No stranger to playing iconic contemporary roles, Jodie Prenger this month returns to the Midlands to star as big and blousy Beverly in Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s voyeuristic look at suburban life in 1970s Britain. We caught up with Jodie to find out how she plans to tackle the role made famous by Alison Steadman...

Will this new staging of Abigail’s Party be true to Mike Leigh’s original, or will it have a contemporary slant?
It’ll be very true to Mike’s vision, and in fact he’s very, very much on board with this production. I’m a huge fan of his, and of Sarah Esdaile, the producer, who’s just fantastic. Her vision for the play is to keep it true. Moving away from that could result in losing some of the little gems that are in this piece. Keeping it in that era makes it jump off the page, it really does. Why change it when it’s so perfect - the text is rich, the era’s rich, the dynamics are there. It’s just fantastic, and I don’t believe there’s any way to take it other than to keep it true to its actual form. 

What does Abigail’s Party tell us about Britain in the mid-1970s?
It was a very aspirational, materialistic time; a time when many questioned their role in society. It was all about what you knew, how you knew it, what you did, how you looked. It was very pre-Thatcher and all about the economic climb - this is what we’ve made ourselves. All of that I find really fascinating.

You were born in the late ’70s, so how much of the play can you relate to?
As a child coming out of the ’70s, the music and the materialistic things I was surrounded by are vividly clear, and being part of this brings back so many memories. My nan and my grandad had just moved from Manchester. Both they and my mum & dad had hotels and did really well for themselves. It was a time of new money and all of the things that Beverly surrounds herself with - the marble table, the marble lighter. I’m like, Oh gosh, my nan had one of them! For me, it’s something I can totally connect with, and I totally understand why Beverly wants these things. They are the showpieces of her life.
The great thing about Mike Leigh’s work is that there are always characters who you can relate to, whether it’s yourself or someone you know. After all, there’s a social climber in everyone - sad but true. Some scenes are awkward to watch because they’re so true. Mike’s writing manages to bring to the forefront the darkest parts of people’s souls.

Is the play relevant to a modern audience?
It’s still very relevant, as it brings to the forefront the dynamics of relationships: the manipulation in couples and the masks that people put on when you first meet them; the wanting to have a good time, and when it doesn’t work out, the unravelling of relationships. We’ve all gone to parties and put on a face when really we just can’t be arsed. The play has a realness that hasn’t changed and won’t change. It’s something that will go on for centuries. If it was set today, you’d have that whole social media thing to contend with. If Beverly had an Instagram account, she’d be there taking pictures of the cheese and pineapple and putting about 10 filters on it. She’d be making out her life was perfect when in reality it was full of cracks.

You’re playing an iconic role made famous by Alison Steadman. How have you approached playing the part? 
Alison created Beverly, because it was all done from improvisation. There are elements that you can’t differ that much from because it’s set in script. Every single one of the characters are so different, and of course there’s going to be a bit of yourself that you bring into the role. I just hope that I do her proud because I really love her. Even when I played Shirley Valentine, it was a role personified by Alison. I don’t mind following her around. I’m having a lovely time. I did actually meet her at the press night of Fat Friends The Musical, and I was very nervous because she’s such an icon.

So what’s your starting point when preparing to play Beverly?
There’s quite a lot of history research that I’ve done. I’ve gone into House of Fraser and watched people working behind the counter. I’ve talked to quite a few of my friends who are stay-at-home ‘ladies of the manor’, as I like to call them. I’ve also done a lot of research into the era, the dynamics of the family and the area where she came from. All of that has been really interesting to do. And Sarah has given us a whole backlog of research homework to do, which I love her for because it’s made both the characters and the text a lot richer.

When you step back out of character, do you ever feel envious of Beverly?
I’m actually quite scared by how much of Beverly is in me. I haven’t admitted that to the director yet, but I do recognise that we have huge amounts in common.

What would you say is the greatest strength of Mike Leigh’s writing, both in general and in Abigail’s Party?

I think it’s the sense of truth. It’s the uneasiness he creates because it’s so raw, and that’s what it is with Abigail’s Party. It resonates. It’s the gritty action scenes of life behind closed doors that you can present to the nation.

You’ve said the play is true to the original, so will we have the pleasure of Demis Roussos?
The music is great and very nostalgic for me. It’s a great soundtrack, much of which I already have on my Spotify.

Beverly is on your bucket list of roles to play. If you could play any other Mike Leigh character, who would you choose?
Vera Drake. Age-wise, it’s a bit of a way off, but that’s what I’d lean towards. Then again, if Mike saw me at six o’clock in the morning, he’d probably have me in for an audition!

Abigail’s Party shows at The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, from Mon 21 to Sat 26 January and then at the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from Mon 18 to Sat 23 February.