Jodie Prenger:
Party’s girl

Jodie Prenger is playing Beverly in Abigail’s Party, one of modern drama’s most materialistic characters. But the Blackpool-born actor’s only acquisitive when it comes to good parts and rescue animals

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“This is the perfect picture of my life,” says Jodie Prenger. “The press release for Abigail’s Party was released and, like you do, you have to do all the tweeting and what not, and one of my little chickens was egg bound. So with one hand I was tweeting and retweeting and with the other hand I was nursing an egg-bound chicken in my kitchen sink. That’s the two worlds.”

After “a whirlwind year” in which the star of stage, screen and chicken care starred in Fat Friends, a new musical by Kay Mellor, and wrapped Years and Years, a six-part Russell T Davies TV series starring alongside Emma Thompson, Prenger has kicked off the new year with a lead part in the new production of the 1977 Mike Leigh play. Abigail’s Party reaches York at the end of the month and finishes on home turf for the Blackpool-born actor in March.

“We’re in London at the moment but I don’t live here. I’ve got sense in me, girl! I’m back in the north!” booms Prenger in an exaggerated Lancashire accent. “I live in Esprick – a tiny, tiny farming community. It’s actually closer to Preston but I always say Blackpool.
“I remember growing up in the years of massive summer seasons and I owe a lot to Blackpool because it was a true hub of entertainment. That did dwindle but I am now enjoying the fact that these big shows are coming back – the Shereks, the Mama Mias. Dorothy always does say there’s no place like home and I’m afraid it is true.”

It’s there, on her land, rescuing animals alongside her partner Simon, that she’s happiest, admits Prenger.

“Last year we got Bullseye. She was off to be a hamburger so she’s just living a life of luxury eating carrots and she likes a loaf of bread every now and then. And then we rescued a couple of cats so they’re up and going now, and we’ve rescued some wood pigeons, and we’ve even rescued a bloody bat. If you ever want any eggs, just pop by. There’s bloody loads.

“When I’m away my poor fella gets lumped with all my animals. ‘How are you today’ is the last thing I say to him. ‘Are the chickens all right? How’re the dogs? Is the little cat fine? Did you put some more lettuce in for the tortoise? Did you feed the fish? Don’t forget the fish!’ And then I go: ‘How are you?’”

In five minutes you might meet starlet Jodie, farmer Jodie, Jodie the clown, and Jodie the caregiver, who pops up with cold remedies for sniffling journalists

Prenger rose to stardom a decade after winning Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BBC singing competition a decade ago. I’d Do Anything gave her the opportunity to play Nancy in a West End revival of the musical Oliver. Despite her success since, it’s still apparent why, apart from her incredible vocal talent and acting, she won the hearts of the voting nation. Prenger is warm and charming, and natters away conspiratorially as if with an old friend. She’s theatrical and a natural entertainer, bouncing around from character to character in conversation. In five minutes you might meet starlet Jodie, farmer Jodie, Jodie the clown, and Jodie the caregiver, who pops up with cold remedies for sniffling journalists. She’s not playing a part. She’s all of these characters and totally authentic. It’s hard to imagine anyone could overlook her as a born actor but I’d Do Anything, she says, was a make or break moment for her stage career.

“I was going to give up, if I’m honest. I was not going to pursue it. I thought I was past it. I was done,” says the 39 year old. “But there are opportunities out there and for me that was the Nancy thing, which totally turned my life around.”

Her career has gone from strength to strength, with TV roles, presenting jobs and stage parts including the alcoholic anti-hero Miss Hannigan in Annie and Willy Russell’s titular Shirley Valentine. “Willy Russell had to go and get me some cold sore cream. I get really stressed and when I get stressed I get cold sores.”

She’s had five in the run-up to Abigail’s Party, she says. “Somebody said to me: ‘Oh, you’re doing Abigail’s Party. Are you playing Abigail?’ And I said: ‘Look, if I could add 15-year-old schoolgirl to my repertoire, it would be top of the list. But it’s not. I’m playing Beverly.”

The action follows Beverly and her husband Laurence (Midsomer Murders’ Daniel Casey) as they throw a party for their newlywed neighbours, Tony (Black Mirror’s Calum Callaghan) and Angela (Coronation Street’s Vicky Binns).

“Our version is still rooted in the spring of 1977, to be exact. I think if Abigail’s Party was updated in any way I’d cry.”

