‘I don’t like playing mothers,’ says Tracy Ann Oberman – the self-styled busiest actress in Britain – when we meet in Finsbury Park ahead of her latest play. She pauses briefly, trying to think of any exceptions to the rule, before delivering her verdict: ‘Mothers are always the weakest parts.’
Given Oberman’s CV, that’s not a statement to be taken lightly. In a two-decade career, the London-born actress has appeared in some 600 radio plays, umpteen West End shows, half-a-dozen RSC productions, as well as guest appearances in just about every long-running BBC drama of the 21st century. That’s without mentioning her spell as Chrissie Watts, the tough-as-nails matriarch of the Queen Vic in Eastenders. With some 218 episodes under her belt (triple the average Walford life expectancy), Oberman’s character, Chrissie Watts, was a critical success: in 2005, having just offed her on-screen husband Dirty Den, she was nominated for two separate soap awards with the word ‘Bitch’ in the title. Oh, and in case you hadn’t guessed, Chrissie was proudly childless.
Oberman admits that her heart sank when she heard the title of this play – Mother of Him. She plays the lead role: Brenda Kapowitz, a suburban Jewish mother catapulted into the spotlight when her teenage son is arrested for one of the worst crimes imaginable. Not just any mother then, but probably the most infamous mother in the world (at least in the play’s fictional universe). And here’s the surprise: Oberman is absolutely loving it. ‘It’s just a fantastic female role,’ she says. ‘A really brilliant observation of a woman in crisis.’
It’s no easy ride of course. In preparation, she’s been up at night reading a memoir by Susan Klebold, whose son Dylan murdered 12 of his classmates in Columbine in 1999. Both the book and play try to capture perhaps the most brutal dilemma of parenting: can you still love your child if they do something dreadful – and what happens to your memories of them from before? One thing that speaks to Oberman is the total shock that her character feels. ‘I’ve had friends whose children have been hospitalised with self-harm or serious eating disorders,’ she says. ‘And like Brenda they didn’t see it coming at all.’
Another central motif in the play is the media blitzkrieg that Brenda experiences. The playwright, Evan Placey, has said the play was partly inspired by the media’s relentless scrutiny of Kate McCann after her daughter, Madeline, disappeared in Portugal in 2007.
While it’s a world away from the events of the play, it’s worth noting that Oberman has her own experiences of being under fire. Over the past four years, she’s been a lead participant in the online wars which have raged around allegations of anti-Semitism and misogyny within the Labour party. Oberman and her close friend Rachel Riley (of Countdown fame) have been relentless campaigners against the trolls only to become – perhaps inevitably – targets for abuse themselves. She recently appeared opposite Lorraine Kelly on ITV where she listed some of regular insults: ‘disgusting Zionist prostitute paid by the Israeli government’, ‘your family didn’t really die in the Holocaust’, ‘Auschwitz was made up’.
For Oberman, it’s deeply personal: ‘Labour is my party,’ she says – more with sadness than entitlement – as she explains how her great-grandparents, who fled the pogroms in 19th century Russia, found a new home within Britain’s burgeoning labour movement. Having quit the party, does she feel the current leadership is beyond redemption? ‘You tell me,’ she says. She’s focusing instead on supporting those who are standing up against the bullying. This year, she launched a podcast, Trolled, in which she interviews other prominent figures – like Gary Lineker and Luciana Berger – about their strategies for handling abuse.
I ask her why she thinks the trolls focus disproportionately on women. ‘They think they can get us to shut up easier,’ she says. ‘And that we’re less likely to fight back.’ A mistake on their part then. But then again Oberman is used to being underestimated: a classics graduate, she came second on Celebrity Mastermind where her special subject was the Imperial Roman Family Augustus to Claudius. ‘John Humphrys couldn’t have been more patronising’, she recalls with a smile. ‘He asked me “Tracy Ann, as a soap star, how do you know so much?” and I said to him, “Well John, when you go to Walford, they don’t remove your brain, you know”.’
We end on an optimistic note: what would her world look like if the trolls magically disappeared? She’d have more time for writing, she says. She’s already written her first three radio plays – a loose trilogy shining a light on the untold stories of Hollywood’s golden age. The most recent, Mrs Robinson, focuses on the making of The Graduate – a film on which she has conflicted feelings. On one hand she sees it as a decidedly Jewish project, helping launch the careers of performers (not just Dustin Hoffman but also Simon and Garfunkel) who had previously been excluded from the mainstream. ‘To take this funny looking man, who had been considered too Jewish looking at screen-tests, and cast him as Ben Braddock, who was meant to be an American jock. That really shook up the casting system,’ she says of Hoffman. But then there’s the sexism: she’s horrified by the fact that Anne Bancroft, who played Mrs Robinson, was only six years older than Hoffman. ‘In some ways that killed her career because people would never get over the fact that she played this older woman,’ she says. Oberman voices Bancroft herself in the play.
Would she ever write a play about trolls? She sniffs slightly at the idea as if to say they’re not worth the time. In any event, she says, she’s already got the idea for her fourth play – and it’s another Hollywood one. The focus will be on the making of Sidney Poitier’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner against the backdrop of race riots in America. Much more interesting than trolls then. I feel slightly silly for asking now. What was that about not underestimating her?
Mother of Him is at the Park Theatre in London until 26 October.