Gwen Taylor on starring in Tartan Gothic thriller, The Croft, at Perth Theatre

In a long life in acting, Gwen Taylor has played so many meaty and memorable roles that it’s impossible to list them all.  She has appeared in films ranging from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian in 1979 to The Lady in The Van in 2015; and on television, she has been Anne Foster in Coronation Street, Peggy Armstrong in Heartbeat, Barbara Liversidge in the sitcom Barbara, and Amy Pearce in the 1980s comedy series Duty Free, which she still lists as a career favourite.
Gwen Taylor in The Croft, by Ali MillesGwen Taylor in The Croft, by Ali Milles
Gwen Taylor in The Croft, by Ali Milles

Yet despite her on-screen fame, Taylor has never ceased to love theatre, the art-form that first drew her into show business when she fell in love with amateur drama in her twenties, and – despite a promising career as an assistant bank manager in her native Derbyshire – decided to train as an actress in London. Over the years, she has played roles that range from Gertrude in Sir Peter Hall’s 1994 production of Hamlet, through Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, to Lady Bracknell in The Importance Of Being Earnest; and now, she is on tour across the UK with a new play called The Croft, by first-time playwright Ali Milles, in which she plays Enid, a widowed Highland woman of the 1870s, whose powerful personality and traumatic experiences echo down the decades and centuries to touch the lives of women today.

“This play is being produced by Alastair Whatley and Tom Hackney of Original Theatre,” says Taylor, “and I really just so much admire what they do. Their whole aim is to bring good quality touring drama to theatres around Britain, without the kind of huge budgets associated with major producers of musicals, and so on; and although the company has been going for 15 years, this is their first completely new play.

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“I suppose the time may soon come when I have to start turning down these long tours,” adds Taylor, who turned 80 last year, and is married to Northern Irish playwright Graham Reid. “I certainly couldn’t manage it without Graham at my side – he takes most of the practical strain. But I never can resist a challenging role; and I certainly didn’t want to miss playing Enid, who is a wonderful, complicated character.”

The Croft certainly includes many key features of a successful 21st century stage drama; Milles’s first play is a psychological thriller with a strong historical and supernatural streak, and taps into a growing interest in what has been called “Tartan Gothic” fiction, following the rise of thriller-writers including Sandra Ireland and Francine Toon. Set in a remote Highland village, The Croft intertwines Enid’s story of poverty and pain – and of the life-force that helps her to survive, and to help another woman in distress – with stories set in 2005 and 2020, in which women visiting what was once Enid’s house face similar life-changing and heart-wrenching decisions.

“If I had to describe the play,” says director Philip Franks, “I would say it was a mix of Daphne Du Maurier and The Weir. It has Du Maurier’s sense of romance and high drama; and Conor Macpherson’s sense, in The Weir, of gradually uncovering profound secrets, as the play unfolds. There’s a drama of love and bereavement, there’s a ghost story, there’s a question about whether cycles of grief and loss can ever be broken; and there’s also a theme about whether we can re-make the family in these new times. So it is a very rich and complex drama; and I suppose my role as director is to make all those strands work together.”

Franks began his relationship with Scottish theatre in the late 1970s, when he was part of Stephen McDonald’s Lyceum Theatre ensemble, starring in shows including McDonald’s iconic 1978 studio production of Marlowe’s Edward II; he was last seen on stage in Edinburgh just a few months ago, playing the narrator in The Rocky Horror Show. Nowadays, though, Franks works mainly as a director, and has recently become an associate artist with Original Theatre.

“I just think it’s admirable, to have a company dedicated to taking good, serious theatre all over the UK and beyond,” says Franks, “and I’m delighted to be bringing this show to Perth.  We have worked very hard on the voice for this production. Gwen has learned some Gaelic, and of course we’ve got a Scottish actor in the cast, Drew Cain; so I hope we’re not doing too badly.”

The five-strong cast for The Croft also includes Caroline Harker, best know as Celia in the television version of Middlemarch; and Taylor hopes that like all the best drama, the play will ask some hard-hitting questions about how much life has really changed for women over the last 150 years – but always through the medium of a thrilling story, and strong characters.

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“I never did like agitprop,” says Taylor, “although I remember once playing Margaret Thatcher at the Royal Court, and getting actual threats in the post. For me, it’s always the character that matters, and the story; that’s how theatre works.  And for me, Enid is something of a trailblazer for women’s rights. When I first read the play, what moved me was her passion, her longing for this young woman she encounters to seize life, and live life, and be happy; and how she retains that feeling, despite all the traumatic things that have happened to her. And there have been terrible traumas.

“You know how you sometimes feel, when you first go into a building, that everything that has happened in a place is still somehow there, caught in the bricks and mortar? Well, the croft is a house like that; and that’s where our play is set.”

The Croft is at Perth Theatre from 4-8 February; and on tour across the UK