Kathy Walton meets Chorleywood-based actress Wendi Peters, as she tours in ‘Oh What A Lovely War’
The first time that Wendi Peters saw Joan Littlewood’s celebrated Oh What A Lovely War was when her 14-year-old daughter Gracie played suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst in a school production of the play last year. Just a few days later, by coincidence, Wendi herself was offered a role in a national reprisal of this much loved musical satire of World War I, and is currently on a 12-venue tour. It led to an amusing mother-daughter moment: “When Gracie came to see me in the play for the first time, she sent me a note afterwards telling me I got all the lines right…”
Wendi started researching the war as soon as she heard about the part. “It’s been such an interesting experience,” she tells me. “I’m loving it, we’re having a great time, and the audiences have been so appreciative. It’s great entertainment, which rolls out the chilling facts of World War I.”
This latest production is a huge ensemble piece, with a cast of twelve, who all play several roles. “I play at least ten characters, from a female musical hall director, to a Serbian stall holder, a soldier and Mrs Pankhurst,” she explains. “I am literally changing hats and coats off stage and then rushing straight back on again. There’s a lot of fun in the wings, with lots of ‘where’s my hat?’ and throwing costumes at one another.”
Oh What A Lovely War was first performed on stage in 1963, when it shocked audiences who still expected the Great War to be glorified. Instead, they saw a biting satire on the realities of mud, blood and suffering. According to theatre folklore, Joan Littlewood tore up the script at the first read-through and told her cast ‘we can do better than this’, which, via improvisation, they did.
Ingeniously – and this is perhaps the secret of the production’s enduring popularity – Littlewood managed to combine satire and fun by creating a play within a play. She cast her twelve actors as a troupe of Pierrot clowns who are putting on a musical about ‘the glories of war’, while the audiences see behind them what is really happening in the trenches.
“There we are, belting out these great numbers, while ticker tape gives the facts, such as 60,000 killed in one day,” says Wendi.
At this point in our interview, I reflect that the battlefields of Northern France a hundred years ago are a long way from even the grittiest storylines of Coronation Street, in which Wendi played Cilla Battersby-Brown from 2003 to 2007.
“It was quite unbelievable” she says of her four years starring in the soap that she used to watch with her grandmother. “I grew up near there [in Blackburn], in an area where children used to say they’d like a job on Corrie when they grew up, so my first day on set was a real ‘pinch me’ moment.”
As Cilla, she played a mother from hell, relentlessly picking on her cute ginger-haired son. It was a role that Wendi thoroughly enjoyed. “I was a sort of pantomime villain, the one that viewers loved to hate. It’s always best to play strong characters; Northern battleaxes are the best fun to play. I don’t care what I look like. I’ll take my make-up off and scrape back my hair. It’s why I became an actress.”
Since leaving The Street (she was reluctant to do just one thing in her career, and keen not to be typecast, although she did reprise the role for six weeks last autumn), her work has been nothing if not varied, with serious parts alongside comedy roles and even appearances on Celebrity Masterchef, where she made it as far as the final. Later this year she will be giving cake making demos around the country as part of the national Cake and Bake Show. “I love baking and make a cake for the [theatre] company each week, so I’m quite popular,” she laughs.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, she played a cook last year in a BBC TV production of Hetty Feather (from the novel by Jacqueline Wilson) and says that she would love to play Mrs Lovett, the sinister pie-maker (of human body parts) in Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd.
Her most challenging role to date, she thinks, was in Mrs Whippy, a one woman play (essentially a two hour monologue) based on the novella of the same name by Cecelia Ahern, with which she toured Ireland for a couple of months in 2009. The same year, British theatre audiences took Wendi to their hearts as one of three Grumpy Old Women, a stage show based on the original television series, in which she appeared alongside veteran comedy actress Jenny Eclair and fellow Corrie star Susie Blake. The three moaned and laughed in equal measure about the joys and tribulations of middle age.
“We really gelled as a team,” she says of the other two performers in the trio. The show played at a different venue each night, before spending two months in the West End. “We would perform, spend the night in a hotel and then get picked up the next morning to be driven to the next place… which for ladies of a certain age is hard work,” she laughs.
Middle age is something Wendi knows all about, having just turned 47, and she says that she is positively embracing it. “You have experience, you realise that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about you – and I have a lovely family life.”
That family life, when she’s not on tour, means walking her two dogs, swimming 50 lengths every morning at Rickmansworth’s William Penn leisure centre and doing the school run to and from the Royal Masonic with Gracie.
“Of course I love the theatricality of my work and giving it large, but I also like shutting my front door and being normal. And I have too many friends who I don’t see enough of, so I don’t need any more!”
Like all mums, she says she worries about her daughter’s future – “Will she ever be able to afford a house, will she get married, will she have children?” – and is already looking at drama schools for Gracie, who wants to be an actress.
“Who am I to say no? I’ve been very lucky, I’ve loved every minute of it,” she says of her own career in a notoriously precarious profession. It’s a wonderfully upbeat attitude from an actress (rather refreshingly she prefers ‘actress’ to ‘actor’) who evidently takes everything in her stride. Life hasn’t always been easy for Wendi, though. She endured seven failed attempts at IVF before having Gracie, and is now coming to terms with the incipient blindness of her husband Kenny, whom she met when they were both touring in Hello Dolly. They have been married since 1993.
Kenny, 49, has PXE (pseudoxanthoma elasticum), a hereditary condition that causes the gradual loss of central vision, leading eventually to complete sight loss. No longer able to drive, read (instead he devours audio tapes) or act, Kenny has re-trained as a sports massage therapist, a role at which Wendi says he excels.
“I’m in awe of how he copes,” says Wendi. “He doesn’t moan, he just gets on with it.”
As for the coming year, Wendi tells me she has exciting plans, both personal and professional, which quite wisely, she refuses to share, although she is prepared to say that this coming Christmas she will be taking a plane load of children to Lapland, as part of her work as a patron for Wish Upon A Star, a charity that helps fulfil the dreams of terminally ill children.
And with Kenny’s condition in mind, she has also become an ambassador for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Here again a wonderfully positive Wendi counts her blessings. “I am so grateful for Gracie and [with regard to Kenny] lots of people are worse off,” she says.
For information about PXE visit www.pxe.org.uk
‘Oh What A Lovely War’ is at Aylesbury Waterside Theatre from 28 April to 2 May. See www.aylesburytheatre.org or call 0844 871 7607 to book.