As Jill Halfpenny plays the unhappy heroine of Abigail's Party, she insists: 'I'm braver than Beverly – I escaped my failing marriage
00:08 GMT, 4 May 2012
Pulling strings: Jill Halfpenny as the famous character Beverly in Abigail's Party
Spending two hours on stage every night, playing a woman embittered by her failing marriage, would be the last thing you would want to do in the wake of your own marital breakdown.
But Jill Halfpenny, the star of high profile TV shows Coronation Street, EastEnders, Waterloo Road and Wild At Heart, doesn’t see it that way.
She regards her leading role in the new West End staging of Mike Leigh’s classic play Abigail’s Party as a means to a new career chapter, rather than a reminder of her marriage to actor Craig Conway, which ended in divorce two years ago.
She takes the part of disenchanted housewife Beverly Moss, made famous by Alison Steadman on TV in 1977. The play — and Beverly in particular — became a popular culture symbol of middle-class dissatisfaction and cynicism.
‘There are crucial differences between my own situation and Beverly’s’ says brunette Jill, 36.
‘Yes, we had both set our lives up in the way we wanted them to be and we both then reached a crossroads where we realised something had to change.
‘The difference is Beverly isn’t prepared to do anything about it. She just moans and whines but takes no action.
‘I did do something about it, although I’m not pretending it was easy. Marriage break-up is devastating, especially when there’s a child involved,’ says Jill, who has a three-year-old son, Harvey, from her marriage to Conway.
‘What you thought would make you happy for ever after has come to an end and it’s a terrible moment when you realise that.
‘But there also comes a point when you realise you are going to be happier apart than you are together, when it’s pointless holding on to something that neither of you want anymore, and that’s when maturity has to kick in.
‘You sit down with your partner and for the sake of everyone involved you talk it through and agree to make the break.
Classic: Alison Steadman as Beverly with Tim Stern as Laurence in a scene from Mike Leigh's television play Abigail's Party first broadcast in 1977
Retro: Abigail's Party and the character of Beverly became a popular culture symbol of middle-class dissatisfaction
‘Marital separation and divorce was much less socially acceptable in the 70s, when Abigail’s Party is set, and Beverly probably wouldn’t have dared walk out on her marriage.’
Jill continues: ‘For all her flirting with her neighbour Tony and for all the insults and putdowns directed at her husband Laurence, she is basically stuck.
‘These days, women can be braver. You can leave a marriage that has run its course, knowing that separation is the best way forward, and you will survive.
‘I certainly don’t feel I need a man, in the way Beverly does. I don’t think women, in general, would now say that they need a man, in the way they would perhaps have done back in the 70s, because they are now more independent.
‘I like to have a man in my life and I do have a partner [the actor Chris Ellis-Stanton]. But I don’t think you need one any more’.
Jill certainly hasn’t needed any help to carve a successful career for herself. Born in Newcastle, as a teenager she starred alongside Ant and Dec in the BBC kids’ drama /05/04/article-2139248-01E716F10000044D-859_634x419.jpg” width=”634″ height=”419″ alt=”Strictly Come Dancing: Jill Halfpenny with her dance partner on the show Darren Bennett impressed with her moves” class=”blkBorder” />
Strictly Come Dancing: Jill Halfpenny with her dance partner on the show Darren Bennett impressed with her moves
First place: Jill Halfpenny and dance partner Darren Bennett with their Strictly Come Dancing Champion of Champions winners trophy
Last year, she won an Olivier Award for her performance in Legally Blonde at The Savoy Theatre. Yet for all her success on stage, Jill feels frustrated by the state of her TV career and it’s part of the reason she has taken on her role in Abigail’s Party.
‘I want to stop being pigeon-holed,’ she says, bluntly. ‘I want to stop being known as: “the Geordie actress” because it only seems to lead to roles in my own accent.
‘In some ways I can understand it. I had some high profile, in-your-face parts in the soaps and in some big TV dramas, using a Geordie accent, and those tend to stick.
‘I’m very proud to come from Newcastle, but there is something about the place that makes it stand out and coming from there does seem to have put me in a bit of a box, as far as TV casting directors are concerned.
‘I’ve certainly never got an audition for a period drama — apart from a Catherine Cookson which was set in the North-East — and I’d have zero chance of getting the part of Beverly in Abigail’s Party if it came up on TV. ‘Me playing a monstrous, suburban hostess from hell in 1970s Essex Not a chance.
Wedding day: Jill Halfpenny starred in Eastenders at Kate – wife of Phil, played by Steve McFadden
TV star: Jill Halfpenny as Izzie Redpath in Waterloo Road with Jason Merrells as Jack Rimmer and David Crelin as Jimmy
‘I also seem to have gained this reputation for being nice, safe Jill, when, actually, there is a darker side to my character that I haven’t been able to show on TV.
‘I like to take risks, I like to throw caution to the wind. I rode a motorbike in Lesotho last year, delivering medical aid to remote communities, as part of The Riders For Health programme, and I loved it, even though several times I thought I might die’.
And if Abigail’s Party does open hitherto closed doors, Jill will doubtless look back on the advice she got on how to play the part from Steadman herself.
‘I met her at a party and she told me to regard Beverly as the conductor of an orchestra, controlling all those around her and pulling their strings, like puppets. It was an invaluable tip.
‘And to think I almost didn’t talk to her! I reckoned she must get people every day of the week bothering her about Abigail’s Party and it was only because a friend encouraged me to go over to her that I plucked up courage.
‘It was proof that sometimes you have to step outside your safety zone, in order to get results.
‘I just hope that there are television casting directors, out there, who are prepared to do the same with me.’
Abigail’s Party is at London’s Wyndham Theatre from May 15. For tickets call 0844 482 5120.