Ayesha grows up fast after scoring wonderful success

Ayesha Antoine and Ben Porter in Absurd Person Singular.  Photo: Robert Day
Ayesha Antoine and Ben Porter in Absurd Person Singular. Photo: Robert Day
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After playing a child last time she was on the stage in Scarborough, Ayesha Antoine is back with an adult role. Nick Ahad met her.

Without wishing to be rude, Ayesha Antoine has really aged in the few short years since she was last at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.

To be fair, though, the last time she was here in 2009, the 31-year-old did appear on stage as a nine-year-old girl.

The diminutive beauty was cast as Winnie in Alan Ayckbourn’s My Wonderful Day, playing the daughter of a cleaner who spends the day with her mother trying to complete her homework of writing about a day away from school.

It was a mesmerising performance that had audiences confused and stunned.

“People kept saying ‘well, we know she’s not nine, but what is she, 14, 15?’,” laughs Antoine.

She was 28 at the time.

“Alan always told me the key was to play the character, not play a nine-year-old. The minute the audience thinks they are watching an adult play a child, the whole idea comes crashing down, so it had to be completely real and true and convincing,” she says.

It was all of those things 
and more. The reviews 
were universally positive about the play and, in 
particular, about Antoine’s performance.

She won plaudits and awards when the show opened in Scarborough and again when it toured around the country then transferring to New York, where she was shortlisted for a Drama Desk Award.

What made the experience all the more exciting for Antoine, who began her acting career when she was 14 and landed a part on the TV series Grange Hill, was that it was the first time she had worked with Ayckbourn.

“I remember my agent calling me about it. Scarborough is one of those places where as an actor you would love to work one day and to get to work with Alan was amazing,” she says.

The universal acclaim and a chemistry between the actor and director meant Antoine became one of a stable of actors the writer-director calls on and she has returned to Scarborough this summer to play in rep in two of his plays – Absurd Person Singular in its 40th anniversary production and a new play, Surprises.

Antoine finds Ayckbourn the director empowering.

“He just sort of lets you make decisions about where you are going with a character and what you are doing on stage,” she says.

“It was great when we did My Wonderful Day, for the first week, then after the second week I was wanting to ask for more feedback and by the third week I was desperate to have him sit down with me and give me some really detailed notes. I didn’t want to be a needy actor, but I asked him one day for some notes and he just told me that if he didn’t stop me doing something, then it meant he loved it.”

Audiences in Scarborough have a strong memory of Antoine as the adorable Winnie, observing the vicissitudes of the adult world with innocent eyes, which means seeing her playing an adult in this season is, for some, a little odd.

“When Alan asked me back I was so happy and flattered and couldn’t wait to get started,” she says.

“There’s a lot of pressure with Absurd, because it is so famous and has such a history, but there’s pressure with Surprises, too, because I’m creating the part.”

It’s a lot of responsibility for one who looks so young, but she’s clearly up to the task.

AN AYCKBOURN DOUBLE ACT

Absurd Person Singular, Ayckbourn’s first three act play, premiered in London in 1972 and was a huge success. Antoine plays Eva, a depressive who famously spends the whole of the second act attempting to commit suicide while being thwarted by unknowing dinner guests.

Surprises is Ayckbourn’s 76th play and returns to his much explored sci-fi on-stage interest. Antoine plays a 16-year-old girl and the 67-year-old woman she becomes.

Surprises and Absurd Person Singular run in rep at Stephen Joseph Theatre until July 28 and then Sept 14 to Oct 13.