Amanda Abbington on being Beverly in Abigail’s Party and putting on a good party
- Credit: Archant
Best known for Mr Selfridge and Sherlock, the actress is stepping back on stage in Norwich in the iconic role of the hostess-from-hell in a 40th anniversary production.
It is 40 years since Beverly first plied her guests with cheese and pineapple nibbles, alcohol and slow-danced across the shagpile to Donna Summer.
Written and directed by Mike Leigh, Abigail's Party was first staged in 1977, famously being adapted for a BBC Play for Today later the same year. When it was shown for a second time in August 1979, an incredible 16 million people watched.
It firm placed the play — and most notably man-eating bolshie Beverly, the very epitome of the pushy, overbearing hostess of your worst party nightmares, in the public conciousness.
Now marking the 40th anniversary a new production is coming to Norwich Theatre Royal next week and to Cambridge Arts Theatre next month.
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Amanda gives a monstrous interpretation of Beverly, pivoting around the stage in her long white dress and bling jewellery, smoking, drinking and putting down uptight, pretentious husband Lawrence, played by Call the Midwife actor Ben Caplan.
Amanda, 43, is one of TV's most sought-after actresses. Like many she got her break in police drama The Bill, in which she popped up playing various different characters, but her first breakout role came in 1997 in the BBC First World War mini-series Plotlands. Parts in Casualty, Dream Team, Doc Martin, Teachers, Cuffs and a guest role in Coupling, written, of course, by future Sherlock writer Steven Moffat, followed.
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But it was her character Miss Mardle in Mr Selfridge that established her, before Sherlock, as Mary Morstan, the wife of John Watson, played by her then husband Martin Freeman.
What stops Beverly from being a complete monster?
I don't think she's a monster at all. She's just a bit ham-fisted in how she talks to people and how she reacts. She's just not very good in social situations but she thinks she's a genius in social situations and I think that's what is so funny.
Can you relate to her in any way?
I think so, yes. I relate to her sense of humour and I relate to her wanting everybody to have a nice time. I also like her freeness; she loves music and dancing and I get that.
And in what ways is she completely different to you?
I would never speak to people the way she does. She speaks to her husband Laurence really badly and she tells Ange how to wear her lipstick. I would never dream of doing that – I would never dream of telling people what they should be doing. I'm far more likely to just let people get on with it.
Have you rewatched the original TV version with Alison Steadman or have you avoided it?
I used to watch it all the time. When I was at drama school it was one of my favourite things to watch and I've got the DVD. I haven't avoided it – in fact I watched it again recently. I hadn't seen it for years so I wanted to go back to it, not as a reference but just to revisit that period and what it was like. It was really lovely watching it again actually and it really stands the test of time. It's so brilliant and as a stand-alone piece of theatre it's pretty special. Everybody in it is just brilliant.
What do you think makes Mike Leigh such a revered dramatist?
Because he taps into the working class ethic and he taps into human nature and he reveals a lot of stuff about people, which I think is really interesting. He's all about character and relationships and that's fascinating to watch. You feel like you're watching a slice of life and I always think that's far more interesting – people's flaws and interactions. It's an interesting idea and he manages to do it beautifully and easily. The heartbreak, the pathos, the humour and the love in people... He's brilliant at drawing that out.
Having done a lot of TV recently, what are you most looking forward to about being on stage?
[Laughs] Nothing. I'm really nervous about it. I'm terrified. I haven't done it for, like, two years so I'm absolutely dreading it. But I have to do it because I really wanted to do a piece of theatre. It hones your acting muscle and my acting muscle needed a bit of exercise so when this gift of a part came along I thought 'You only live once so you have to be bold and brave and you have to take it on because you're going to be playing Beverly, which is just an amazing role'. It's about taking it, embracing it, running with the fear and anxiety and seeing what happens. But I'm absolutely terrified. How will I conquer the nerves? [Laughs] I might just do it completely drunk, going on stage completely hammered like some of the old actors used to in the 1940s.
Given how nice they are is it hard to be mean to them on stage?
It is, yes. They're so lovely that after each rehearsal I'm like 'I'm really sorry, I'm not like that really'.
What are your house party dos and don'ts?
Good music, a varied selection of drinks and proper food rather than just nibbles. And the host shouldn't get drunk, go upstairs and fall asleep at 10pm, which is what my dad used to do. He'd get so drunk, go upstairs and not come down again. My mum would asking where he was and he'd be upstairs snoring.
Are you a Donna Summer or Demis Roussos fan, like Beverly is in the play? Are they on your playlist?
Donna Summer definitely. I'm not sure about Demis Roussos though. That might be one step too far. He was on my mum's playlist so I remember growing up listening to him.
How are your 70s fashions in the show?
I'm getting a beautiful off-the-shoulder dress made, which I'm very excited about. I do like the 70s era for fashion and I have some 70s stuff that I wear.
Does Norwich Theatre Royal hold any significance for you?
I haven't performed there as I haven't done much regional theatre so this is a whole new adventure, but I really like Norwich. It reminds me of Alan Partridge, which is no bad thing.
Do you have any pre or post-show rituals?
It depends on each job. I don't have a specific thing I do beyond warming up and having a bit of time on my own before the show. Then after the show if I've got people in the audience I'll go and see them, then I'll have a drink with the cast. This cast is amazing. They're so easy and fun and they're a lovely group of people so hopefully we'll hang out together and have a nice time.
• Abigail's Party, Norwich Theatre Royal from March 27-April 1, 7.30pm, 2.30pm March 29/April 1, £28.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk