Image above: Suzette Llewellyn in Running with Lions at the Lyric, Hammersmith
It was a bit of a surprise to see Suzette Llewellyn playing a grandmother. It shouldn’t have been, as she is 60 this year, but if you see her around Chiswick she certainly doesn’t look it.
I saw her in Running with Lions, a new play at the Lyric, a brilliant play which I think deserves to become a British classic.
READ ALSO: Running with Lions review
In it she plays Shirley, who despite her matriarchal authority, bolstered by religion, is beset by guilt and regret. You get to see the full range of what she can do as an actress.
“I love the character” she tells me. “And I love that it’s a family story, an intergenerational story which deals with grief and mental illness in a Caribbean setting.
“I like working with new material. It’s very enriching. It’s exciting being involved in creating the whole piece. Unlike television when you’re working in theatre you’re doing your own editing.
“I love working with the whole cast. It does feel like a family. We read the play in audition and now it’s not the same play. It’s a real journey of discovery.”
The comparison she’s making is with television, where in the soaps and dramas she is used to playing, you come on, do your bit and go back to your novel until the next call, with very little creative input into the finished product.
Suzette played Sheree Trueman in Eastenders from 2019 to 2021, the part for which she is most recognised. Having trained at LAMDA she got straight into television and films, with parts in Personal Services, Playing Away and Sammy and Rosie get laid in the 1980s, becoming known for her TV role as Cheryl Patching in Surgical Spirit in the early ’90s.
Image above: Suzette with Ruby Barker (Bridgerton) in Running with Lions at the Lyric
Going to school in Chiswick in the 1970s
She has a teacher at Chiswick School to thank for encouraging her to pursue acting as a career, though she knew she was interested in acting from a very young age.
“I remember being very keen to get a bigger part at primary school” she laughs.
She went to Hogarth Primary School and then on to Chiswick in the 1970s, where English teacher Claire Thompson directed her towards the National Youth Theatre and the Cockpit Theatre. When she was accepted by the Central School of Speech and Drama and East 15 Acting School it was her teacher who asked around and advised her to go to LAMDA.
She made her debut playing Viola in Twelfth Night in a production with the Northumberland touring company, and theatre is her first love.
How has the Black experience in theatre changed over the years?
“In terms of going to see things it has definitely changed. There are so many more things to go and see where there are people who look like me.
“My mother used to take me to the Keskidee theatre in north London [Britain’s first arts centre for the black community, founded in 1971] and I remember being very impressed there were Black people on the stage. That was like, Wow!
“In terms of parts, I have spent most of my time being the only one or one of very few Black people in the cast and there has been a huge change in the type of role being offered.
“I remember going to the Riverside Studios and the Black person was always the problem, struggling with their situation.”
Image above: Suzette with Wil Johnson in Running with Lions at the Lyric
Working with the Talawa theatre company
Running with Lions is produced by the Black British company Talawa. The play happens to be about a British Caribbean family but the themes of dealing with love and loss and mental illness translate to any family.
It’s still rare to see a play about everyday life where being Black isn’t the issue, in a mainstream theatre.
Director Michael Buffong has said the company would “make outstanding work which will truly diversify and shape the cultural life of the whole country.”
It’s not Suzette’s first experience of working with Talawa. Her first was Urban Afro Saxons, a play in which “the actors gathered, there were two writers and no play. It was through improvisation that the play came about. It was about what it means to be British and was put on at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.”
She enjoys the fact that there are now Congolese, Nigerian, Caribbean writers whose work is being put on, which gives a much broader range of opportunity for Black actors and she hopes to do more theatre.
Still Breathing – 100 Black Voices on Racism
Last year Suzette and co-writer and actor Suzanna Packer (best known for her role in Casualty) brought out a book together Still Breathing – 100 Black Voices on Racism. 100 ways to Change the Narrative. The murder of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement were the catalyst.
“We decided to tell our story” she said. “These testimonials would demonstrate the harm and damage experienced by the contributors and at the same time, show the way each survivor of racism and prejudice had managed to transform that trauma into strength and potency.”
Racism is as damaging psychologically to those who perpetrate it as it is to those who are on the receiving end, she says and White people often don’t ‘get’ racism if it’s subtle or unspoken, so the book was for anyone who thinks: ‘I’m not racist and I understand it’s hurtful but why must they go on about it all the time?’
On living in Chiswick she says:
“I like what everybody likes about it. I like the open space. I feel safe here and I like that my children meet people who knew their grandparents.”
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