FAMILIAR themes conspire with some familiar faces to power a major revival of rarely performed restoration comedy The Way Of The World in February.
The cast includes Mike Leigh protégée Sinéad Matthews and rising talent Ben Lloyd-Hughes, who recently starred as Rob McAloon in BBC 1’s Young James Herriot.
And the story places them as a couple – high society miss Millamant and handsome playboy Mirabell – with marriage and money in mind and a troublesome aunt.
For Sinéad, star of numerous theatre hits as well as films including The Boat That Rocked and Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang, it means a return to the venue of her first theatre job: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Crucible.
“It’s changed since but I love Sheffield. I loved it when I came then and I love it even more,” she says, just back from a visit to Kelham Island Museum. “You can really feel the history.”
The same could be said of William Congreve’s play, originally set in 1700 but given an updated guise in the hands of Sheffield Theatre’s associate director Lyndsey Turner, who directed Alice and My Romantic Comedy there in 2010.
“I’m part of the central love story, I guess you could say, but Millamant plays very hard to get,” reveals Sinéad, who believes many of the show’s themes still resonate in 2012.
“In quite a lot of ways, when the play was written, her voice, her opinions and her thoughts on marriage and how a woman’s life should be lived would have been very fresh and new. When you think of today’s views on marriage and relationships it’s probably still quite fresh because she’s very bold with her demands and what she doesn’t want to become.
“It’s unique, her voice, but then I think it’s what a lot of women think and don’t always voice or wouldn’t have voiced then.
“I don’t think I’ve really come across or been in situations where I’ve felt like I’m being treated a certain way because I’m a woman, I’m sure it’s happened and it might have gone over my head. I’ve always been or tried to be pretty honest with how I feel and in our profession as you work more you get a stronger voice. It’s not about being difficult or being a diva; often it’s about voicing a problem or maybe questioning something.”
Although written in a very different era, Congreve’s world of extravagance, deceit, slander and seduction should translate well to a society where money is still king – or our downfall.
Sinéad believes the language “opens it out and makes it timeless and completely relevant” for today. “Lyndsey has done an amazing job with Naomi Wilkinson the designer in getting a mix of both times, today and the past.
“The costumes are a bit of a mixture with a very fresh look. It pays homage to the time, but it’s a complex journey with lots of different plots,” says the actress who is reunited with Deborah Findlay of TV’s Cranford fame as her aunt.
They first met in the Young Vic’s Glass Menagerie, where Sinéad rekindled her own romance with Leon Bill, also in The Way Of The World, as Fainall. Together for years, they got back together last year and are now sharing “a nice little bungalow” in Millhouses until the play closes on February 25.
She’s off on tour with The Master And Margarita afterwards – and there’s always the prospect of working with Mike Leigh again, the director who offered her a role in his film Vera Drake when he saw Sinéad at drama school.
“He’s given me some good advice in the past. I’ve always respected him and loved his work,” she says.
“Over the years it feels like we worked really well together like when we did Ecstasy last year in the West End, one of my favourite plays from 16. Since then our relationship has got to an understanding of who the other person is. We know how the other person works and the possibility to work together again is there.”
So, with the packed stage and screen CV Sinéad has accrued since last in Sheffield, it seems we’re lucky to have her back.
“Recently I’ve been doing more theatre and it’s been amazing. My passion also lies with film, but theatre at the moment is what is coming my way.”
So long as there’s diversity.
“You can get pigeon-holed I’ve found. I did a play where I was playing a 12-year-old. So what comes in after that is a lot of 12-year-old roles, but I don’t want to play just them. It will become what you do.
“A lot of people do this job because you get to explore lots of people and get into their heads and that’s what’s exciting. Like anybody you have to pay the bills and I can’t do theatre forever because I can’t pay the bills – but at the moment, while I can, I will.”