Returning to the West End as Coward’s mad medium Madame Arcati, Alison Steadman tells Matthew Amer why she is so happy to be back in London.
Alison Steadman is delighted to be starring in Blithe Spirit in the West End. Some of this joy is down to her fellow cast members – who include Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst and Ruthie Henshall – some to Noël Coward’s carefree play, but much is due to the fact that she can happily commute to the Apollo theatre from home each day and return to its familiar comfort each night.
Steadman, who could well be considered a national treasure these days, has had her fill of the mechanics of touring, which is a shame as Coward’s supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit has spent a few months on the road before making its way to London where it opens next week.
“As you get a bit older,” Steadman tells me, her voice bristling with annoyance, “you don’t relish packing cases every week and moving from place to place and staying in hotels or digs or whatever. It just gets really tiring.”
I suspect hotels, in fact, would make it into Steadman’s Room 101; more specifically their incompatibility with a touring actor’s working hours. “Hotels are all geared to everyone getting up at 07:30, 08:00 and going down for their breakfasts, when I am trying to sleep in.” The list of noises that unsettle the actress’s slumber include clunky security locks, heavy fire doors, hotel workers lingering in the corridor – “even if they don’t come in because you’ve put Do Not Disturb, they’re hovering on the landing” – industrial kitchen fridges humming during the night, and one particular guest who was “playing this weird music and appeared at two in the morning in his underpants on the landing”. The greatest amount of anger is saved, however, for fans – the spinning metal kind, not overenthusiastic theatregoers – both in the kitchens and in bathrooms.
“You get to these hotels and they’re so idyllic and so lovely and beautiful and then…” Her sentence is finished not with words, but with a remarkably accurate impression of a whirring fan, an impression fed by hours of listening to them through paper-thin hotel walls. “I have a fan in my shower that is set to go off ten seconds after you come out. I don’t care about the steam.”
Appearing in Blithe Spirit and living at home might well be the ultimate antidote to the tension of touring. No noisy fans, no rattling trolleys, no raucous laughter in the middle of the night, and a piece of theatre written during the Second World War “just to cheer everybody up. It’s a great thing to do, write something just to give everyone a good laugh. I guess that’s what we all need as well at the moment. People can just come along and have a laugh.”
“I find the idea of séances where people seriously believe this a bit spooky and a bit scary”
Of course, Steadman has to work slightly harder than audiences as she has to perform, and in a role – Madame Arcati – that has been played by many a talented actress, including, in the 1945 film, a memorable Margaret Rutherford. “I’ve never seen the movie,” Steadman says, “and I’ve never seen anyone else play it, so everything I’m doing is mine and hopefully people will enjoy it.”
Somewhat appropriately for an actress playing a medium, Steadman has said in the past that she knows she wants to play a character when she hears their voice while she is reading the script. “That always means I’ve got a very good chance of wanting to play it,” she laughs.
With Madame Arcati, the clipped 1940s accent jumped straight off the page and into Steadman’s mind. Though she has delved a little into the mystical world of mediums, not through a crystal ball, but instead through internet video site YouTube – “a bit of fake ectoplasm and all that stuff” – she didn’t take the research too seriously: “I wasn’t going to go as far as attending a séance with some weird woman levitating tables. I just didn’t fancy that at all. I actually find the idea of séances where people seriously believe this a bit spooky and a bit scary and I didn’t want to go there. Coward wrote this as a light-hearted piece for a bit of a laugh, so I thought I don’t need to go that far and frighten myself.”
To many, Steadman will always be linked with one role, that of Beverly, the dominating hostess in Mike Leigh’s seminal play Abigail’s Party. For a younger generation, though, she is undoubtedly Pamela, the Essex housewife and mother of Gavin in the hit BBC sitcom Gavin And Stacey which came to an end last year after three successful series. The writers, Ruth Jones and James Corden, chose to leave the multi award-winning sitcom on a high. With so many modern sitcoms failing to hit the mark – it is hard to think of another that has been so widely acclaimed and loved – what is it, I wonder, that made Gavin And Stacey different?
“It had warmth,” Steadman answers, “and it was the kind of show that a nine-year-old could watch and a 90-year-old could watch and both would get something out of it. It went right across the board. There aren’t many comedies that do that.”
Though the writing team have consistently said that this is the end for Gavin, Stacey, Pamela, Uncle Bryn and Nessa, the public clamour for their return has yet to die down. Steadman, for one, won’t rule it out.
“The higher you go, the bigger the drop”
She is, however, pragmatic about the industry. Gavin And Stacey was a job. It came to an end and she moved on. She takes the same pragmatic approach to the differing spheres of film, television and theatre.
Though Brenda Blethyn was Oscar-nominated for her performance in the movie adaptation of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice in 1998, it was Steadman who first created the role of alcoholic mother Mari in the 1992 stage premiere of Jim Cartwright’s play at the National Theatre. “I never got asked to do the film,” says Steadman. “That’s fine. The film world is a different world to theatre. They got Brenda Blethyn, who had been nominated for an Oscar, so you’re not in the frame. It doesn’t matter how good or bad you are in the part, you’re not in the frame, you have to accept that. It was my part for when I played it. Now it’s her part. That’s the way it goes…”
She did, though, relish her time in the show and, as she recollects the play, runs off into an anecdote about an audience member with a particularly obnoxious laugh who wouldn’t let her begin an emotional speech. Though I only chat to her for 30 minutes, this seems quite typical of the actress, wandering off into tales and stories as though they were intricate corners of an elaborate maze.
As the Olivier Awards with MasterCard are on the horizon, it would be remiss not to ask Steadman about her experience of London theatre’s most prestigious prize-giving, at which both she and fellow Little Voice cast member Jane Horrocks were nominated in the same category. “I said to her ‘If you win, I will make sure I have got an aisle seat and as you’re walking forward I’ll just put my foot out.’ She said ‘If you win, as you’re walking up to the stage you will hear a door slam at the back of the theatre and that will be me leaving,’” Steadman laughs. “We were both so chuffed to be nominated. I was genuinely surprised when I won. I had no notion at all. I’ve got my award and I’m very, very proud of it, very proud indeed.”
When the BBC aired The Many Faces Of Alison Steadman on Christmas Eve, it only served to underline exactly the esteem in which the experienced actress is held. Though I suspect she doesn’t take the attention too seriously – “it’s nice to have it happen when you’re still alive, so you can appreciate it” – she admits having a programme made about her was “obviously, very flattering”.
Yet there is not a chance that Steadman will be resting on her laurels any time soon. Any theatregoers making the trip into London to see her in Blithe Spirit may rest assured that she is still giving 100%: “Any actor will tell you that every part that you take on, no matter what it is, is a challenge. Believe me, the higher you go, the bigger the drop. People are very ready to say ‘Did you see her in that? She wasn’t very good in that. I didn’t like her in that, did you?’ That is in the nature of the way things are. I’m touching wood now, that hasn’t happened to me, but every part is a challenge and it’s a new venture so you can never, as an actor, sit back and say ‘I can do this’ because, guaranteed, once you start getting complacent and giving yourself a pat on the back, that’s when you’ll come unstuck. So I’m quite apprehensive about going into the West End. I’m looking forward to it, but there’s a bit of me that’s got to summon up my courage and say ‘Yes, I can do it’ and really give it a go, because you can’t guarantee anything in this world, you’ve always got to be working and on the front foot. You can never take it easy.”
After a tough day at the theatre I am sure she will be delighted to collapse on her own bed.