Alison Pargeter attracted much public attention in 2002 when her West End debut performance(s) in Alan Ayckbourn’s Damsels in Distress trilogy – comprising GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay - won her the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Newcomer as well as Evening Standard and Theatregoers’ Choice Award nominations.

Pargeter’s other theatre credits - at Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where she has become a popular regular, and elsewhere - have included Season’s Greetings, Sugar Daddies, Whenever, This Is Where We Came In, Secondhand Dreams, Grease, Before the Party, School Girls in Uniform, A Happy End, David Copperfield, Peter Pan the Musical, The Tempest, Out in the Cold and Dinosaur Rock.

On television, Pargeter recently appeared in EastEnders. She has also been seen on TV in Lovesoup, The Bill, Urban Gothic, Crimewatch, Anything’s Possible and Whodunnit.

Pargeter now takes the title role, starring alongside Lock Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsNick Moran, in the UK premiere of Off-Broadway hit play The Countess which, after initial dates at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, has transferred to the West End's Criterion Theatre, where it opens this week.

Date & place of birth
I was born in Oxford, quite a while ago! My age is irrelevant. The oldest I’ve played is usually younger than I am! But the day is 31 May.

Lives now in...
I’ve lived in Greenwich (south London) now for about three years, but I’ve lived in London for ten years. I grew up in Oxford – my parents and sister are still there. I came to London first to go to Mountview drama school and have stayed ever since.

When did you first discover acting?
I was ten. I was always bullied badly at school. The school play that year was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and they needed someone to play Joseph. None of the boys wanted to be in it. So I did it. Suddenly I stopped being bullied, and had people coming up to me in the playground and giving me crisps. I felt the safest I’ve ever been on that stage with 400 parents watching me!

First big break
My big break I guess was meeting Alan Ayckbourn. I had worked before that and was working and paying rent doing acting, so as far as I was concerned I was being successful. I was at a point where casting directors knew me, but I didn’t have any profile. Then I met Alan to understudy for House and Garden at the National four or five years ago, and it changed my life. I had been touring in the musical Grease for a year. I asked my agent to do one thing for me that year: I wanted to get seen at the National. Within two weeks, I had a call that I had to audition to understudy in Alan Ayckbourn’s play. I said, “Great, who am I meeting?” They said, “Alan Ayckbourn”. I said, “No, I know it’s by Alan Ayckbourn, but who am I meeting?” They said, “You’re meeting Alan!” I didn’t get the job, but Alan said, “If she can sing, she can be in my next show.” The casting director rang my then-partner, and asked if I could sing, and he went, “Absolutely!” But he was told not to tell me that Alan wanted me. For three months, I thought, “oh, well, there you go.” Then I got the script for Whenever, and was asked to play Emily in the original production in Scarborough.

Career highlights to date
Working with Alan, it has to be doing the Damsels in Distress trilogy in the West End, and getting the Critics’ Circle Award and Evening Standard and Theatregoers’ Choice nominations, and having my parents see me do that. As a child, my dream was to be on stage. I’d done that, my parents were still alive to see me, I was working with an amazing playwright, I was getting incredible reviews, and then to be told that I’d not only been nominated for an award but I’d won one – it was extraordinary! You start thinking about how many shows critics see – and how many actors they see in them. To be nominated, and then to win, was surreal! And then to have the script published with my picture on the cover …. If I don’t do anything else in my life, I have achieved what was the dream in my head. So for the last four years, I have been on air. I love my work, I’m passionate about it and it’s been incredible.

But there’s also been an added pressure since then. With Sugar Daddies (also by Ayckbourn), the next play I did after Damsels, not only did I have all the hype but also I knew that it had been written with me in mind. For the first two weeks, I struggled. I couldn’t find the character. I was thinking, “I’ve got to show them I’m worth what people are saying about me”. I had to prove to the critics that they didn’t make a mistake in choosing me, show the public that they were right in thinking that they wanted to see me again, and prove to myself that I was that person. I told my partner I was struggling. He said, “Ali, you don’t have to prove anything – just serve the play.” That was absolutely right. I went back to it and to Alan, and asked for help. He said, “”ake the laughter out, because you laugh in life all the time. I’ve never known anyone laugh as much as you.” So I did, and suddenly this energy was there. And the character was there, waiting for me.

And now this – going into the West End with my name being the title role. It’s a dream!

What do reviews mean to you – good or bad?
Actors sometimes say they don’t read reviews or that they hate them. I think that’s a lie! What they hate is the power the reviewer has over them. I don’t have a computer to blame if it goes wrong. If you don’t like what you see, or you can’t hear it, or you didn’t believe me, it’s me – and if you write that, and I read that, it does affect me. I have to be able to rise above it, and either take it on board, or say, “I disagree”. But I have to cope with that emotionally. That’s why a lot of actors say they don’t read them. I actually do. But also when you get a great review, you have to temper that, and say, “It’s lovely, and it’s made me feel really nice, but it doesn’t make me who I am.” What that period with Damsels did for me was give me enough outside approval and acknowledgement that I don’t have to scurry for that anymore. I don’t have to prove anything, and I was given that confidence by the people whose business it is to knock us down. It was a really important thing for me.

Favourite productions you've ever worked on
GamePlan from the Damsels trilogy, because of Kelly, the role I was playing – I just fell in love with her. It was, ironically, the easiest of the three plays for me, because she was the closest to me. Rosie was a tour-de-force in FlatSpin and was never off stage, but the play was hard work. It was on my shoulders, and if I had a bad show, it was a bad show. If I had a good show, it was a good one. And RolePlay was great, but it was such an ensemble piece. So if I had to choose, I’d say GamePlan for me was my favourite. And now The Countess - I’ve had a ball working on this.

Favourite co-stars
Bill Champion, who was my co-star in Damsels, has been the best actor I have ever worked opposite. He’s an amazing actor, without ambition, which is why I don’t think people know about him, but he’s one of those extraordinary actors who is never less than truthful. And Rex Garner, who was the 82-year-old I played opposite in Sugar Daddies was wonderful. And Damian O'Hare, who is in The Countess, is great. I have to have a love interest with him, and that can be hard if you don’t believe it. You can busk a lot, but you can’t busk that. You have to be brave, because you have to look at each other with an open heart. Brave actors are those whom you want to be with. He is never anything other than 100% truthful to my face. My dream actor to work with would be Judi Dench. I’d also like to work with Anne-Marie Duff – I saw her do Collected Stories in the West End, and I came out bowled over. I thought, “I’m not even good enough to dress her” – but I’d desperately love to work with her.

Favourite directors
Obviously Alan Ayckbourn. I’ve been lucky with my directors. Margareta Forsythe, who originally ran Greenwich Studio Theatre with her husband Julian who is also an actor, taught me at college. I also worked with her afterwards, and she’s a wonderful lady. I’d love to work with her again.

Favourite playwrights
I’m forever discovering different playwrights. I don’t know enough playwrights or read enough plays. It’s very important to go to the theatre and continually try out stuff. I’m always in second-hand bookshops looking at plays, so I don’t have to spend £10 on them, but only 50p! For me, it’s all about knowledge. I’m not in a position to say who my favourite playwrights are because I haven’t read 700 to choose my top ten from. It’s only a favourite from the ones I’ve read! Alan is a favourite, but only because I’ve worked with him, so what I don’t get when I initially read it, I get because I’ve worked with him. So it’s an unfair comparison. If I was to work with Harold Pinter, I’m sure I would name him. There’s lovely writing in The Countess, but I really wouldn’t be able to say who my favourite writers are.

What roles would you most like to play still?
My childhood fantasy was to play Eva Peron in Evita. And I want to do Juliet before I’m too old. She’s a feisty thing – not a sap who cries, but a brave girl. I want to do roles where people come out and go, “That’s extraordinary!”

If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I don’t think there was a choice. I’ve never thought of anything else. When I was tiny, apparently my mother said the first time I ever mentioned anything was a ballerina. But thank God I didn’t choose that. My figure would have meant I had to be on a starvation diet all my life because I don’t have the physique.

What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
Mum and dad used to take us to see the Gilbert and Sullivan shows at the New Theatre (now the Apollo) in Oxford. Probably The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado were the first I saw when I was nine or ten, and still to this day I love them. But not Ruddigore. I didn’t like that, it scared me, with people coming out of paintings. One of things that had the biggest impacts on me was something called The Dragon’s Trilogy at Riverside Studios. It was seven hours and it was the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen to date. I was still at drama school. More recently, it tends to be physical theatre that has the biggest impact on me. There was something about a year ago in the Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park. It was like a circus and quite magical. I can’t remember what it was called.

What would you advise the government – or the industry – to secure the future of British theatre?
Halve the ticket prices and fill the theatres. You’ll still get your money back – but instead of 30 seats at £40, sell 60 seats at £20. Make it more accessible, and stop reality TV! Bring back theatrical stars. Bring back real actors. Give the public the credit to actually appreciate what’s good – they don’t need a celebrity for no reason. It’s killing the industry and it’s killing children’s dreams. No child wants to be a plumber now, they don’t want to be anything other than famous. That’s hit home to me after doing EastEnders. I suddenly had people carrying my bags for me. And I have people saying to me now, “Have you given up acting?” I did eight weeks in it six months ago, and I still get followed around the shops! Producers have to take more responsibility. But how you can tell them when they’re raking in a fortune from casting someone from Big Brother who everyone wants to see not to do that? It’s killing the theatre. And the West End is Hollywood-led. We’re up against Val Kilmer and David Schwimmer, so our British theatre stars have been bumped down one level. The dilution is going to be crippling soon, and it’s a big, big problem. All I can hope is that reality TV is eating itself – so Celebrity Love Island is now being panned. Even the public are getting a bit of a nasty taste about it.

Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
Theatre is extraordinarily important. It shows you glimpses of other people’s lives that you wouldn’t be allowed to see in real life – it’s too emotional or too powerful. It’s being dangerous. It’s making you believe something. It’s imagination. In a computer world, where books are being left behind somewhat, theatre is the nearest thing to telly with real life. And it’s bridging the gap. For kids, it can get them away from the telly. In my life, the lights go down and you’re surrounded in another world. For me, it’s everything.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
That’s an impossible question! Selfishly, it would have to be someone about to win an Oscar on the day of her Oscar win. Life-wise, it would be someone who has had created extraordinary policies or inventions that might prevent deaths.

Favourite books
I read a lot. My childhood was Enid Blyton, Malcolm Saville and Richard Crompton. My childhood imagination came from reading those Famous Fives and Magnificent Sevens and Just Williams. Then in my early teens I read romantic novels, but now I love Dan Brown. I read all the time. At the moment, I’m into biographies. I’ve just bought John Simpson’s book about his wartime experiences, and another about Arthur Lowe.

Favourite websites
I’m an eBay addict. I buy lots. I think I have 76 purchases to my name so far. I bought my car on eBay . That was my biggest purchase yet. It was worth about £1500 - I got it for £860 and it’s still going. The buzz, the adrenalin was fantastic when I bought it.

Why did you want to accept your part in The Countess?
As a child, my dream role would contain corsets, period drama, angst, emotion, misunderstanding, love, romance – and this script has them all. So it’s a dream part. It’s based on a true story, about John Ruskin, the famous art critic, and his wife Effie, whom I play. It was a cruel marriage – in the sense that we now know it wasn’t consummated. The story goes that he saw her nude for the first time on their wedding night, saw pubic hair and freaked out. Meanwhile, he became patron of John Everett Millais, a genius artist and founder of the Pre-Raphaelites. The play is set around the period when Millias is invited to paint Ruskin’s portrait, and they go to this cottage in the Scottish highlands. The story revolves around how Millais falls wildly in love with Effie and is witness to the cruelty in the marriage. She falls in love with him, too, but is in the desperate situation of not being able to act on it. She finally has a breakdown and then finds the courage to leave. The only reason she was saved socially is that it could be proved she was still a virgin, and Ruskin didn’t contest it so the marriage was annulled. She then married Millais, and they had eight children. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story and incredibly passionate.

How different do you find West End audiences to regional audiences?
There is sometimes a difference in the audience on tours. Actors often say they had a bad audience at a particular performance, but I’m at a point now where I never judge the audience. I would sometimes like more reaction, but that’s my own insecurity. With a comedy, you can gauge. But a lot of the time in The Countess there’s silence because they’re listening. For me, the big judge is how many coughs and sneezes there are, and bearing in mind the age of some of the audience, how often they unwrap their sweets. So as far as I’m concerned, this play has been very successful. In Guildford, where the theatregoing audience tends to be middle-aged and middle-class, we’ve had very quiet and attentive audiences. You could hear intakes of breath.

There’s a huge difference between doing Alan Ayckbourn’s work in Scarborough and the West End. Because he’s part of their existence up there, there’s a huge cross-section of people who go that is much more diverse than the West End. I have neighbours near me in Greenwich who never go to the theatre. But in Scarborough, there’s a real cross-class thing which is wonderful and what theatre should be. And a West End audience can be a much more critical audience, because they’ve paid a lot more – some of them have paid £40 for their ticket, so they expect more.

What's your favourite line from The Countess?
There are two: when Millais says to Effie, “When I’m near you, I swear I feel the breath of God upon me”. And again later, “Everything is altered now and I feel half-mad all the time”.

What’s the funniest thing that’s in the run to date of The Countess?
Yes, lots! We’ve laughed more than we’ve ever laughed. But it probably wouldn’t be funny to anybody else. I have to do a Scottish accent, and I’ve been writing things phonetically to remember how to say things, but there’s one line I get to that I can’t get through without laughing now. We also have to draw on stage. Our drawings are appalling. We have to say, “that’s extraordinary!” while trying not to show how awful they are.

What are your plans for the future?
To keep working hopefully, and to keep paying my rent through acting. That to me is success. There’s no build at the moment. There’s never been certainty in acting, but there’s even less now because so many fantastic actors are available. You just have to hope that someone sees you, and you’re there at the moment they’re looking at the name of a character. If I don’t have an acting job straight away, I want to be able to keep my confidence up, so when it does come up, I’m ready for it. It’s tough. But that’s what acting is.

- Alison Pargeter was speaking to Mark Shenton

The Countess opens on 7 June 2005 (previews from 2 June) at the West End's Criterion Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 17 September 2005.