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Naughty but nice

Jenny Eclair, purveyor of toilet humour sans pareil, talks to Janie Lawrence over a few glasses about her nude new role in Nell Dunn's 'Steaming'
Several glasses of Chardonnay have been downed, the ashtray is overflowing with cigarette butts and I'm quite literally weeping with laughter. Jenny Eclair, fresh from rehearsal for her West End debut as Josie in a revival of Nell Dunn's Steaming, has that effect on you.

Somewhere around glass two we've entered the sort of female conversational terrain of intimate details and graphic descriptions that women ritually deny they ever have. And men, nervously, suspect they do. My ex-boyfriend is having the Jenny Eclair treatment - "Oh no, he did what?" she shrieks, as we ponder revenge by home incendiary device, and she launches into a one-woman demolition job. Very accurate it is too.

Which is probably why women, at least, adore Jenny Eclair's stage act, covering, as it does, similar themes on a grander scale. "Gratuitous filth," she calls it. Sex, tampons, farting - the 1995 Perrier award-winner has remained preoccupied with this subject matter for some time. But at 37, isn't she contemplating whether it's time to tone down, appear a smidgen more grown up?

"That is the echo of my mother," she retorts in that distinctive gravelly voice - Posh North with a touch of 0891 phoneline. "Billy Connolly is at least as old as I am. No, I think it's easier for an audience to accept an ageing woman talking about those things because I've become much more of a caricature. This ghastly sex dribbling crone is pantomime. At 37, women no longer think, 'My boyfriend might fancy her', and the boys are all thinking, 'Thank God, my girlfriend isn't like that'. It's much more comfortable because I'm like this third sex now." Time for another fag. "Anyhow it's not all sex and farting," she protests.

True - the in-yer-face act also incorporates her daughter and her parents - "June and Derek, now that's a sitcom in itself" - and her death phobia. This, she recalls, took eight sessions of therapy on the NHS to sort out. She is kidding me. "No, I thought I was dying because I had a lump in my arm. It was actually a build up of Imperial Leather and it just needed lancing."

The stage name Eclair sprang from a conversation when 15-year-old Jenny was at a Blackpool disco and pretending to be French. Somewhere around this time she was also losing her virginity to a biker called Ricky. "In my prime I put it about a bit. I was an absolute slag."

Throwaway one-liners on and off stage are Eclair's speciality. So much so that you're often hard pushed to know if you're talking to Jenny Hargreaves, daughter of Major Hargreaves MBE (retired) or the larger-than-life Jenny Eclair. Which one is taking a curious look at my potato skins with sour cream and issuing doom-laden warnings of, "You'll pay for it later"? My bet's on Eclair, but it's Hargreaves. This is frankly not a woman I expect to be a former anorexic. "I don't normally talk about it because I don't like women using their anorexia as an 'aren't I fascinating?' thing. Anyway, it was all so long ago."

She was 20 and studying drama at Manchester Polytechnic when one of the tutors - male - informed her that she looked too fat on stage. "It got to the point where I was 5st 13lb. I remember sliding down the bath and my skin came away from my back because my back bone was so prominent. The hair on my head was falling out but I was getting a furry pelt so I was in danger of going out into the streets and people throwing nuts at me. During therapy they diagnosed me as someone who didn't want to grow up." In case I haven't noticed - "Jesus, woman, give yourself a chance, have something grilled with a baked potato" - she declares that she's still very controlled about her eating.

At 22, she met Geof, her current partner, who is a graphic artist. In cahoots with her parents, he persuaded her to eat. "I think my mum gave him pounds l5 per week to buy meat for me." After 15 years together they have one daughter, eight-year-old Phoebe. "Geof is a proper grown-up man. I read books about coke addicts, he reads history books. We've got nothing in common whatsoever. It works very well."

To this day, neither her parents nor Geof have ever been to see her perform. The army Major and his wife you can understand, but Geof? "I've never sat on the edge of his desk watching him design. He vaguely knows what goes on but I don't think I'd like him to know what a hideous creature he lives with."

That is about to change as parents, partner, sister and brother will all be attending Steaming, Nell Dunn's account of six women thrown together in a steam room, in which she is taking the Georgina Hale part.

She groans - this is definitely Hargreaves. "I'm in a very difficult position because I know I'm putting myself up to be slagged off. Yesterday went really well but today I was rubbish. I'm absolutely terrified. I just hope I can retain continence on the first night. I'm deadly serious about it and I want to do it properly. I'd like people to go out of the theatre saying, 'I didn't know she could do that'."

Deliberately, she hasn't watched the film version. "Bianca [Patsy Palmer from EastEnders] is my voice coach," she says, and demonstrates some glottal stops. Full-scale nudity is also part of the package.

I don't want to mention it, but the prospect does seem to have brought a highly charged pink to her cheeks. "That's the sun bed - I've got nettle rash and I'm developing melanomas as we speak. I'm hoping it will go golden before the opening night, otherwise I'll look like a pink pig."

Her daughter is apparently horrified that mum won't even be wearing a towel. "She's mortified by the idea that I'm taking my clothes off. And because I've been rehearsing she keeps having the best day of her life without me." Think doting mum and multiply tenfold. She whips out some photos of Phoebe and pals. That school uniform looks familiar. Some of her fellow comics may not approve but Phoebe attends the pukka Hill House School in Chelsea. "Sometimes, in certain dressing-rooms, I keep it a bit quiet in case I get rounded upon and can't argue it properly. But I live in south-east London and there wasn't really very much choice. When you go into the schools, they're all in foetal positions and wiping shit off the walls. I only have one child and I wasn't prepared to sacrifice her to those playgrounds."

Phoebe certainly won't be copying mummy's antics until - well, to hear Jenny talk - until she's at least 30. Very, very Hargreaves. But as for the potential critics who may not like her performance. "I'll sob and tear lumps out of their cheeks. Then I'll go round to their houses and murder their dogs." Eclair? I wouldn't bank on itn

'Steaming' opens at the Piccadilly Theatre, London W1, on Thursday. Booking: 0171-369 1734