Belfast actress Roisin Gallagher on hosting Abigail's Party at The MAC

Belfast actress Roisin Gallagher takes the lead in Mike Leigh's iconic 1970s drama Abigail's Party at The MAC this month. She tells Joanne Sweeney how the role has helped her deal with the recent loss of her father

Roisin Gallagher as the ghastly Beverly in Abigail's Party. Picture by Rob Durston
Roisin Gallagher as the ghastly Beverly in Abigail's Party. Picture by Rob Durston

WHEN actress Alison Steadman appeared as Beverly, the 'hostess with the mostest', in Mike Leigh's iconic play Abigail's Party, it was one of the TV moments that defined the 1970s.

Showcasing the best of the decade’s decor and highlighting 'cheese and pineapple on a stick' as the canape of the day, Abigail's Party was initially a hit West End stage play before it made its way on to our TVs in November 1977 as a BBC One Play for Today.

It attracted an audience of 16 million on its third transmission, as it shone an uncomfortable and darkly humorous spotlight on the characters attending a middle-class soiree.

The MAC in Belfast will bring Abigail's Party back to the stage next month. Directed by Richard Croxford, it stars west Belfast actress Roisin Gallagher as protagonist Beverly alongside an ensemble cast featuring Brigid Shine, (Angela) Will Irvine, (Beverly's husband, Lawrence), Craig Miller (Tony, Angela' s husband) and Imogen Slaughter (Sue).

Mike Leigh has called his play "both a celebration and a lamentation of how we are". Although we never actually get to meet Abigail, the 15-year-old daughter of Sue who is hosting her own party, this cocktail party is fuelled by plenty of alcohol, an array of savoury bites and olives in a Lazy Susan serving dish.

But as prejudices are unmasked and tempers flare, Beverly’s perfectly planned evening unravels before her eyes as she slowly gets very drunk and tension increases to an unexpected denouement.

According to Gallagher, the play is about the societal need of adhering to 'the done thing' as much as her character wanting to show off her home.

"This woman [Beverly] is a narcissist on the surface, a flamboyant, larger than life character who's desperate to impress and desperate to be something that she’s not. Then something goes very wrong and that for me is the real tension in the play.

"I think the reason why Beverly wanted to have the party in the first place is that she had a new leather couch and she wanted to show it off with her rotisserie and her candelabra."

We are speaking during a rehearsal break ahead of the play's three-week run at The MAC, where Gallagher recently finished a successful run as the lead in Tinderbox co-production Lally The Scut.

She confesses that Abigail's Party was not on her radar before her agent offered her an audition last year.

"To my shame, I hadn’t heard about the play before I auditioned for the part," says Gallagher, who already has mastered Beverly's Essex accent.

"When I got the call from my agency, I was still on maternity leave and my wee boy Donal was just five months old.

"What was really important to me in doing this play was that my father Daniel was very ill at the time with cancer. I rang him, as I always did, to say that I’ve got an audition for Abigail’s Party.

"He started laughing and said, ‘Top up Sue?' and started to quote all these things from the play. He thought it was brilliant and remembered sitting watching it and laughing. He passed away just before Christmas."

Even though she can see her character's flaws, Gallagher says she fell "in love" with Beverly, "the moment she said, 'I’ll just pop this into the fridge', referring to red wine.

"I thought this woman is amazing and I laughed the whole way through reading the script, which doesn’t happen often."

Educated at St Genevieve's High School, which she says was "an incredibly nurturing place" for drama and the arts, the Andersonstown woman trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland before starting her career in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing in Glasgow ahead of appearing in regional theatre throughout Britain and the north.

Currently appearing in NI-based drama series Come Home on BBC One along with fellow Belfast actresses Paula Malcomson and Kerri Quinn, Gallagher's other TV credits include The Fall and BBC NI police drama series Paula.

Now settled back in Belfast, she's more than happy to keep her home city as her professional base.

"Belfast has such an amazing TV and film industry now and it's just incredible," says Gallagher.

"My mantra is 'there’s no place like home' and I’m very happy to stay here for my career."

With her little boy Donal set to turn one on April 14 when Abigail's Party first previews, the last year has certainly brought great joy and great sadness for the actress.

"[My father's death] was devastating and I’m trying very hard to take the positive out of it,” Gallagher admits.

"Instead of worrying about not having a job in a couple of months’ time, I'm trying to live for today and count myself lucky that when I go into work, I adore what I do. He would have wanted that.

"Grief is an amazingly complex thing. Beverly is helping me grieve, as playing her is helping me deal with what's happening in my personal life. Acting is a job which you are able to bring everything you have experienced in your own life to."

Her late father's illness and death have also been, in her words, "the catalyst" for a new stage project she's currently writing.

"With support from the Arts Council, I will be working with Tinderbox to stage my own play early next year about coming to terms with knowing that you’ve only got a certain amount of time and dealing with loss.

"My father was the first one I told when I got this part and he advised me to get the accent sorted. He told me, 'Everybody has a story to tell, but it's the way they tell it'.

"That's really stuck with me. He encouraged me to write and I want to talk about dealing with death, but hopefully with some humour, and his stoicism in how he dealt with that."

:: Abigail's Party is at The MAC, Belfast, April 14 to May 5. Tickets available via TheMAClive.com