ALISON STEADMAN has come a long way since Abigail's Party

PUBLISHED: 11:49 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

There’s more to Highgate actress Alison Steadman’s range than flouncing women like the iconic Bev in Abigail’s Party – as she proves in the role of an elderly woman showing the early signs of dementia. Katie Masters finds out how she got her inspiration Serving up an iconic performance is a double-edged sword for an actor. On the one hand, it puts you firmly on the map. On the other, the part tends to follow you around, evoking constant comparisons. Alison Steadman s iconic performance was as Beverley,

Serving up an iconic performance is a double-edged sword for an actor. On the one hand, it puts you firmly on the map. On the other, the part tends to follow you around, evoking constant comparisons.

Alison Steadman's iconic performance was as Beverley, the excruciating suburban housewife in Mike Leigh's play, Abigail's Party.

"It's always Beverley this, Beverley that, over and over again," Steadman says.

"You can't knock it, but I think it's a shame that any London character I play now is compared to Beverley.

"Just because there's a southern accent or an Essex accent, journalists immediately go back to that. But I try never to repeat things. I try to make every character I play a complete individual."

Luckily it would take some doing to try to compare Steadman's latest role to the flouncing, ash-flicking Bev.

She is starring in Alan Bennett's 1980 play, Enjoy, which opens at the Gielgud on Tuesday.

It's set in 1970s Leeds and Steadman plays an elderly northern housewife, Mam, who's showing early signs of dementia.

But Mam is about to be kicked out of her home by a council intent on demolishing the city's rundown old terraces.

Bennett is feted for his ability to blend comedy with cutting social comment and Enjoy does just that.

On tour, this production received rave reviews - five stars from The Guardian, which described the performances as "just about perfect", while the Telegraph called it "sad, funny and beautifully acted".

"It's great for me now to be doing a part like Mam because it's so different from anything I've played, ever," says Steadman.

"Someone came to see it and said, 'Oh, I didn't think you could play Thora Hird type parts.' Well you know, I can and I am and hopefully I will again in the future."

Steadman sounds faintly defensive for a second when she says that, as though there is a small part of her which may feel underrated, or overlooked, by certain elements of the theatrati.

Her ex-husband Mike Leigh has spoken out in the past, saying people make the mistake of thinking she can only play "overblown, blousy women", a perception that is "preposterous".

But she is one of Britain's best-known character actresses and, while it's true that she's done less work for institutions like the RSC and the National than some of the other big names in her generation, that doesn't bother her. The one thing she does say she'd change if she could, would be her film CV.

"I am always a bit sad - no that's too strong a word - regretful that I haven't had better film parts," she says.

"I've done a couple of nice films, like Life Is Sweet. But some of the films I've done have been rubbish and if I look at my list of films I think, 'Hmmm'."

But most of today's big films are generated by Hollywood - and that's somewhere Steadman would never want to go.

"Why would I want to go to Hollywood? It's an alien place to me, with alien people.

"I worked with a beautiful young actress and she went to Hollywood - honestly she was lovely, lovely figure, lovely face - when she got there they said lose a stone, straightaway.

"What's that? Lose a stone? She was lovely. Now she's got a thing about how she's got to keep really slim. It spoiled her. That's what these experiences can do. No, I'll keep me stone and I'll stay here."

These days 'here' is Highgate, where Steadman lives with her partner, the actor Michael Elwyn.

But she grew up in Liverpool, the youngest of three daughters.

"I've got two older sisters, 10 and 12 years older than me. They were born before the war and I was born in 1946.

"So a lot of my childhood, I was like an only child really. My sisters were out at work and then they got married and moved on.

"I was on my own quite a lot, so I was always making up things and talking to imaginary people. Maybe that's why I became an actress."

She discovered a gift for impersonation early on. One of her first imitations was of her Scottish neighbour. Then, at 15, she joined the local drama group.

"We used to meet every week and do improvisations. I loved that. Playing old people - I could get their body movement and be them. But I was a very poor sight-reader. If I had to read out loud I was very nervous. I used to stammer and stutter over the words. I couldn't see them properly on the page.

"It could have been dyslexia I suppose, but I used to dread being asked to read out loud."

"For as long as 10 or 20 years after I started acting, I couldn't sight read. It was very difficult to audition and very difficult to go to read-throughs.

"I used to rehearse the read-through so I didn't stumble over the words. I've overcome that now. I taught myself how to read. I still have little twinges but I know how to cope with it."

And she's meticulous in her preparation for playing a character.

"I certainly do my research. For Mam, I researched the accent and found a recording of a woman born at the same time as her and listened to the way she spoke.

"I was very careful about costume and the way the wig works. I didn't want it to look in any way cliche northern housewife, I wanted it to be very real.

"And it's been quite nice because quite a few people who are my age and who have seen the play have said, 'Ohmygod - you're just like my mum, you're just like my aunty, you're just like my neighbour - from that period."

Steadman also says that at one point in the play - when Mam is dressed up in her best hat and coat - she looks in the mirror and sees her own mother looking back.

"At first that was a bit upsetting because my mum died 12 years ago, but it's quite comforting in a way, to see that face looking back, quite nice. I didn't look like her when I was younger. I've grown to look more like her."

"I'm 62 now," Steadman says. "I see things in quite a different way. I feel I've entered a new phase, I look back a lot more. I see people argue about petty things and think it's not worth it - there are more important things."

And what makes her happy?

"Spending time with my sons. Walking in Highgate Woods. I can be thrilled to bits just to see a jay landing in a tree, as thrilled to bits as I would be about anything, really."

Very un-Bev.

Alison Steadman stars in Enjoy at London's Gielgud Theatre from next Tuesday until May 2. For tickets, call 0844 4825130.

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