When the trainer asks Susan to choose a role model, her mind goes blank, but gradually an idea forms and she settles on Helen Mirren (in series 1 of Prime Suspect – before she gets a drink problem). What would Helen Mirren do about … Big Jean … or Susan’s mother … or supermarket manager Steve whose idea of making eye contact is – well, never mind.
In an interview with Daily Information, writer Josie Melia explained that she’d tried to tell the story of a very ordinary “invisible” woman. Like so many women of her age, Susan Butterworth has “done it all on her own”, raising children, keeping an eye on her mother; always putting other people first. When they don’t need her any more, she needs a boost of confidence to become a person in her own right.
In many ways, it’s Susan’s ordinariness that gives the show its particular warmth. Yes, it’s a comedy, but like all great comedy, the line between comedy and pathos is often finely drawn. It’s funny because life is funny.
What Would Helen Mirren Do? marks a return to the stage for Anita Parry after a five year break from acting. Despite an earlier success as Shirley Valentine, she says that she still found the prospect of a one person show “scary”, but has found the role of Susan Butterworth “transformational”. But then, as Susan says, being an actress is really just about stepping into someone else’s shoes.
If you can’t catch the show at its final performance in Oxford, keep a lookout for it at other venues or at the Edinburgh Festival, later this year.