By David Hennessy
Acclaimed for her astonishing performance in Frank McGuinness’ The Match Box, a role she was nominated for a Theatre UK award for, Leanne Best was recently introduced into the Ripper Street cast in an episode with a storyline connected to the London matchgirls strike of 1988. “A little bit of Matchstick lady action, I can’t get away from it,” she laughs with The Irish World.
Leanne plays Jane Cobden, the first woman elected to the London County Council for Bromley and Bow and someone who did much for workers’ rights, women’s rights and rights of the poor at a time when all of these needed addressing: “Jane worked tirelessly her whole life for better working conditions for women especially in the manual labour industry. She was a phenomenal woman and she was a real forerunner of the Suffragette movement and then when the Suffragette movement took off, she was very heavily involved with it. She worked her whole life towards the betterment of those less fortunate than she was.
“Not only was she this socialist and feminist but she really loved the bohemian way of life and she didn’t follow the normal social construct that was set for women, she didn’t conform at all so I did feel an obligation to play her well but I also wanted to make her a real person. I didn’t want to make her just this political person, she’s certainly got a kick in her heel as well as a brain in her head so I wanted to marry those two things. I loved playing her.”
The chemistry between Leanne’s character and Matthew MacFadyen’s Detective Reid in the crime drama set in Victorian London but filmed in Dublin has already been evident: “Reid’s had a bit of a rough time in his personal life and I think that there’s a really interesting relationship there that is built on a like minded ideology, they’re both people working at the sharp end of the system trying to change Whitechapel which was historically such a deprived area and people were so vulnerable. There’s a like mindedness but also they’re also intellectually stimulating towards each other. Whether or not that turns into anything else, we shall see.
“I loved Ripper Street before I was ever seen for it. I’m actually a bit of a history nerd. I’m fascinated with it and I’ve read already quite a few books about Jack the Ripper and there’s some really out there theories (about who he was) and there’s so many of them and I think that’s why he’s endured. Not only is he a historical figure but he’s really endured as this psychological entity in our psyche because he was never found. He was never brought to justice for what he did and I think he’s the construct of the archetypal villain for me which is why I think Ripper Street is so clever, it takes that awful bloody time in London’s history and formulates this amazing drama around it.”
Leanne was born in Liverpool and has family in Dublin. Was it strange to be working in Ireland on a London-set drama? “It didn’t feel strange at all. They had done such a great job with sets and everything, it felt like you were there which is amazing. I love Dublin. I’ve spent a lot of time in Dublin over the years so it was just really nice to go back and be working. Hopefully I’ll work there again. Fingers crossed, you never know.”
Leanne welcomed the new role she was cast in just as she finished playing Sal in The Match Box, a harrowing play that saw Leanne alone onstage for its duration, playing a grieving mother who has lost her daughter, an innocent bystander to gang violence. The emotionally provocative play was lauded first at Everyman Theatre in Liverpool and then at The Tricycle in Kilburn.
“I was really pleased because I was cast in Ripper Street just at the end of the run in London: To be able to go off and do something that was equally as exciting but so different.
Actors often talk about the reaction they get from their work onstage and Leanne was overwhelmed with the response to her portrayal of Sal, a woman who had lost it all: “It broke a boundary between the theatre and what was real because we were all in this experience together. Because Lia (Williams, director) directed it so beautifully and it’s so powerful, people felt like they knew Sal by the time they came out of the room because it was so intense. I think a lot of people who had lost children came to see the play and I had lots of really moving, amazing conversations in the bar and emails from people, a lot of people left me letters at the stage door talking about their experiences of loss and I was just so proud to have been a part of it and really humbled that people who actually live it had taken the time to come and speak to me.
“There was one amazing woman who had lost her son and she waited in the bar for me afterwards and she said ‘I know it sounds silly but I just wanted to make sure you were alright’. I was like: ‘Oh my God, I’m playing it but she’s living it’. But she was so moved by the play and she said ‘that scream at the end of the show, that was my scream’. It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever been given the opportunity to do, I was so honoured.”
There was talk of it having another run beyond London and it seems this could still happen: “They always say never count your chickens until you’re in the dinner queue but I think people had such a response to it as a piece of work that hopefully if the gods are good, it will all line up and we’ll be able to do it again some time.”
Leanne can be seen in some very exciting forthcoming projects and she credits The Match Box’s success with bringing many of these opportunities to her. Leanne is part of a cast for a two-part drama based on the Lord Lucan mystery. She will play Sandra Rivett, the murdered nanny, in a cast that also boasts Christopher Ecclestone, Rory Kinnear and Michael Gambon. She also shares the screen with Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes and Bill Nighy in the third instalment of his Worricker trilogy. Leanne is currently filming Woman in Black: Angel of Death with a cast that also includes Helen McCrory, Ned Dennehy and Jeremy Irvine: “It’s been a really busy time. I always feel The Match Box was a gift as an actor but doing the show in London gave the opportunity for people who have maybe not seen me before to come along and a lot of the work that has come to me has been a direct result of that play. I’m a very lucky, very grateful girl.”
Ripper Street continues on BBC1, also on iPlayer.