“It got poor reviews in the West End and only lasted six weeks, but Alan was surely ahead of his time. What he was saying then has now come to be.” Alison Steadman is telling me about Alan Bennett’s rarely seen 1980 play Enjoy, which apart from its social comment, contains one of the funniest scenes Bennett has ever written, involving two elderly ladies laying out a dead man’s body which has an erection that refuses to give up the ghost. It’s farce spiralling into penile dementia.
But first time round, this surreal comedy about ageing married couple Connie (“Mam”) and Wilf Craven (played by David Troughton) still clinging to the remnants of working class life in the last back-to-back in Leeds while the neighbourhood around them is bulldozed, was a flop – an unexpected lurch into failure for Bennett after his previous stage successes, including Forty Years On and The Old Country.
Fewer words to endure
Perhaps it’s Enjoy’s quirkiness that didn’t gel with audiences in 1980, suggests Steadman, who didn’t see the original production (with Joan Plowright as Mam). By then Steadman was enjoying her own runaway success as monstrous Beverley in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party and starring in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart at the Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud and home to the new production of Enjoy). The critics simply couldn’t fathom Enjoy’s final scene, in which the family home gets carted off lock stock and barrel to a theme park museum. And what were audiences to make of Mam and Wilf’s prostitute daughter who waltzes in to announce that she’s marrying a Saudi Prince? Or their long lost gay son turning up in drag as ‘Miss Craig’, silently observing his parents’ lifestyle for a government survey?
“It’s certainly not a cosy Alan Bennett. On our pre-West End tour, Miss Craig entered one night and we heard some guy in the front row suddenly go ‘spooooky’,” Steadman chuckles. “Being Alan it’s very funny, but it’s also this very strange, very moving play, like nothing you’ve seen before.”
The original production was also very wordy (Bennett himself has said that the title was misleading and that Endure would suit it better), unlike the tightly constructed Kafka’s Dick, Bennett’s 1986 Royal Court follow-up to Enjoy, in which Steadman co-starred. “With Alan’s permission we’ve cut Enjoy considerably and that’s allowed a really strong play to emerge. Even he admits it was dialogue-heavy.”
From Beverley to Pammy
We’re talking over coffee at a north London restaurant near Steadman’s home. Not surprisingly she’s celebrity-spotted the moment she breezes in, looking fresh-air fit after a brisk walk despite a chesty cold caught on the 12-week tour of Enjoy. These days young people probably don’t give her a second glance as infamous Beverly from Abigail’s Party, the snotty suburban hostess with the mostest, who famously handed out cheesy nibbles to the sound of Demis Roussos) and the star turn in the parade of loud, over-the-top characters she’s created over the decades on both stage and television – most memorably the mother in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, for which she won a Best Actress Olivier in 1993.
The parade hasn’t passed her by, however, and thanks to the power of sit-coms, Steadman’s more likely to turn heads because she’s now best-known as Pammy, Gavin’s mum in Gavin and Stacey, a gem of a role specially written for her by her former Fat Friends co-stars Ruth French and James Corden (another Bennett graduate, from The History Boys).
Steadman goes from chuckle to laugh out loud when I remind her how, on the tour of Enjoy, the local media invariably referred to her as “Gavin and Stacey star”. “I know. Does that mean I’ve spent 40 years doing nothing else! Still, in this day and age sadly that’s the kind of thing that sells tickets, which is fine, although slightly annoying.”
Even so, she clearly relishes working with the rising stars of comedy. “I had no idea they were writing the part for me. Rather nervously, they sent me episode one and I could see the potential for the character so I immediately said yes, count me in. That was it. I love old Pammy. She’s not as upwardly mobile as Beverly was, but material things are very important to her. She’s full of fun, a good laugh.
Coincidentally, Gavin himself (Mathew Horne) will be appearing elsewhere in the West End, playing Sloane in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, with Imelda Staunton as the sexually voracious Kath, a role played by Steadman with all her vulgarity stops pulled out in Terry Johnston’s 2001 revival at the Arts Theatre. “Kath was another great role for me, but as a play, if Orton were still around I’d tell him that Sloane falls down a bit in the third act. That’s why Enjoy is doubly fascinating. It has this dark Ortonesque feel to it.”
