit weaver, is easy to dismiss as rather silly, but is she really? Sam is a bluff, straight talking business woman from the North who believes she understands men, but do they understand her?

Alison presents her women to you at their most vulnerable, digging beneath their projected personalities to find the cracks and the desperation that lie just below the surface. “The stories are quite bittersweet,” she says, revealing that she remembers exactly where the initial impetus came for each one. She met a version of Claire at a party hosted by a British diplomat. His wife had such polish, but Alison caught herself suddenly thinking – “I wonder if your heart can break?” The inspiration for Sam came from an acquaintance who had suffered a great trauma and yet projected a determined air of confidence. They all had this in common – what you saw was not what you got. “I call it women on the verge of a nervous break ‘through’,” says Alison, laughing. “They have a challenge if you like, during the course of the story, and they have to surmount it or go under.”

For Alison herself the challenge is that, in a sense, she bears the weight of the production alone. “It’s a great responsibility but it’s also very liberating. It’s just you and the only other character is the audience. That’s what theatre should be.” She does little to conceal the mechanics of her performance on stage, unapologetically taking off and putting on the accessories that go with each character right there, in front of the crowd. Its evidence that one needn’t spend hours in advance getting into character, instead, “you become someone different…you can transform in an instant, as you turn on a sixpence.”

It’s a skill born of a long history as a performer. Graduating with a Hons degree in Spanish and French from Oxford University, she was also an active member of its famed Dramatic Society. She went on to explore a varied career in theatre, radio and television, serving not only as an actor but as a director and teacher on several productions. At RADA, where she has worked for nearly two decades, she specialises in teaching drama students Shakespeare and is on the admissions panel. She is visiting Sri Lanka at the behest of an old friend – Alison and Sunethra Bandaranaike were contemporaries at Oxford and have remained close ever since. The former is a trustee of the UK based charity Friends of Sunera Foundation which helps raise funds and awareness for the Foundation in Sri Lanka.

This production too is a fund raiser, held in partnership with the British Council. Alison says she couldn’t be more pleased to support Sunera – “I’m very excited by the idea of how theatre and drama can really liberate people.”

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 8 January, 2012. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara

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