Resplendent in a parrot green dress with a plunging neckline, Elizabeth Berrington is currently to be found swaggering around the stage of the New Ambassadors as Beverley, the gin-guzzling hostess in Abigail’s Party , Mike Leigh’s classic satire about the attitudes of the well-to-do in pre-Thatcherite England. Tom Bowtell caught up with her to find out how the West End run of the show is going after transferring from its spiritual home at the Hampstead Theatre.
Premiering in 1977 (before being brought to millions via a television version later that year), Abigail’s Party very much captured the Zeitgeist of English suburbia at the end of the last century. Originally directed by Mike Leigh, the play is packed with the character observation, situational realism and wry humour that denotes all of his best work. It was devised using the techniques Leigh has made his own, with the actors developing their characters through a series of improvised scenes. The show was first performed at the Hampstead Theatre where it returned in 2002 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. But are audiences still finding it relevant (and amusing)? According to Berrington, the answer is yes: “the show continues to be very well received, as it was in Hampstead. People have been enjoying it from the outset, which is obviously good news.”
"We thought that after 25 years, it was time to look at it afresh"
For many of those who saw the original television broadcast of the play, Abigail’s Party will always be associated with its original cast members, Alison Steadman in particular, so how has the new cast made the show their own? “Shows are always going to be different when you have different actors and personalities involved, but what everybody felt we didn’t need to do at the start of the rehearsal period was manufacture – or attempt to manufacture – carbon copies of what had gone before. The original cast had explored all those avenues and although the play was always so popular, and all of those characters so loved and adored, they’ve really been done to death, with every am-dram and rep company across the country rolling out the same old Abigail’s Party from time to time. We thought that for the 25th anniversary it was time to look at it afresh.”
Freed from Beverley's clothes, Berrington looks rather classier… Although he is not directing this revival (that honour falls to David Grindley), Mike Leigh himself has been on hand to lend advice, and according to Berrington, his judgement hasn’t been clouded by any nostalgic ideas about how the play should be interpreted. “Mike’s been very involved from the beginning, consulting with David Grindley and the producers. One of the nice things for us was that he insisted that the right actors were cast in the parts and they weren’t forced to enlist any soap stars or TV presenters to come in and do the job. He was keen to allow the play to speak for itself really and to evolve.” And is Mr Leigh happy with the end product? “He’s really thrilled, yep.”
Berrington has previously worked with Mike Leigh on Secrets And Lies, his Oscar-winning 1996-film and Naked, a film made in 1993 about a cynical Mancunian’s unwanted arrival in London, and she is thus well qualified to assess his particular type of genius. “The astonishing thing, as an actor, about working on a film project with Mike, is that you have the luxury of time. You can work for six months before you even begin filming just creating your character – there is no other job in film, theatre or television that can offer you that. For a normal job, the best work you do is often for the audition where you go home, learn your lines and somebody says ‘this is your husband, this is your wife’ and you just get on with it. So there’s no real connection with people, but with Mike, you really feel as near as damn it that you’re representing real life.” Berrington’s respect for Leigh and his work is clearly enhanced by his approach to the theatre, and his refusal to use gimmicks to sell his work. “One of the wonderful things about Mike is that he is one of the few directors in this country (I suppose Ken Loach is another) who takes actors who are otherwise unknown, people straight out of drama college. He’s simply interested in your ability and versatility as a performer. As long as you can do the work, then Mike is someone who will support you and stick with you through your career. I don’t know of anyone else who really do that. Everyone else is so… star-struck.”
"With Mike, you feel that you're representing real life"
Mike Leigh "Is simply interested in your abilities, how versatile you are" Having spent months developing the character and “living with her” to some extent, does Berrington feel that there is a lot of herself in Beverley? “Well I’m bossy like her. I like to organize and herd people. But she’s terribly selfish and I don’t think that I am. I like to think I’m quite generous. My bossiness is probably one of my worst traits, but I haven’t caused any sudden heart attacks or anything like that!” And how does she cope with the pressures of being a hostess? Does she take it all in her stride or find solace in the bottle when it’s time for the guests to arrive? “Well I take it all in my stride after everything is out of the oven and it all looks gorgeous and the champagne is flowing…”
Behind all of Berrington’s praise for the depth and scope of Mike Leigh’s methods of producing drama, there is an intriguing subtext, with comments about “star-struck” directors and “the right actors” suggesting that she isn’t a fan of the cult of the celebrity sweeping British theatre. Having tried (and failed) to tease the grievances out of her, I ask her outright if she thinks the influx of big-name stars onto West End stages can be detrimental: “Oh I think -” She starts with alacrity before pausing to summon every last ounce of diplomacy: “what do I think? I just think there should be room there for all of us, actually. And I think that people do an audience a disservice if they think they will only come to see a play if it has famous stars or TV presenters in it.” One gets the feeling that Berrington rarely mingles at the Met Bar. “I mean I’m going to rush to the West End to see Robert De Niro, or Pacino or Meryl Streep in a show. I’d love to see the greats, but this idea that actors cast to do their job properly, discovering a play and making it their own, won’t attract an audience is wrong. Good, well directed plays, will hopefully attract an audience who will enjoy it and tell their friends. Word of mouth and good reviews will sell a show on their own.” Berrington feels that exactly that has happened with Abigail’s Party, “we haven’t disappointed: we’ve come up with the goods.”
"I'd rush to the West End to see Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep"
Berrington does not dismiss American drama out of hand: “I saw Jesus Hopped The A Train at the Donmar and I loved it. I am very excited by the way American actors train, they develop their work in a very different way to our traditional drama school methods. I find the sort of realism they achieved with that [Jesus Hopped The A-Train] really thrilling. So there you see, to have actors like that coming into the West End is really good for British Theatre – but you have to draw a line somewhere.” To some extent, Berrington herself is a film actress gracing the West End. As well as her work with Mike Leigh she has also starred in Sarah Sugarman’s Mad Cows and played Charlotte, the vicious maid in Phillip Kaufman’s Quills. “Working on Quills was really unusual for a big-budget movie. Philip’s son was the producer and on set they really like it to be like a big family. We got time to rehearse before we went on set, which is rare, and on our first visit to Pinewood we were introduced to the carpenters, set builders and the production team. I love all that marquis malarkey and the Kaufman’s created an amazing atmosphere, so we all adored the project.”
"I love all that Marquis malarkey"
Berrington admits that while she loves the theatre and its “exhausting physical exertions” she finds cinema the most challenging of the acting disciplines and, in an effort to push herself as far as possible, would like to experiment further with her screen roles. For now though, it's back to snacks-on-sticks, adulterous dances and endless G and Ts (with the occasional performance of Abigail’s Party squeezed in where she can…)