West End actress and singer Jodie Prenger stars in a new touring production of Mike Leigh’s classic Abigail’s Party, which is coming to York.
Away from the theatre and rehearsal studios, actress and singer Jodie Prenger can be found at home in Lancashire “somewhere between Blackpool and Preston”, where she’ll be probably be looking after her growing bevy of animals.
“I rescue anything. And I mean anything. At the moment, I think we can count… now, let’s see… four cows, 30 chickens, dogs, cats, a little kitten that is adorable but which strayed in the other day. Oh, and a swan. Some fish and a tortoise. Did I mention the wood pigeon who has befriended me, and who sits on my shoulder while I’m mashing up the potatoes?”
Jodie, who will turn 40 later this year, is one of those larger-than-life characters who believes that we are put on Earth to wring as much joy out of our existence as we can possibly manage.
But, while she loves being on stage, she’s very grounded. “I really can’t stand all that ‘Look at me, I’m a star’ nonsense,” she says firmly. “Oh, it’s all right if you have to dress up for some big red carpet event, it’s expected of you. But when I’m away from the theatre you’re not going to find me in a sequin-studded leotard, lounging around and looking louche, all made-up and with nowhere to go. Far from it.
“I’m just not part of that world, nor do I wish to be. I’m a lass who dresses for comfort, not for style. Style has its place – but that place isn’t when you have a smallholding of hungry creatures to take care of, or to muck out, believe me!”
As a singer who was brought up on musicals and who has appeared in many of the best of them (such as Oliver! and Annie) Jodie deliberately steered her career in a new direction, by appearing in dramas like One Man, Two Guvnors (in the West End) and then was a memorable Shirley Valentine.
“Shirley was terrifying”, she admits, “because you are all alone. It’s just one actress, on stage, for the entire play. There’s no one there to help you if you forget your lines. You are truly flying solo. But it is Willy Russell’s masterpiece and a masterclass in comedy acting and timing, so I just had to do it. Proving to myself that I could, I suppose.”
She starts this year with another challenge, a tour of Mike Leigh’s classic Abigail’s Party. “Someone asked me the other day if I had the lead role, and ‘how I’d play Abigail’. And I had to tell them quietly that, firstly it’s very much an ensemble piece about a get-together of mismatched neighbours in a suburban Essex street, and that the Abigail in question is really a teenager, being allowed her own party a little bit further down the road. I’m playing the pretentious hostess Beverley, not Abigail. If I was cast as a teenager these days it would take a very elastic stretch of the imagination to pull that one off!”
Perfecting the southern accent, though, hasn’t fazed her at all. “I played Nancy in Oliver! enough times to get that sort of southern drawl together. “What has really interested me is the amount of drink they all get through. Mainly gin. Beverley is always pouring it, and then walloping it back. In real life, none of them would be standing after half an hour.”
Being in the play has made her appreciate the brilliance of the writer, Mike Leigh. “These people are absurd, but you still completely believe in them and the situation they are in. Their embarrassments, their aspirations, Beverley’s steamroller gaucheness, their concerns… and always in the background is the noise of Abigail’s party slowly getting out of hand. Every parent can identify with that, and they will be squirming at the thought.”
Mike Leigh, she reveals has been “on hand”, if needed, while the production’s director, Sarah Esdaile, has been helping them shape the characters. “We’ve really gelled as a company, and that’s vital if you are going to be together on the road up and down the UK for weeks on end.”
Jodie is delighted, too, that one of the tour dates has brought her back to Yorkshire, at the Grand Opera House in York. “I know there’s all that stuff about the rivalry between our two counties, and yes, I was born and raised in Blackpool, but I always feel so at home when I’m appearing in the north. There’s a sort of warmness, and openness that makes it all seem very special.
“I have to tell you that one of the happiest times of my life was when I was appearing in Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends. That musical meant so much to me, but not half as much as the friendship that Kay and I struck up – and which we have maintained. That woman is inspirational. I want to spray her in gold, and worship her.”
So was Jodie a gregarious little girl? “Good grief, no!” she says, horrified by the very idea. “I was a very shy little girl and I had to be coaxed to do anything. I was actually far more interested in watching other people perform, and, in Blackpool, there were plenty of opportunities for that.”
She saw popular entertainers such as Russ Abbott, Brian Conley, Barbara Windsor and Danny La Rue. “It’s hard to tell people these days what a huge star Danny was, and what incredible glamour he brought into the lives of his adoring audiences. Where do you get such over-the-top brilliance these days?”
Her parents and grandparents were in the hotel business which meant it was fairly easy to get hold of tickets for some of the best shows. “I just wish that more people went and enjoyed live entertainment. It’s all very well, sitting at home and binging on Netflix – don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a night in front of the telly sometimes – but there’s more to life.”
And don’t get her started on people constantly using their mobile phones. “My fiancé Simon and I were out having a meal the other evening, and he nudged me, and we looked across and there was a table for four, and each of them was looking at their mobiles. I had to be persuaded not to go across, grab the phones, and throw the things out of the window!
“Enjoy yourself, have fun, live life – heaven knows we get precious little time on this Earth anyway.”
Abigail’s Party, Grand Opera House, York, January 28 to February 2. For ticket details call 0844 8713024.