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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor