20 Questions With...Elizabeth Berrington
Date: 15 July 2002
Actress Elizabeth Berrington, who returns Mike Leigh's 25th anniversary Abigail's Party to Hampstead this week, talks about improvisation, corpsing, her envy of American actors' training & her non-existent sense of history.
Actress Elizabeth Berrington is no stranger to the work of Mike Leigh. She's worked with the legendary writer and director twice before - on the multi award-winning films Naked and Secrets and Lies - and now she's leading the cast in the 25th anniversary production of the play that first made Leigh's name, Abigail's Party.
Berrington plays naff hostess Beverly, the part originated by Leigh's wife Alison Steadman when the play was devised, using the director's famous improvisational approach, at London's Hampstead Theatre in 1977. The anniversary production, directed by David Grindley with Leigh's blessing, returns to Hampstead this week, the last production mounted in the theatre's home of the past 40 years. After its closure, the theatre will move into a new, purpose-built £15.6 million facility around the corner.
Berrington's other stage credits have included Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club, The Nocky, The Last Waltz, An Ideal Husband, The Country Wife and, most recently, the 20th anniversary production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls on tour and in the West End.
Amongst her additional film and television credits are Quills, Mad Cows, Eight and a Half Women, Onegin, Rescue Me, Bodily Harm, The Grimleys, Let Them Eat Cake and Silent Witness.
Date & place of birth
Born 3 August 1970 in Merseyside.
Lives now in...
Brixton, south London
Webber Douglas Academy
First big break
I don't know that I've really had a break yet, but I suppose if I have, I would say it was working with Mike Leigh for the first time on the film Naked. His process is extraordinary, wonderful and in-depth.
Career highlights to date
Working with Mike again on Secrets and Lies, working with director Philip Kaufman on the film Quills. Lots of other moments. I played a wonderfully wacky character called Clarine in Jonathan Harvey's play Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
The Nocky at the Royal Court and The Country Wife at the Sheffield Crucible. They were both fun and I made great friends, as you often do in theatre, which is lovely.
Una Stubbs. I worked with her on my very first job, a production of An Ideal Husband at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Una is an absolutely gorgeous, genuinely lovely woman, very encouraging and honest. Also, Victoria Hamilton, Claire Rushbrook and many others.
Philip Kaufman and Michael Grandage, who directed The Country Wife. Both have absolute clarity and self-assurance, they know exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it. Their technique is born from years of pain-staking experience. And the message they want to get across is without ego - they're just interested in good work. Mike Leigh's on the list, too, of course. What his impro approach gives you is the luxury of time. With the majority of theatre work, you only have four to five weeks and, in film, you're often working in isolation on your part right up until day of filming. With Mike, you have weeks and months to discover your character, who they are and why they do what they do. It's a wonderful environment to create in.
Shakespeare, Sean O'Casey, Anthony Minghella. Alan Ayckbourn's always great, too. He's good such a gift for character and timing. A lot of individual pieces come to mind that I love, rather than necessarily whole bodies of work. Caryl Churhill's Top Girls is a wonderful play. It was fabulous to be involved in the recent anniversary production of that.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Actors are quite greedy so I'd say anything juicy really. It's more about being given the opportunity - if the opportunity comes along, you embrace it. I'd hate to pre-empt anything.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I really don't know. I was one of those kids who knew what I was going to do before I even had a name for it. I know what could possibly take its place. I did go rock-climbing once, which was quite exciting, such a rush, but it sounds flippant to say that might have been a career! I've never really explored any avenues other than acting.
What was the last stage production you saw that you really enjoyed?
Jesus Hopped the A Train. I saw it both at the Donmar and at the Arts Theatre. That cast were extraordinary, the way each one read and responded to the other actors on stage - it's priceless. I love the way American actors are trained to read and respond in the moment, to be absolutely truthful. In this country, our training for presentation is quite theatrical and unnatural by comparison. It's difficult to put in a nutshell.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Support theatre in schools more, that would be the biggest thing. Young people aren't encouraged to see how magical theatre is. It's a great disservice.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Maybe David Attenborough. Someone who's really explored, whose gone to the furthest corners of the world and then brought their knowledge back for the rest of us. But I think the real secret is to learn to live your own life properly and not wish it away.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Favourite holiday destinations
I've loved India and Thailand when I've visited, but there are so many places I haven't been. I want to go everywhere, anywhere.
Why did you want to accept your role in Abigail's Party in particular?
It was actually offered to me first, which is a lovely thing - that's the first time that's ever happened to me. It's also a challenge to play a part that's got such cult status. I was thrilled to accept.
What are your memories of the original?
I've seen tiny clips of the TV film, though not the whole thing. But the play and performances have still become part of the common dialogue you use as actors. They're real comedy favourites.
How do you feel about working at the Hampstead Theatre where Abigail's Party was first created?
I don't approach the job with a sense of history. You just try to be brave and confident and get on with it. You have to put what's gone before out of your mind, see it as if you're seeing it for the first time. That's the way to go forward.
What's your favourite line from Abigail's Party?
"Oh, I'm sorry Laurence, it's just I can't hear through two brick walls."
What's the funniest or most notable thing that has happened during rehearsals of Abigail's Party?
We've had so much laughing and corpsing. Twice we've had to be sent home early because we couldn't stop laughing. It's just been a brilliant time. The production's got Mike's blessing - which I hope is a good sign - and our director (David Grindley) is very talented and specific. What is unusual with this production is that all of the actors have been chosen purely because of their ability, not because of their status or their previous television or film roles. They're all the right actors for the job. That's so rare. We've got to make the most of it because it'll probably never happen again.
Abigail's Party, a co-production between Hampstead and the Theatre Royal Bath, runs in London from 17 July to 14 September 2002 (previews from 10 July).