A few weeks ago, in Marks & Spencer, Alison Steadman was stopped by a teenage girl. "Sorry to disturb you," she said, "but I wondered if you could say hello to my little brother?" Steadman, ever the pro, ever the gracious pro, bent down to the little boy and asked if he was a Gavin and Stacey fan. "Oh no," said his sister, since her brother was too awed to speak, "Nuts in May."
Nuts in May, for those too young to remember it, was first screened in 1976. One of the first TV plays made by Steadman's ex-husband Mike Leigh, it chronicles, in excruciating detail, the highs and lows (but mostly lows) of a camping trip in Dorset. It's almost as excruciating as Abigail's Party, the Mike Leigh play that made Steadman a household name and which, more than 30 years on, continues to garner requests for "that voice" and hilarious allusions to cheesy pineapple sticks. Almost, but not quite. Both, it's fair to say, are unlikely fodder for a nine-year old. "He was the most gorgeous little boy," says Steadman. "I asked him if he'd been to Dorset and he said, 'Yes, we've been to Corfe Castle, and we've been everywhere that Keith and Candice Marie went.'"
In the same way that Nuts in May and Abigail's Party are archetypal Mike Leigh, this little encounter has the ring of Alison Steadman truth. It's M&S, for a start. Solid, mumsy, reassuringly ordinary. Steadman, the nation's favourite Essex housewife, pausing mid-shop, pausing even though she's stopped all the time, to be kind. Steadman, like the big-hearted, big women she plays (when she's not doing monsters), like the mother in Life Is Sweet, in fact, making an effort to bring a quiet child out of himself. And then the wild card. A lovely, shiny, reward. Not hysterical Beverly from Abigail's Party, not sweet-hearted Pam from Gavin and Stacey, not Betty from Fat Friends or Mrs Bennet from the Pride and Prejudice (the one with the wet shirt) of all Pride and Prejudices. No; timid, repressed, painfully neurotic Candice Marie. A life come full circle. An early work immortalised in the life, and holidays, of a nine-year-old boy. "She wanted to bring him to this," says Steadman, "but I said no, he just wouldn't get it."
"This" is Enjoy, Alan Bennett's play, set in a Leeds back-to-back, about a life, and community, in decline. And about homosexuality. And inarticulacy. And surveillance. And the need of all human beings for a witness. And – well, I'm not entirely sure that I "got it" either. When the play was first performed, in 1980, it was savaged. This production, which opened in Bath last summer, hit the West End of London (with different leads) in January and has now been extended until May, is the first since then. It has had rave reviews, but Bennett hasn't been to see it. I can sort of see why. Even though it was written when he was in his mid-thirties, it feels like a very young man's play. Even in this version, heavily cut by the play's director, Christopher Luscombe, there's way too much going on.
But Luscombe's production is brilliant. Steadman, as "Mam", a bepinnied, beleaguered housewife who's losing her memory, and is about to lose her home, and David Troughton as her bitter, bossy, and now disabled husband, are both superb.
And Steadman – shock, horror! – does not wear too-tight trousers, or flaunt a generous cleavage, or wiggle an ample bottom. She looks squat, sad, ugly – old. It's a shock, actually. It's this thing, the thing that Laurence Olivier suggested to Dustin Hoffman when he was agonising, Method-style, over his role in Marathon Man, called acting.
But it's a relief to see her back to normal, in this chintzy little VIP room at the Gielgud Theatre – bouncy, blonde, animated, gorgeous. Glistening frame of nicely highlighted golden locks. Incredible cheekbones. Enviable (even at 62) skin. Plus plunging neckline, funky trousers, fun necklace, etc. This is the Alison Steadman we know and love. Isn't it? Or could we possibly be confusing her with her characters?
"You can get tired of playing the mutton-dressed-as-lamb parts," sighs Steadman. "I love the part of Mam. I thought this was a great challenge for me and it's something different. I love playing Pam [in Gavin and Stacey], she's a lovely character and we have great fun, but if you talk about a part being one or two steps away, then you could say Mam's 10 steps and Pam would be four steps. When I read parts, I can usually hear the character in my head and if I can't, I worry it's not for me. With Mam, I had a real sense I could hear her voice."
Steadman, in spite of her Essex woman speciality and a speaking voice now that's a kind of near-Estuary Everywoman, grew up in Liverpool, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a housewife. She left school at 16, and was working as a clerical assistant in a probation office when she sneaked off for an audition at the East 15 Acting School in Essex. It was there she met Mike Leigh, her closest collaborator until their separation 14 years ago, the father of her two sons and still, she claims, a close friend. There, too, on social outings to nearby Romford, that she met the women who became the models for immortal, scorned and still-fetishised-by-gay-men Beverly. But her roots are Northern working class. Did that offer anything to draw on?
