I'd Do Anything's Jodie Prenger on her latest 'strong woman' role in A Taste of Honey
As mould-breaking play A Taste of Honey begins a new tour with the National Theatre, leading lady Jodie Prenger tells Gail Bell why the graft and glamour epitomised by her north-of-England nan helped her to gel with the character of feisty mother Helen and how she thinks Belfast audiences will relate to the grit and humour
A VERY chirpy Jodie Prenger is taking a break from rehearsals for new show, A Taste of Honey, and although her work schedule means she "doesn't see daylight" at the moment, the voice of her nan is constantly in her head, cheering her on.
"The strength of [north of England] women, gosh, they knew hard graft," she gushes down the line after the Shelagh Delaney play in which she stars opened in Salford, Great Manchester – appropriately so as the city is the setting for the 1958 taboo-breaking production currently on tour with the National Theatre.
"My nan used to have a laundrette and a cafe in the centre of Manchester – before the family moved to Blackpool and opened B&Bs," Prenger continues. "I can just picture her, rolling her sleeves up and serving 100 people breakfast. Then, at night-time, she would be full-glammed up, with diamond earrings in, singing to all the people at the bar. I feel a lot of that: the graft and the glamour, the just-getting-on-with-it mentality, in A Taste of Honey.
"It's extraordinary, really, the play just resonates with me; I don't know if it's the northern roots or the humour, strength and wit of the women characterised on stage that glued me to the script from the first time I read it."
Delaney was only 19 when she penned her career-defining play which became a British classic with an exhilarating depiction of working-class life in post-war Salford – and, at that time, proscriptive themes of race, gender, sexuality, poverty and parenting which veers off conventional norms.
Revolving around the relationship between a mother named Helen (Prenger) and her daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson), and their struggles and respective romantic liaisons, such was the anticipated sense of shock when the play first opened at the Theatre Royal in London, that the actor (Murray Melvin) who played Geoff – Jo's "effeminate" roommate – was told of the nearest exit doors should he need to make a quick departure from the theatre.
"It's unbelievable to think that today but back in the 50s no-one knew what sort of reaction the play would get," Prenger explains. "We won't be worried about protesting mobs in theatres today, and although the play has lost some of its power to shock, I think it's great to bring these issues and situations back into the spotlight and make them important again.
"As a society, we have come a long with with regard to inclusivity and acceptance over colour and what have you, but there is still some way to go. I think it's good to remind ourselves of that."
Although probably best known for her heartwarming Nancy in Cameron Mackintosh's West End revival of Oliver! – the plum role she won through the 2008 BBC television series I'd Do Anything – the "Blackpool lass" has gone on to cement her place on stage and screen with roles as diverse as Miss Halligan in Annie, Beverly in Abigail's Party, the title role in Shirley Valentine and bride-to-be Kelly Stevenson in Kay Mellor's Fat Friends.
"I have tended not to play wallflowers," she observes wryly, adding that "strong women" roles are where she feels most at home, while "hard work" comes second nature. Prenger's work ethic is such that she once appeared in two different roles in two different theatres in Blackpool on the same evening.
It is a perfect example of that "graft and glamour" exemplified by her much-loved nan and she embraces both with equal enthusiasm.
"I was literally running from one theatre to the other and that certainly wasn't very glamorous," she recalls, laughing. "It's not very glamorous when you're sweating and you've got a full face of make-up on... That's what I love, though – the way you have to really work in theatre. Everyone thinks it's a very glamorous industry and you walk around with cameras flashing and you get served caviar right, left and centre, when really, everyone is grafting and creating this production together.
"That is really the essence of theatre – hard work. You're sat in a dressing room, you're in the dark, and it's almost bizarre when you come out under the lights. I wouldn't say it's glamorous but, for me, it's a passion. Thankfully, the theatre is also a passion for so many people who go to watch shows. You can't beat live theatre, can you? There's something extraordinary and magical about it."
In A Taste of Honey – which starred Joan Plowright and Angela Lansbury in its original Broadway run and was also adapted for screen in a 1961 British film – audiences will also get to enjoy some live music alongside all the drama.
"It's like buy one, get one free," suggests Prenger, who celebrated her 40th birthday in June and also won TV reality show The Greatest Loser in 2006, losing eight and-a-half stone in six months.
"You come in for a classic play that has been around for 60 years and you're also getting a live jazz band which takes the show to a whole new level. It's quite a cinematic experience and helps create the mood.
"It is a complete package which seems to resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds – yesterday, we had lots of schools in to see A Taste of Honey because it's on the curriculum, and you could see the teenagers really relating to the character of Jo."
Will the feisty characters and self-deprecating humour be particularly relatable for Belfast audiences, I wonder, when the play comes to the Grand Opera House in October?
"Yes, everyone finds something to relate to and in Northern Ireland, the humour is quite similar," she says, "and there's an attitude of resilience, of just getting up and getting on with things. I have many friends in Northern Ireland – including Rachel Tucker [a fellow finalist in I'd Do Anyting] and I find a warmth in the humour and also a strength – if you didn't laugh, you'd cry, sort of thing. Audiences in Belfast have always been brilliant – they've got humour, warmth and grit which is what A Taste of Honey is all about."
When not performing, Prenger, who celebrated her 40th birthday in June, can be found cleaning out her chickens at her home near Preston which she shares with fiancee, Simon, listening to music or writing – she is currently writing her own drama series which is now with a production company, but is sworn to secrecy on the details.
Quite the animal lover, a menagerie of pets has taken up residence at Chez Prenger and looking after them has become a sort of self-appointed mission and a favourite way for the musical theatre star to relax.
"Gemma Dobson, who's my daughter in the show and who's amazing, came to rehearsals one day and said her girlfriend had a dog in the car and it had been abandoned," reveals the actress. "So, of course, I went into full animal-saving mode and he has now become the latest addition. There's dogs and cats, and cows and chickens and parrots and everything. I've lost count of number of animals – I'm too scared to count them, but I love them all."
:: A Taste of Honey opens at the Grand Opera House on October 15. goh.co.uk