Joining them is highly strung Susan (Rose Keegan), who’s been banished from the party of her teenage daughter Abigail. This is 1970s suburbia and its heady mix of free-flowing cocktails, classic disco and cheese and pineapple sticks. As tensions rise and tempers flare the sheen of respectability is torn away by the warring couples. It’s a great state of the nation tragi-comedy of manners and the human condition.

“Our version is still rooted in the spring of 1977, to be exact. I think if Abigail’s Party was updated in any way I’d cry,” says Prenger. “My little soul would die a bit. Even silly little things like the cigarette case, and I think, oh, my dad and granddad had one of those. All
these elements are quite homely for me. I was born just after it’s set so I grew up with these things. The sounds, Donna Summer! It just rings true to my ear – I know it all really well.”

Leigh wrote Abigail’s Party out of frustration with the suburban middle class – the shackles of which he cast off as a young adult, along with what he’s described as its neurotic mantra: It isn’t the done thing!

But by the time he wrote the play he was married and falling back into the trappings of aspirational consumerism. In the original stage play and then in the hit TV adaptation, Beverly was played by Leigh’s wife Alison Steadman.

Marking the play’s 40th anniversary last year Leigh wrote: “Host Beverly is an aspirational working-class girl who is totally preoccupied with appearances and received notions of behaviour and taste. A bundle of contradictions, she espouses the idea of people freely enjoying themselves, yet endlessly bullies everybody into doing what she wrongly thinks they’ll enjoy, or what is good for them. But, while she may be perceived as monstrous, she is in fact vulnerable, insecure and sad.”

“That’s very much like me, really, not far off,” says Prenger dryly. “It’s quite scary admitting how much of Beverly is already there. We did the back story, the issues, in total minute precision, and it really just opened up a whole new box
of chocolates for Beverly for me.

“She really lays it on with Tony, but there’s her relationship with Laurence and what’s gone on there, and the fact that she hasn’t got kids. It’s all these colours that come in and it’s far more flavoured when you do it this way because at the back of your mind you know they’re doing this because of that.

“Beverly’s a massive control freak to me – the way she plies everyone with drink: ‘Is everyone having a good time? Great. Here. Thanks. Who’s for another drink?’”

Prenger doesn’t think there’s any less pressure to do the “done thing” today and is sure the play is resonating with audiences now, particularly after the season of festive consumerism.

“Abigail’s Party is very nostalgic but those relationship dynamics still play out today. Yes, it was a different era and divorce was seen as something totally different then than it is now, so there are elements that trickle through, but I think the majority vote goes to relations being very much the same. There are pressures on people, be it work, children, the items you have in the house, the house that you live in, that car that you drive. These still go on today, don’t they? It’s who can have the new iPhone. But when all said and done it’s not about searching for those materialistic things.”

Prenger meanwhile will spend the year making acquisitions of her favourite kind – more animals and more starring roles. 2019 holds two more musicals, another TV project and a potential play, all of which she says she’s forbidden from discussing, much as she hates saying that.

She jokes about booking in for botox, but the natural brunette says about turning 40 this year: “There’s a weird element of confidence in this decade. It’s bizarre – I don’t know if it’s because I’ve changed my hair colour. I don’t know why. It’s quite scary though and I don’t like to admit to it because mentally I’m nowhere near that age. I don’t know whether to celebrate a physical age birthday or a mental age birthday.”

She won’t slow down, she says, as long as the work keeps coming. “I’ve literally been on the road for four or five years but if the work’s there. You get these opportunities where someone comes to you and says ‘Do you want to do Shirley Valentine?’ and I’m not going to say no to that because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

“There’s no fear [that work will dry up] in it. It’s more of not being able to say no to a role I’ve wanted to play because, who knows, they might not be doing it for another five or six years.

“What’s that song?” she asks, before launching into the Oklahoma! chorus: “I’m just a girl who can’t say no!” Then, deadpanning in broad northern: “But I can say no to some things.” And then bursting into infectious laughter.

Does she have a bucket list of roles she’d like to play? “I love Gypsy, I love Hello Dolly, but especially after doing Abigail’s Party, I’d love to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. So yes,” she says, in mock thespian nowl: “A bit of Martha, a bit of Dolly, and a bit of Gypsy, and that’ll do me fine!”

Abigail’s Party visits Grand Opera House, York, 28 Jan-2 Feb; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, 18-23 Feb; Opera House, Manchester, 8-13 April; and Grand Theatre, Blackpool, 11-16 March

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