"Well," she says, "being Northern does help. Certainly, that whole flavour and some of the sayings came as quite a natural thing for me. I was so worried about not getting the accent specific and I didn't want it to be too North Yorkshire or South Yorkshire and on the web I found a recording of a woman who was born around the same time as Mam, so she had the right accent for the period."
Right. So this lovely, relaxed, vivacious woman who just walks on stage or set and plays versions of herself, had to do some work? That acting thing again. A lot of work, in fact, because not only is the role extraordinarily complex and, as Steadman plays it, nuanced and moving, it's also technically extremely demanding. "It's such a massive role, all this dialogue, then Mam forgetting and having to pick things out of the air. It's like learning a jigsaw puzzle backwards." Oh yes, the learning the lines bit. You forget about that. Some of us can't remember our front door keys, or our phone number. But a whole play? Two-and-a-half hours, off by heart?
"It's still difficult," says Steadman, "no matter how long you've been doing it. Hard work, that's how you do it, and you have to have a plan of action. I've had a few tearful moments when I threw the script on the floor and thought I can't learn it, so I'd have a cup of tea, take a deep breath and go for a walk."
Uninterrupted? Or is the world, metaphorically, a giant M&S? "If you're in central London," she says, "people aren't British anyway, generally, and they don't watch telly, so that's not a problem. The odd occasion you hear your name mentioned. There was only one time I got very upset. I was in the woods with a friend and stopped to look at a nature hut for kids and I saw [on a map] that where I live there was a bomb dropped, and someone overheard and it ended up in a gossip page, and it was something like, 'Isn't she leading an exciting life?'" But then she remembers something else. "I was having a pizza in my local restaurant and a waitress came up and she made a pass at my partner. She actually ran her hands down his chest." Steadman complained to the manager and later that night was doorstepped by the Daily Mail. It was, she says, a "set-up". After a flurry of intrusive media interest, following the break-up of her relationship with Leigh and the start of her relationship with the actor Michael Elwyn, it was clearly something of a last straw. The entire incident, like much of the interview, is acted out with a full range of mannerisms and voices, but the sparkle of the performance can't hide the pain.
"You know," says Steadman, "I cried that night, not because of what had happened but because I couldn't believe that anyone could be so horrible. My thing – and it sounds clichéd, but I often say it to people – is that we come in the same way and we go out the same way and what you do in between is your own business, but we're just human beings trying to walk around and cope with this thing called life – and there are easier ways of getting through it than behaving like this silly girl."
So, now we're beginning to see where some of that quivering sensitivity, beneath the cheery, life-is-sweet exterior, in Mam and Mrs Bennet, and even Beverly, might possibly come from. Mam, in particular, is a fantastically complicated character, riven with frustration, longing and grief, and playing her is, says Steadman, "a real roller-coaster ride".
It is, however, not the emotional demands of the role that have proved the real challenge. "It's exhausting," she says, "to do eight shows a week and I've not been well. I've had a chest infection and lost my voice. I've been to throat specialists. I've had jabs in my bum. It is stressful, but you take it on and you have to do it. By Saturday night, I'm completely finished."
She relaxes, she says, with a glass of wine ("My wardrobe mistress says, 'I've never seen anyone as quick as you at opening a bottle of wine when you come off'") or with a good book – currently Anne of Green Gables, which she bought after a trip for the animal-rights group Respect for Animals to Prince Edward Island. ("I wasn't well, and I wanted something unchallenging and cosy.") She prefers the Tube to taxis. "I like," she says, "to be out in the street and hear the sounds of all the crazy people in Soho." She is, in other words, determinedly Everywoman, determinedly ordinary.
You shouldn't ask the question of an actor, but in a cup-of-tea-cosy-complicity moment (and we haven't even got tea), I can't resist. So, which, of all the roles she's played, is the nearest to her? For the first time, there's a pause. "It's hard to say, really, but someone like... Candice Marie. Although it's not like me, it's got a lot of me. I do like to make things. I'm a Blue Peter person. I love cardboard boxes. I am the person who saves toothpaste tops to make flower pots."
Alison Steadman, national treasure, award-winning actor, super-disciplined perfectionist, and not at all ordinary woman, is, it seems, never happier than when collecting coloured milk-bottle tops. Or, like Mary Poppins, feeding the birds. "Animals and birds," she says, with a disarmingly dazzling smile, "are just themselves."
'Enjoy' is at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1, until 16 May (0844 482 5130)