A Jewish nun? It must be Sister Act
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A Jewish nun? It must be Sister Act

Lesley Joseph tells Brigit Grant all about her new 'habit'

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

“What a feast to go on such pearl…
Would a convent take a Jewish girl?”

Barbra Streisand was just joking when she sang these Bob Merrill lyrics in Funny Girl, but Lesley Joseph has made them a reality. Though it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely than the adulterous Dorien Green donning the garb of a bride of Christ, Lesley has acquired the habit to play a nun in the musical, Sister Act which opens on July 21.

Of course no one would expect the former vixen of Chigwell, renowned for her push-ups and put-downs to take vows of chastity and obedience to play a lowly novice. So as expected Lesley has climbed the piety pole to land the top job of Mother Superior in the Alan Menken hit show. “But only when we get on the road and I take over from Jennifer(Saunders),” she Lesley referencing the national tour. “Until then I’m Sister Mary Lazarus who runs the choir.”

So that’s two significant roles within the Holy Order of the Little Sisters of Our Mother of Perpetual Faith. Might the actress have felt a spiritual calling to vespers?

“Not at all. I haven’t relapsed. I haven’t converted. I’m just an actor, an actress playing a part. It’s not who I am. I am the granddaughter of Abraham Mundy who ran the Jews Temporary Shelter in the East End and the great granddaughter of Rabbi Chaim Zundel Maccoby from Russia who came over here and brought the East End to a standstill he was such a powerful speaker. As an actress, you play all sorts of parts. It doesn’t mean you take the religion in it seriously.”

Heaven forbid, albeit unlikely as according to Lesley “there isn’t a deep book about the characters. They emerge in the songs.”

Sister Act in rehearsal

Regardless, rehearsals only started in June, so there was no time for nun motivation, as there were lines to be learned and routines to memorise.

“It’s been very full on, I must say,” whispers Lesley who was saving her voice. “My voice is very tired, so excuse me for not talking loudly. But there’s a lot to learn. A lot of movement. And I’m not the youngest spring chicken anymore.”

This is true as the actress, now 76 is about to take to the boards with Jennifer Saunders who is 63, the not yet 50 Beverley Knight, and numerous other agile much younger Sisters. But this is Lesley Joseph, the woman who set the Strictly dance floor alight when she was paired with Anton Du Beke in 2016. This is the Birds of a Feather star who at 73 put on hiking boots for BBC2’s Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome and walked the 2,000km Via Francigena. Surely nothing, particularly a shuffle, ball, change is beyond this tiny thesp?

“I’m not a dancer. I started ballet when I was four and I should have kept it up. But you never know the direction your career is going to go in.I wanted to be a serious actor. I wanted to do Chekhov and Shakespeare, but when I left drama school, we had to fill in forms which asked: ‘would you ever do a commercial? To which I said absolutely not. Then suddenly, you’re two years down the line and you’d kill to do a commercial, because that would give you the money to go to the other side and do all the things you want to do. You just don’t know the business until you get into it.”

Lesley credits Marks and Gran’s Birds of a Feather for her career’s longevity. “We did 140 episodes over a period of 33 years and I think that gave me enough of a platform to keep me going for the rest of my life, because it’s always being shown somewhere and people loved Dorien. It’s also meant I can do serious stuff, quiz shows and last year Linda (Robson who played Tracey) and I did Coach Trip last year, which if they’d asked me to  when I came out of drama school, I would have said, absolutely not. But we had an absolute ball.”

Lesley as Dorien Green in Birds of a Feather

For Dorien, much like Sister Mary Lazarus and the Mother Superior, Lesley wasn’t too interested in the back story. “Dorien was born out of the long nails, the short skirts, the high heels, jewellery and makeup. Once I got all that it didn’t  matter where she came from, because it gave me the way to move and behave. The one thing I insisted on was Dorien wouldn’t be a Jewish stereotype. I wanted her to be a real person. who had ups and downs and feelings and all of that. So when I got invited to talk to Jewish Ladies Guilds, I knew I’d been accepted.” Lesley had yet to try on her habit before we met, but was confident it would inspire, in the same way the tight bun and corset gave her a feeling for Frau Blucher in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. But it wasn’t the costume that got her an Olivier award nomination or the video from Mel to say thank you. “I’ve still got it, obviously, but he said: ‘Lesley, you are the best Frau Blucher, I’ve ever had and I won’t tell Cloris Leachman. He ended it saying: ‘I love you. Doesn’t mean I want to marry you. But I love you.’ Whatever would Mother Superior say?

Lesley with Mel Brooks in Young Frankenstein

 

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