THE invitations are out as Newcastle gets ready to host Abigail’s Party and who wouldn’t want to be there? – even though we know how excruciating it will be.
Mike Leigh’s dark comedy classic, set in seventies suburbia, has proved a once-seen never-forgotten experience for anyone who watched Alison Steadman ply guests with drinks and olives as monstrous party host Beverly.
Steadman first played the 1977 play’s star at London’s Hampstead Theatre in spring that year but it was in recreating the role for TV a few months later that Beverly gained her national status.
From our sofas we watched them on theirs in the BBC’s Play for Today, as the pretentious hostess strives to impress guests with her taste in art and Demis Roussos records, only to see her drinks party disintegrate amid alcohol-fuelled rows into disaster.
Full of social faux-pas and awkward pauses, it’s all toe-curlingly embarrassing. Which is, of course, why we laugh so much.
“We go ‘we are not like that!’ If we were like that, then it wouldn’t be funny!” is actress Hannah Waterman’s take on why Abigail’s Party makes such compulsive, if awkward, viewing.
The former EastEnders actress – also a familiar TV face in Doctors, and New Tricks in which she appears alongside her father, former Minder actor Dennis Waterman – is starring as Beverly in a new production of the play which brings her to Newcastle next week.
And she has poor Beverly, with her aspirations, insecurities and class consciousness, pretty well sussed.
“She’s kind of a wag wannabe,” suggests the 37-year-old, explaining how the play remains relevant today.
“It’s interesting that when I’ve met people after the play, they all say ‘I know a Beverly’!” And that includes herself.
“I have someone in mind when I play her,” she confesses. “My Beverly is inspired by that person!”
Hannah saw Abigail’s Party about 20 years ago but has been keen to avoid seeing it again in case it influenced how she played her role.
“I haven’t re-visited it because I’m a bit of a sponge and I didn’t want to do a poor imitation of Alison Steadman and take on her rhythms and body language, although she was heavily pregnant at the time so her walk and movement were exaggerated.
“My Beverly is a little bit more sexual I suppose; I have a different interpretation.”
The dynamics, which pit her against Martin Marquez as increasingly nasty husband Lawrence, become different too as Beverly further embarrasses her guests by constantly sniping at him while flirting with neighbour’s husband Tony.
Playing opposite Steadman in the original was Tim Stern. “He was a smaller actor,” says Hannah, “so there was comedy around that physical difference.
“Lawrence threatens Beverly with a knife and a very small man threatening a much bigger woman is a visual joke.
“With a much smaller woman and much bigger man, it became a much more threatening dynamic.
“But Martin is still intimidated by me – he plays submissive really well, although there is a dangerous element to it.
“Beverly is not just a monster. This guy is really unpleasant to her and she is fighting back. He is ruining her party.”
She adds: “We experimented in rehearsals playing a more naturalistic style and it wasn’t funny. It needs these big characters and extreme shifts.
“You can get quite big with the characters and get away with it – it’s great fun to play! You really go for it and the audience just love it.”
Just like watching the misery of EastEnders on Christmas Day, she jokes, although the tradition in her family is to play games rather than watch TV so she avoids “at all costs!” the soap in which she played Laura Beale.
When Hannah married her co-star Ricky Groves, who played Garry Hobbs, that and their later split made headlines as did her extreme weight loss and new relationship with actor Huw Higginson, former regular of The Bill and father of her 19-month-old son.
The family lives in Essex and while on tour Hannah has either been commuting back home or they’ve hired cottages or apartments to be together.
Initially, however, motherhood did affect her choice of work.
“For the first 18 months I didn’t do much except TV because that didn’t take me away from him for too long.”
Her north tour dates however will mean the longest she’s been away. “And he’s having tantrums and stuff, testing us both!” she says.
“But myself and my partner take it in turns – it depends on his dad’s work as well – and he’s fine; he’s happy with either of us.”
Recently she was brought back into Doctors, playing a detective inspector, although teaming up with her dad again in the new series of New Tricks was not possible because of Abigail’s Party. “They’re filming that at the moment so it wouldn’t work out for me right now.”
Last time she was in Newcastle she was in the cast of Calendar Girls: “I’m looking forward to coming back.”
Abigail’s Party is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from March 4 to 9. Visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk or call 08448 112 121.