A change of direction
The contrast between Kath, Pammy, mutton-dressed-as-lamb Sheila in Simon Mendes da Costa’s Losing Louis (her last West End outing, in 2005) and house-proud Mam in Enjoy couldn’t be more striking. Which is why Steadman jumped at the chance of bringing her to life. “I needed a change of direction. People have got used to me being all being blousy and glammed-up. There’s a limit to how long you can go on doing that. I thought, well I’m 62 now and I’d better start moving into a slightly different area. Mam has been a good leap to take.”
Indeed, she is unrecognisable when she makes her first entrance brandishing a duster and a can of Pledge and wearing a Crimplene housecoat. On tour, she recalls, some fans said they still thought she hadn’t appeared, even though she’d been acting her socks off opposite Troughton’s bullying Wilf for a full 20 minutes. “That thrills me. I like to be in disguise,” she smiles.
Raised in Liverpool before she joined East 15 drama school at the age of 20 and embarked on the inevitable rounds of rep, Steadman says she’s drawn on her own background to flesh out Mam. “I can identify with her, because I remember that period very well. I knew women like Mam who stayed at home as a housewife kept the place like a palace and never really mixed in the world. My own mum used to wear those outfits. It was a uniform. They’d put on a housecoat in the morning then get changed into a nice dress in the afternoon to go shopping. It’s an entire world that’s long gone.”
Interestingly, she finds personal connections between Bennett’s evocation of a working-class world in Leeds teetering on the brink of extinction and Terence Davies’ latest film Of Time and the City, which looks back on his childhood in Liverpool in the 1950s and 1960s. “In cities like Leeds and Liverpool they flattened entire neighbourhoods which had been communities for generations. Even places in Liverpool that I remember as a kid have gone now. Moving the Mams and Wilfs out to high-rise estates was all very well, but it ain’t half lonely up there.”
To round off her portrayal of Mam, Steadman employs an authentic-sounding Leeds accent, which she learned via the web. “You can Google regional accents these days. I found a website and listened to an elderly lady from Leeds born in 1912, about the same time as Mam.”
But technically, she adds, the biggest challenge was getting her lips around Bennett’s dialogue. “It’s impossible to learn, especially the opening of the play when it’s just David and me on stage together for a 40-minutes stretch. Mam has early dementia, so she is forgetting and repeating things all the time. That’s difficult to get right. The easiest dialogue is when somebody says something and it sparks off your reply. But when you’re plucking things out of the air, chatting away and repeating yourself it’s a real challenge. You have to be comma-perfect with what Alan has written – no paraphrasing.”
Steadman smiles. She smiles a lot whenever she warms to a subject and sees the funny side. But her mood alters when I ask her why she doesn’t tackle more straight theatre roles and I recall how good she was back in 1993 as dowdy cancer victim Bessie in the British premiere of Marvin’s Room (“Steadman can rarely have been as touching as she is here,” wrote Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph), or as the unhappy Teresa in Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water at the Vaudeville Theatre ten years ago.
“I’ve tried to play a variety of roles over the years but I don’t really get offered straight roles that much to be honest, specially in stage plays. But then I’ve always been drawn to making people laugh and moving them and making them think, all at the same time.”
Eye on retirement
She’s even more reflective when I ask her if she’d like to be young and starting out in theatre today. “No I wouldn’t. When I left drama school there were lists of theatres around the country, and you wrote to them and got taken on. Now there’s so little theatre to get your teeth into as a beginner – lots of fringe bits and bobs, but it’s not the same. Sadly, there are so many stage schools and courses that you think, ‘what are they preparing these actors for?’ It has to be television.” Now she’s smiling again: “Listen to me, I must be turning into a grumpy old woman?”
So looking ahead, at 62, where does see her career going? “I suppose retirement has crossed my mind. Whenever I get worn out, I wonder how long I can continue working at this rate. I used to think I could never live without acting but there’s part of me now that says I really could.”
What would she do with herself? “Oh, sit making models all day. I’ve always been good at it. I’m a Blue Peter person – give me a cardboard box and a can of paint and I’m off. If I hadn’t gone into acting I’d love to have done animation with models. Hmmm… maybe that’s something I would enjoy.”
- Alison Steadman was speaking to Roger Foss
Enjoy opens at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre on 2 February (previews from 27 January), following a regional tour and 2008 run at the Theatre Royal Bath. An abridged version of this article appears in the February issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out tomorrow in participating theatres. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!