20 Questions With...Alison Steadman
Date: 7 October 2002
Actress Alison Steadman, now starring in The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband, talks about good nutrition, finding focus in the West End, life post-Abigail's Party & how she feels watching another Beverly in the current revival.
Actress Alison Steadman is well aware that she is still best known for the multi award-winning Abigail's Party. The role of excruciating hostess Beverly, which she helped to create with her director-husband Mike Leigh, is now a comedy classic.
But 25 years on, Steadman doesn't feel possessive of the part, and she certainly isn't dwelling on it. Since Abigail's Party premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1977 - and became legendary after its television airing as the BBC's Play for Today - she has continued to work on television, film and radio, while also returning regularly to her first love, theatre.
Steadman's post-Beverly stage credits have included Joking Apart, Kafka's Dick, Maydays, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, When We Are Married, Marvin's Room, The Provok'd Wife, Entertaining Mr Sloane, The Memory of Water and the premiere production of Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, in which she co-starred with Jane Horrocks and Pete Postlethwaite.
On film and television, Steadman has featured in the likes of Fat Friends, Let Them Eat Cake, Pride and Prejudice, Virtuoso, The Singing Detective, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Chunky Monkey, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Shirley Valentine and Leigh's Life Is Sweet and Topsy Turvy.
Steadman is currently back in the West End, starring with Michael Attwell and Daisy Donovan in Debbie Isitt's gastronomic black comedy The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband at the New Ambassadors theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born 26 August 1946 in Liverpool.
Lives now in...
Highgate, north London.
First big break
I don't think there's any doubt that it was Abigail's Party in 1977. You do a lot of work and suddenly you do something that catches the public imagination and everything changes. Still now, people stop me in the street and say 'Aren't you Beverly?'.
How do you like being associated so much with one role, 25 years on?
I don't mind it at all really. You go through a cycle of things. I've done a lot of work since and people recognise me for other things, too, but I don't think I can top Abigail's Party really and I've stopped trying. It would be terrible if I hadn't worked over the years and had just sat at home twiddling my thumbs. But I am still working and I am still doing nice things so I'm happy.
What did you think of Hampstead's current revival of Abigail's Party?
I enjoyed it very much. It's very true to the play, but I also thought the company were all doing their own thing. It is odd to see someone else tackle Beverly, but it's not my role, I don't own it. Yes, I had an important part in creating it but, in the end, it's there for anyone to do.
What do you consider your other career highlights to date?
I've done quite a lot of TV; of that work, Pride & Prejudice was a highlight. On stage, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice meant a lot to me. The play was written by Jim Cartwright but very much developed with the actors over the six weeks we spent getting the play on. It was a huge success and very enjoyable to be in. I also got an OBE and that was very nice.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Eighteen months ago, I was in a revival of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Arts. I loved doing that. It was a smashing part and a terrific challenge. Also Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water at the Vaudeville. Another really good part in a very very good play. Sometimes you think you can't wait for a run to finish because you're so exhausted, but with both of those I was very sad when they closed. It was the same with Little Voice. You get a lump in your throat at the end of shows like that.
Jim Broadbent is top of the list. I've done a film, two TV series and a stage play with him. The play was Alan Bennett's Kafka's Dick. Jim was such great fun. He's a very gentle, kind man and a very funny comic actor. It's nice to be around people like that - you think a bit of what they have might brush off on you.
I'm really enjoying working with Debbie Isitt, who's also written The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband. She's very understanding. Some directors don't understand the hell that you go through as an actor, but Debbie has acted herself so she does. There's a huge difference between those people who've actually experienced what it's like to go on stage and those who haven't. Those who have are much more sympathetic to the process and recognise how insecure you get going through it. Actors are all hothouse flowers, one cold wind and that's it. I'm too old to work with bullying directors.
Alan Bennett is high on the list. Most of the plays I've been in it's because I admire the author's work. Isitt again, for instance. She has such an understanding of human beings and how we feel and such a comic style.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I never know the answer to that question. I don't know what I want to do until the thing happens. When I read a script, I know within the first five pages if it's going to be for me or not - I can hear the voice. And if I can't hear it, that means I don't want to do it.
With all your film & TV work, why do you like coming back to theatre?
I love the theatre. It's my favourite thing of all. I enjoy filming and doing TV, and adore doing radio and voices for animation. But theatre is the reason I wanted to be an actor in the first play: to entertain a live audience, to hear them respond, to get to know what they like and don't like. You have to use all your skills on stage. I also love the atmosphere in the West End - the whole convivial feel, it gives you a focus in your life. You know what you're doing, and who and where you are. For a short burst, it gives you a sense of security. The rest of the time as an actor, everything's changing all the time, you hardly know what you're going to do from one week to the next.
Favourite West End after-show haunt
I like Joe Allen's. It's very lively, but there's no pressure to dress up and you always feel at home there. You get to see people in other shows and, because it's open until 2.00am, there's no one rushing you out of your seat. It's a very nice place to go as an actor.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
A Prayer for Owen Meany (as part of the National's Transformation season). It was done with such skill and style. And I loved the redesign of the Lyttelton. It was good to have the seats raked towards the stage, although the seats were very uncomfortable.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give more help to students. They have a terrible time trying to get enough money to go to drama school. They write to me begging for money; I can't give everyone money, that's crazy. But we've got to try to help them somehow, especially those who've proven they're serious about what they do.
I have a lot of favourites, but I can't pick one out. I quite enjoyed Ian McEwan's last one, Atonement, and I like Sebastian Faulks.
Favourite holiday destinations
I've just been to Connemara in Ireland. It's a beautiful place with lovely people and good Guinness.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Some sort of artistic job. I like model-making. I could see myself making silly things, or painting.
Why did you want your part in The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband?
I think the play's just so fresh and different. It's very moving and has a huge heart in the middle of it. For instance, the husband isn't painted as this completely horrible man (for leaving his wife for a younger woman). The fact is these things all the time in real live and not everyone's nasty. The play also has great scope for both comedy and for tough acting. It's not long but, for the three actors, it's terribly intense. There's lots of physical stuff - dancing, miming, creating atmosphere. We all have to be on our toes all the time, and we rely on each other very much.
What's your favourite line from The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband?
My opening line: "I first decided to cook my husband on the day he left me."
Are you a good cook yourself? What's your favourite dish?
I'm alright. I quite enjoy cooking, but I'm not this whiz person who can rush home and produce a fantastic meal from nothing. And when I'm busy in rehearsals, anything goes - it's Chinese takeaways. It's better to come round for meal when I'm not working. I love roast dinners, Italian food and fresh vegetables. I'm very fussy about food in that sense. Everything has to be fresh and, if possible, organic - I buy the best food I can afford. I'm not terribly health conscious but it's important to eat well. I feel sorry for kids who just get burgers and pizzas shoved down their throats. Even simple meals should be nutritious.
The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband continues at the West End's New Ambassadors theatre to 30 November 2002, after which it's followed by the transfer of Hampstead Theatre's revival of Abigail's Party.