SHOW PEOPLE / A farewell to toe-curling: Alison Steadman

BRASSY, braying and blowsy are adjectives that Alison Steadman brings to mind. From the shrill Beverly in Abigail's Party in 1977 to the voracious, Olivier- winning Mari Hoff in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice last year, Steadman has built up a portfolio of wickedly funny characters and become one of our finest comic actresses. She has a gift for minute observation and can fasten on a detail of her character's behaviour - an over-long laugh, a nasal twang - and blow it up just enough to have your toes curling in embarrassment while your sides split.

So when you learn that the play she's rehearsing at Hampstead focuses on two sisters, one of whom is a loud Florida matron with a lust for life and a degree in 'cosmetology' (that's face make-up to you and me), the mouth starts watering for another Steadman special. But wait. Steadman is playing the other sister in Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room: a self- effacing soul who has spent her life caring for her bedridden father.

'She's a middle-aged spinster, a shy sort of person,' says Steadman. Sitting in the Hampstead Theatre conservatory, she looks different from usual. It's the hair, she says. 'The director suggested I had it dyed for the part - it's usually blonde. I think blonde can equal glamorous or outgoing.' She admits that, on reading the script, she too saw the louder sister, Lee, as her natural territory.

'But, having done Mari Hoff in Little Voice, I thought it would be more of a challenge to play someone who wears dowdy sandals and plain frocks and doesn't think of herself as attractive. It's true that the sharper the character, the more fun they are to play - there is less potential for comic stuff in this part. But in the end something drew me to it. Because I've done those parts, you know, your Beverlys and your Mari Hoffs.'

It is characteristic of Steadman to try something new. Most of her work has been with new scripts, and she has appeared in several films and plays by her husband, the writer-director Mike Leigh, who famously starts with an idea and a cast and writes his scripts on the hoof, building on the improvisation work done with the actors in rehearsal. You can't get much fresher than being in on the creation of a part, and Steadman admits to missing that in Marvin's Room, which has already been a big hit in America, with an American cast . 'To be honest, I'd rather that I was the first person ever to play this part, but you can't do anything about that. I don't want to see the photos or read the reviews - I want it to be mine]'

Most people would find the thought of improvisation alarming, imagining it easier to have a script in your hand. Not Steadman. 'I would say the written word is more worrying. If you're doing a film or a play with Mike, you're nervous but you don't know what you're nervous of, because you don't know what's going to happen. But with a script you know what you've got to tackle in the next four weeks. You've got to make it your own.

'Also you have this sense that you've got to serve the play and the playwright. I remember being in an Alan Bennett play at the Royal Court and he came to watch a rehearsal. I was beside myself with nerves, because there can't be anything worse than writing a part and then watching someone doing it all wrong.'

Alison Steadman is 46. Her acting career began in her hometown of Liverpool. She was the class mimic - 'I joked my way through school' - and she joined the Liverpool Youth Theatre. She says she was set on being an actress from the age of nine. Her parents, realising she was in earnest, didn't object, and she went on to the E15 drama school, which encouraged a valuable openness and with it an interest in freshly minted parts.

'In 1966 Rada was still quite rigid. It was still giving out these health and beauty prizes or whatever - it was still a little bit of a finishing school. E15 was kind of wacky and wild - it suited me down to the ground. It wasn't as organised as it should have been, but it gave everyone a good grounding, so you stopped thinking about yourself and started thinking about what your function was in the play.'

While performing at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre, Steadman met Mike Leigh. They have been married for 20 years, and their marriage and working relationship has long been the source of fascination and speculation. Does she tire of this interest? 'Yes,' she says, without any hesitation. Then she relents. 'I realise it's what people are most interested in. I do get a bit fed up being asked, 'Don't you ever get bored with each other?' If that was the case, we wouldn't work with each other. I mean, that's how we fell for each other in the first place - we have this creative rapport.'

Leigh recently won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Naked. The award, the latest of many they have won between them, is unlikely to affect life at home in Muswell Hill for Steadman, Leigh and their two sons. 'To them it's just ordinary if I'm on telly. Their main fear is that they'll be embarrassed by something I do.'

She chats away unpretentiously, just as ready to talk about her addiction to shopping as her approach to a part. The Liverpudlian accent still lurks and comes shrieking out when she's carried away. She tells some good anecdotes about filming picnic scenes on Brighton beach in thermal underwear and moon boots in thermal underwear and moon boots, but she prefers the stage to film, finding the creative process in theatre to be harder, but more rewarding.

'For Little Voice, rehearsals were sometimes hellish because it was like wrestling with a tiger, trying to pin it down. But when you finally did get it, and you were out there in front of an audience, it was like you were 20ft high. I always think it's a bit like having a baby - if you didn't have any pain when you were giving birth, the baby wouldn't be that precious. I mean, if you dropped him on the floor, you'd think, 'Oh well, doesn't matter, I'll have another one.' The day you walk into a rehearsal and say, 'I can do it', you might as well not bother, really.'

Steadman's bent towards improvisation seems to reflect her attitude to her career in general. 'I never know what I want to do until it turns up on the doorstep. I've never planned anything.' But there are those who feel she has not had her share of classical roles. Does this frustrate her?

'I don't know really,' she says, with a shrug. 'I have done some Shakespeare, but if you tackle one of those parts you do always feel that A N Other has tackled it before, and I don't like that - I like the freedom to just do it . . . But I wouldn't rule it out,' she adds, hastily, giving the tape-recorder a mischievous glance.

'Marvin's Room' is previewing now, opens Tues at Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (071-722 9301).

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick