Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • ELIZABETH BERRINGTON • Abigail’s Party • 2002

When Elizabeth Berrington opened in Abigail’s Party at Hampstead Theatre in July, she was following a hard act. Alison Steadman made Beverley so entirely her own in 1977 that we are still strangulating our vowels in hopeless imitation. But director David Grindley’s production received excellent reviews and this talented actress managed to erase earlier memories, bringing to the stage her own, unique take on the character. Such was the success of this 25th anniversary production that it opens this week at the New Ambassadors, a first for Mike Leigh’s classic tragi-comedy which, although there have been countless productions around the country and elsewhere during the last quarter century, has never before been seen in the West End. Sarah Vernon talks to the actress.

Who or what inspired you to become an actress?

I was always running around, making a noise and trying to express or expel whatever demons or energy were inside. I was what they describe as a naughty little girl, always disappearing and doing something with that sort of instinct as a performer. I don’t really think there was anything else I could do. I certainly never considered it, never had a great calling for anything else. I remember that realisation, probably at 7 or 8. I used to go horse-riding with my sister and I remember getting into terrible trouble because I’d gone on Stardust, this little pony, and he’d gone off to eat some grass and then when I got off to try and pull him away, he cantered off into the distance and I got told off so badly – you know that telling off when you’re a kid and it’s ‘that’s it, I can never go there again’. So at that point I started watching all these black and white films, the Saturday matinees, and I was hooked!

You went to Webber Douglas. Did you audition for and get accepted by other drama schools and specifically choose Webber?

No, funnily enough, that was one of my great learning curves about the business because I really had it in my mind to go to Manchester Poly Theatre School. And I come from the North West, Wallasey on Merseyside, and so it was one of the first places I auditioned for. And I didn’t get in. I was absolutely bereft because I just thought, ‘Well, this can’t happen to me because I want this so much and I deserve to go so much. What have I done wrong?’ I was a little bit startled by that. I did the rounds of the other auditions – including Bristol Old Vic and Central – slightly reluctantly because ‘there might be a real kick in the teeth at the end of it’. So the offer came from Webber and that’s where I slotted in, really.

Did you get out of the training what you hoped and expected to get out?

We did, actually. I just felt so completely at home and by the time I’d got to Finals, I just felt like I was flying. I felt that I really got the coverage that I needed in order to get an agent and interest in those final terms. It was basically because I put my head down and knuckled down but I do know lovely friends, really brilliant actors and actresses who, if they were remotely flighty in those first couple of terms, and not taking it quite as seriously as they should have been, later regretted it. They could sometimes miss out on that final exposure, which is the most important thing. You don’t really realise that at the time.

What I felt was missing when I was at Webber in the late 1970s – and it would be lovely to think that things had changed – was one aspect which I think is very important, something we all need: to be provided with the wherewithal to cope with the business from a practical and a mental perspective. Apart from getting that exposure at the end of the course, did you feel that any of that was provided?

No, I didn’t actually. I’d initially became really quite pessimistic about the prospects of work and getting work because when you’re an actor and you’re not acting, and you’re not acting for a long time… For instance, I think I was 3 years out of college. I’d done a couple of profit-shares each year before my first job which was the Royal Exchange in Manchester. And then that was the first year I worked with Mike Leigh on Naked and things began to happen. Prior to that I was reeling from the shock of not working. It took me a long time to… I was always confident in my ability as an actor but not terribly confident as a person, my personality. What they don’t teach you is how terribly important [that is]. I think life teaches you that, really.

Yes, if you don’t have that confidence to be able to put yourself across, it’s a nightmare.

Yes. I made a great friend when we worked on Naked, wonderful friend of mine, Carolina Giammetta, whose family are Italian. Italian children can never do any wrong. Their criticism is used in a different way, I find, and she just amazed me because not only was she a wonderfully grounded person but free from self-doubt. So meeting people was a stepping stone to a different attitude, learning to stick a finger in any pie and taste it and have a go.

When I was at Webber it was exactly at the time Abigail’s Party was originally staged so that we were all going round doing our Bevs and our Tones! How did you approach the part in view of the play’s history and Alison Steadman’s performance?

What she and the company discovered, and having worked with Mike I know myself, is that those characters are composite characters, the blueprint of which they got from real life. To do a copy of what Ali and the others did wouldn’t have done us justice. And I think their original performances were so amazing that for many years that’s possibly exactly what people have done because they have loved those creations so much. In many ways, they’ve been done to death.

Did it daunt you?

I tell you what, about this time last year I got a phone call from Mike saying they [Hampstead] wanted to do the play and he’d been talking about me to people and then realised that actually he hadn’t even asked me if I’d want to do it! At this point I realised that this ‘really is a possibility, that this could happen. Whatever I do, I can’t afford to lose my cool. I just have to really take on the responsibility and respond to the faith people are having in me’. The other thing is I’d never seen the telly version. I’d also never actually read the script. I’d done imitations of the accents like other people do at drama college, just like people imitate Mrs Overall. I think Beverley in Abigail’s Party is as loved as that character, Julie Walters’ creation. Once I read the script – I was reading it on the tube – I was just absolutely killing myself laughing because it’s so funny and so wicked and cruel and so sarcastic and so incredibly English.

And so sad.

Sad and brilliant. And bitchy – it’s all there, warts and all. That’s essentially what we really love about it and that’s why she’s such a sort of anti-heroine, Beverley, because she spends the entire time being just gross but we know that there’s that part within ourselves and you just love watching her.

