The many tributes that have been paid to Charlotte Coleman following her untimely death at the age of 33 make it clear that the world has lost an actress of rare talent, natural comedic ability and great charm. While it was perhaps inevitable that news broadcasts focused on the role with which the public most readily identified her – Hugh Grant’s ‘giddy flatmate’ Scarlett in mainstream hit Four Weddings and a Funeral – it is unfortunate that her wider range was not more fully acknowledged.
One aspect of Coleman’s career that has been overlooked is her foray into stage acting in the spring of 1991. A British Television Society Award for her performance as Jess in 1989’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit had not proven to be a guarantee of regular employment; the BBC TV movie Sweet Nothing only came her way the following summer, after which she starred opposite Anne Bancroft in the short-lived ITV sitcom Freddie and Max. This was Coleman’s first experience of performing in front of a live studio audience, and she next opted to appear at London’s Bush Theatre in the opening play of a season by new writers. Drug counsellor Roy MacGregor’s impressive debut Our Own Kind was set on a Bristol housing estate; Coleman took the lead as Lorna, an outgoing teenager whose life is torn apart when her father, Ollie, faces threats and intimidation after witnessing a racial killing.
Coleman joined a formidable cast that included already established names Kevin Whately and Brian Protheroe alongside such emerging talent as Jane Horrocks, Gary Love and Nisha Nayar. Given her lack of formal training (she always maintained that she only began attending Anne Scher’s evening acting class at the age of eight because she regarded herself as too cool to join the Brownies) Coleman might easily have felt intimidated by her colleagues’ pedigrees; her only previous stage experience was a small role in the National Theatre production of Entertaining Strangers, while both RADA graduate Horrocks and Love were fresh from stints with the RSC. However, it was Coleman’s performance as Lorna that won plaudits from the critics. While her natural eccentricity and sense of fun spilled over offstage (audience members arriving early would often be treated to the sight of the elfin Coleman balancing on the ledge of the dressing room window), Coleman’s vulnerability in the Bush’s intimate stage area belied the manic energy of her previous television work. One reviewer, while airing concerns over the strength of Coleman’s voice for the theatre, spotted her potential; ‘Will someone please rescue her from television?’
Our Own Kind ended its four-week run on 27 April 1991, and Coleman enjoyed the experience enough to return in July for Passion at the Bush, an evening of contemporary literature, reading an extract from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. However, as her television and film career gained momentum over the years that followed, no more theatrical excursions were forthcoming. One possible reason for this is that Coleman was not the most physically robust of actresses, and although, in the words of executive television producer Rod Gilchrist, she ‘lit up as soon as the camera was on her’, her often fragile health would not have been up to the rigorous demands of a prolonged stage run. Also, parts such as Lorna only reinforced the popular image of Coleman as a teen waif, and at the age of 23 she was already aware of the pitfalls of playing younger than her years; ‘It can be dangerous. If you are treated like a 16-year-old then you start to behave like one. On a long shoot people start to react to you as though you are the character.’
In later years Coleman yearned to escape the offbeat characters for which she was renowned, and one can only speculate now whether she might have discovered the kind of roles she sought in the theatre. While the testaments of friends and colleagues make it clear that she had yet to realize her full potential, it is fitting that her last major television performance – in the BBC comedy How Do You Want Me – finally enabled her to play ‘someone my own age who is sensible, ordinary and heterosexual!’