Women, Beware the Devil’s Lydia Leonard on the new Almeida show and playing Cherie Blair in The Crown

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

From Anne Boleyn to Virginia Woolf, Lydia Leonard has an impressive roster of women from history on her acting CV. Sometimes she even surprises herself with the transformation – as with her most recent screen role as Cherie Blair in The Crown.

“Who knew? I’d never seen it [the resemblance] before,” she says. “It was like being on Stars in Their Eyes. Go into the makeup trailer and come out…”

If she was taken aback by becoming Cherie, it didn’t last very long. “Jonny Lee Miller would come out looking like John Major, so if he can do that and Gillian Anderson could do Thatcher, I thought, ‘It’s okay!’”

There were brief glimpses of her opposite Bertie Carvel’s Tony Blair at the end of The Crown’s recent fifth series and filming for the sixth and final series continues until April. She hasn’t met the real Cherie but would like to. “I don’t think she’d be offended by my portrayal… I hope. I’m comfortable about that. I have a huge amount of respect for her.”

She continues, “It’s fun playing someone really famous. It brings its own interest from the wider audience and responsibility. Objectively I should care about playing a real living person, but I don’t, it’s just another character.”

We meet in the cafe of the Almeida Theatre to talk about a different project, a new play called Women, Beware the Devil, which opens there tonight.

Lydia Leonard and Leo Bill in Women, Beware the Devil (Marc Brenner)
Lydia Leonard and Leo Bill in Women, Beware the Devil (Marc Brenner)

Written by rising star Lulu Raczka – who won The Sunday Times Playwriting Award – the show is a modern take on a Jacobean tragedy, though it’s quite tricky to pin down. Set in a grand ancestral home on the eve of the English Civil War, it is a folk horror tale – there’s a load of witchcraft and the devil shows up – and it’s also very funny. Leonard’s co-star Ioanna Kimbook describes it as “The Favourite sprinkled with Rosemary’s Baby”.

Leonard plays Lady Elizabeth, determined to protect her family’s legacy and their home against invaders from within and without, so she calls on Agnes, a woman accused of being a witch, to help her.

Describing Elizabeth, she references three very different, but definitely enticing figures: Maleficent – the evil fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, recently played on film by Angelina Jolie – Machiavelli and, perhaps most surprisingly, Malcolm Tucker, the sweary protagonist from The Thick of It. “She’s very villainous, which I’m leaning into.”

It’s about tradition and institutions facing change. “It’s the age-old question, whether to change these institutions from the inside or the outside… It’s exploring British identity and this savage bit of history, where you’ve got the witch trials and revolution and the force for change was this cold, puritanical religion.

“I suppose we’re now living in a time with similar conversations about institutions and systems and whether to change them from the inside or shatter them completely, so it’s obviously in a similar period of change.”

The show is directed by Rupert Goold and it’s the first time she’s worked with a director for a second time (their previous collaboration was Time and the Conways at the National Theatre in 2009). But it was a Goold-directed show she didn’t get that had perhaps the biggest impact on her career.

Leonard went up for Goold’s American Psycho the Musical at the Almeida in 2013 but didn’t get it. At the same time she was offered the role of Anne Boleyn in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. “I thought it was this dusty Tudor adaptation in Stratford upon Avon – I hadn’t read the books. I reluctantly went up for it and it turned out to be amazing.”

It meant spending a lot of time with Mantel. “Hilary was around a lot. You felt like she saw through you. That she was operating on another plane. She was such a great writer.”

Born in France, Leonard moved with her family to the UK when she was four. She always liked films but can’t pinpoint a moment where she was conscious of wanting to perform, though says she was regularly told her alliterative name meant she was destined for the stage. After training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, she landed a series of roles including a small part in the stage version of Frost-Nixon at the Donmar and then the West End in 2006. “That was fun, it was such a huge hit.”

She’d had almost the opposite experience in Hecuba, the previous year. “They had just done it at the Donmar, and everyone raved about it. Then ours opened and it was famously terrible.” What’s it like to be in a bad play, one that is reviewed terribly and still have to go on every night? “It’s awful, it’s horrible. I feel like reviewers may be getting a bit nicer recently, post Covid. Well, I hope so!”

Lydia Leonard as Cherie Blair and Bertie Carvel as Tony Blair in The Crown (Keith Bernstein)
Lydia Leonard as Cherie Blair and Bertie Carvel as Tony Blair in The Crown (Keith Bernstein)

After Wolf Hall, bigger offers came in. Among them was another real person, Marianna Lawton, in Gentleman Jack, the BBC One show starring Suranne Jones as the rebellious, charismatic lesbian landowner and industrialist Anne Lister. Lawton is Lister’s ex-lover who has left her for the safety of marriage to a man, and Leonard’s portrayal brought her an appreciative letter from Lawton’s descendants.

“They loved it, which is great as she’s slightly the antagonist.” She adds, “I still get loads of messages about it. My only fans are Gentlemen Jack fans! They’re really nice.”

That show was written by Sally Wainwright, who recently had the whole country gripped by the brilliant third series of Happy Valley. Leonard was one of those glued to the thrilling conclusion. Working with the writer on Gentleman Jack was great, Leonard says. “Sally is brilliant, and her confidence with it all. Even with my part which is very small, but it’s instantly recognisable – a story arc of someone, we’ve all been there, when you break up with someone and regret it.”

The show has not been picked up again since series two despite fans clamouring for more, nor, it seems, has another high-profile series she stars in: Ten Percent, the British remake of French hit Call My Agent.

“Sadly not, it’s a great shame…,” she says when I ask about a second season. “People did want it back but there was... when people leave and move around, as people do a lot, things fall down holes.”

Leonard continues, “I know it’s a remake, but it would have gone in its own direction in season two. It’s mind-boggling that you wouldn’t give it another stab. So much about comedy is about familiarity between the audience and the characters. It’s virtually impossible to be people’s favourite thing straight away.” She holds out a very slight hope it might return, but seems forlorn about the chances.

As with the French version, film and TV stars made cameos, playing versions of themselves. Her favourite guest to work alongside was Helena Bonham Carter. “I love her, she was my absolute favourite. I’d never met her before and she’s such a fun person. She doesn’t disappoint, she’s magic.”

Ultimately, Leonard has learned to live with the vagaries of the business. What is supported, what is cancelled. “It’s disappointing [when shows are cancelled], but the longer I’ve been in this job, the more appreciative I’ve become; and you have to be, to stay sane. About how lucky you are to get any job. Any nice job with people you want to work with and nice writing, how rare it is.”

She adds, “Half the stuff I’ve taken because I needed the money has been the most successful, and the things you think are your big break just aren’t.”

Women, Beware the Devil is at the Almeida Theatre until March 25