It must be huge fun to be work on. Have there been any memorable moments?

There was one night which is not something we’d like to encourage – it was actually terribly off-putting – but there was one night at Hampstead which is such a tiny space where a group came in and every time I said, ‘Gin and tonic?’ they got out flasks and a packet of olives and there was loads of rustling and crinkling of paper as they passed them around. And cheese and pineapple, I think they had as well. As I say, it’s not a copy of what’s gone before so I think the pace is different and I think they found it a bit difficult to keep up. I think people would be disappointed if they tried to do that but then they wouldn’t be disappointed because they’d be reassured that all the elements of the show are still there.

How do you find working with David Grindley?

It was terribly easy to work with David because he, like me and the others, felt the responsibility of this huge project and that a lot of people were going to have an opinion about Abigail’s Party and how it ought to be. He also kept his cool and just let us play really. Because all the details are there in the script, there’s no real reason, apart from certain moments of comedy timing, if you like, that the play needs to be blocked. Apart from the simple logistics of where somebody is sitting with regard to certain remarks that might be in the script, we’ve basically let it play itself so we all felt very free to discover who the characters are. And he’s got a great eye for detail. I don’t think anything in the piece is manufactured. There are certain moments that are farce – somebody coming in and going out and somebody squealing, those moments.

It’s been organic, from the sound of it. The best.

Yes.

Your performance in The Lakes on television has remained with me. Do you get the same enjoyment out of all the disciplines or would you, in an ideal, money-paying theatre world, prefer to be doing more theatre?

I just think that the disciplines and techniques are very different. It’s physically and mentally exhausting doing the theatre piece. But I get such a delight watching TV work – the rare time it happens – when you really think that you’ve replicated a character very, very truthfully. I think to do that technically on a film set is very hard. You have to be real, get the truth out of the word but also you’re surrounded. You’re in such an artificial environment. Often the actor who’s playing your husband or son or child isn’t even looking at you, you have to look at some finite point near the lens. I think that’s difficult and really quite an exacting challenge.

When the play was on at Hampstead, you were described in one of the papers as the ‘little-known’ Elizabeth Berrington. I always think – although I can’t pretend I haven’t used that phrase myself on the site – that sounds terribly pejorative. I want to say, ‘But should be much better known’. I notice in your answers to Whatsonstage back in the summer that you said that what was great about this production was that there’s no one, or two, or three big names that would be expected to pull in the punters, it’s just good actors.

And I say that meaning that we should be out there and we should all be allowed to share. I don’t wish yer Jamie Theakstons any bad luck but there are people who’ve been plugging at it for years. Plays should be cast with the correct actors in the roles, and audiences should be encouraged to come and see that sort of work and producers should trust that a well-cast piece of theatre, well-directed, will have good reviews and good word of mouth and will get bums on seats. The proof of the pudding will be if we do great houses right up until April, then we know that the production and the production values work.

How much do you think people in the right positions will take note of that, that it can be done?

I don’t think that they could. The way things have gone, it’s probably too much of a gamble for them. There’ve been some brilliant American productions at the Donmar recently with American casts and some of the young Americans who are performing in This is Our Youth are staggering. Their training is very, very different to ours and we’ve got a great deal to learn from them. But to have American stars just for the sake of it is defeating the object.

That difference, I think, is brought out most strongly when you compare American child actors with British.

This is one of the things I’ve discovered since drama college, having dabbled a little bit in a technique called Meisner. There are some really wonderful teachers in this country – one in particular is Scott Williams who runs a group called The Impulse Company. Meisner was a contemporary of Lee Strasberg but developed a technique that is about being very real and in the moment. I think the great stars that we adore from the States, the De Niros and Spacey and people – essentially, that’s how they’ve trained. Their study has been completely different to ours. Hopefully things are changing but there are elements to an English training which are about the voice beautiful. I’d like to think that style is dying out. It’s just a snob value.

All sound and fury.

Yes.

Are there are any longed-for parts that you would like to play, any longed-for directors or actors you’d like to work with?

Ken Loach. To work in that manner, as with Mike Leigh, is so extraordinary for an actor. Normally rehearsal time is so short. To have the experience of time in order to discover characters and really inhabit a part is so deeply thrilling. The two brief times I’ve worked with Mike and I’ve spent a summer doing that – you can never become another person but I just think that you can have so many extraordinary experiences on film. The wonderful things that you see. I did Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone a few years ago. A moment when we were just out on the coast, there’s one side of the camera that’s Timberland and all kind of geared up, and the other side was just this perfect little fishing village with fishing girls gutting fish, and ponies and traps. The skill that has gone into making those images is something that will always be just endlessly fascinating. To be part of those experiences is wonderful and I crave them.

Are you interested in working with non-British European directors or in the States?

I’d love to – if opportunities like that arose it would be great. I think on the whole they do tend to work in a different way. Filmicly, the Americans and the Australians, for instance, are happy to shoot scenes on the wide where they just allow the actors to play the parts. It’s why we find things like Sex and the City or ER so good, why we’re so drawn in and fascinated by them.

And they’re so much better than their equivalent over here.

And also it’s the way they use sound in the same manner. So rather than someone saying, ‘Oh, you can’t say that, you’ve overlapped’, it’s just like sorry, that’s what we do in real life. There’s so much to learn.

Thank you very much, Elizabeth.

Sarah Vernon © 2002

Originally published on R&V on 03-12-02

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