Brian Beacom

JODIE Prenger is a bit of a monster. Her words.

But when she says ‘monster’ she really means a bit of a monster. Not a really horrid person. A bit vulnerable. And misunderstood.

Prenger, whose theatre career has included a year in the West End playing Nancy in Oliver!, Shirley Valentine, and Calamity Jane, is set to play to play the woman who defined Seventies’ sneering disdain.

She stars as Beverly in Abigail’s Party, the story of the lower middle-class suburbanite so desperate to climb to the next level her bright red nails are constantly chipped and broken.

“I think there’s a bit of Beverly in all of us,” says the actress, grinning. “She’s brazen and she’s scary. But Beverly is also a brilliant character to play because she hides this lurking vulnerability.

“Underneath the bravado lies a very lonely woman. She’s the original desperate housewife, really. Beverly used to work on the make-up counter and she was very good at her job. But not now. And she doesn’t have children. She’s a bit lost.”

Mike Leigh’s social satire worked perfectly in the 70s, capturing a new mood of optimism, of cheese and pineapple nibbles and chilled Beaujolais and Demis Roussos albums on the record player.

It was a time of working/lower middle- classes beginning to own their semi and a Ford Capri and take a holiday in Fuengirola. And that’s why, Prenger acknowledges, to update the play into the millennium wouldn’t work. It’s a period piece.

“It seems strange to admit that, but yes, that is the case. Back then, things seemed more important than people for some. Beverly wants to show off her life (and hide the faults) by telling us what she has in her home. These days, people are more likely to do it by Instagram.

“But having said that, this is a play about relationships. Mike Leigh really picks these people apart. And over the years, relationships and problems don’t alter.”

Beverly decides to host a party for her newly-married neighbours but calamity ensues. “I’ve been to parties like this. The problems resonate through the decades.”

It’s not hard to see why Prenger was cast in the role of a woman with the outer skin of a rhino - but the soft underbelly of a tiny kitten.

Growing up in Blackpool, (her parents ran a boarding house) Prenger was determined to break into showbiz from an early age, from the disco dancing competitions at Pontins (she came second and was gutted), to singing at school.

Prenger worked as a nail technician and a sales assistant in a curtain shop before taking to the club circuit.

She recalls at one working man’s club the stage was enclosed in a cage – in case disgruntled punters lobbed an ashtray.

Meantime, her weight was always an issue – at one point she was a size 22 - and was once asked not to asked not to come back to a local dance class because of it. But she was always determined. Prenger kept on telling fat girl jokes to hide her insecurity about her weight.

However, the performer’s size was to play a huge part in increasing her public profile. In 2006, she won the second series of reality show, The Biggest Loser, going down from 18 stones to just over nine.

But reality TV truly changed her life two years later. “When I got to be Nancy that was it for me,” she says of I’d Do Anything, the search for a Nancy in Oliver!

It was an especially demanding time. Producer Cameron Mackintosh took it in the neck when he suggested Prenger may be a little too heavy for the role. The public disagreed and she

was voted in.

Prenger hasn’t stopped working since, playing The Lady of the Lake in the UK tour of the hit musical Spamalt. She’s starred as Miss Hannigan in Annie and Shirley Valentine.

She frequently sits in for Paul O’Grady and Elaine Page on their Radio Two shows. Life is good. She’s happy to be Jodie Prenger. She’s accepted she’s never going to be a Size Zero, nor would she want to be. “As long as you feel healthy,” Prenger says and adds; “Look, I could put pics out there on social media using about 50 filters and get some nice comments. But I don’t feel it’s something I should do.

“I hear from young girls who are conscious of what’s being said about them and I tell them to work through it.”

Prenger lives in a farm in Lancashire, with her partner (“We’ve been engaged for about 50 years”) and four pet cows (rescued) who are all named. “There are over 20 chickens and they all have names as well,” she says, grinning. “One of them was named Julie, after Julie Goodyear, because she was a bit of a diva. She died from a chest infection however and I felt extra bad that day because I’d just eaten chicken goujons.”

She smiles; “My day off on Sundays is all about clearing up chicken s***. In fact, the real reason I work is to feed all the animals.”

No it’s not, Jodie. You work because you love the job. You need to perform. “You’re right,” she concedes. “I know it sounds like a Miss World speech but I do it because I love it. I do it because one minute you can meet Liza Minelli and the Queen, yet I also remember getting changed in Strangeways prison before a 45 minute set.”

Were there every times, she felt like packing it in and going back to work in the nail bar?

“Yes, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have thoughts like this. And I’ve had my share. But then Nancy came along at the right time and totally changed my life.”

Have there been times when the showbiz world has been a little excessive? “Oh, aye,” she says in emphatic voice. “I do meet people in TV who don’t really have a grasp of reality. And you meet the types who want to do everything for you. I find myself saying ‘Don’t you go running to get that. I’ve got two legs, you know.’”

She adds, grinning; “ I don’t want looking after. I like looking after others. I’m a feeder. If you can’t be thin, make your friends happy.”

Like Beverly? “Yes,” gosh,” she says, laughing. “I’m more like her than I thought.”

Abigail’s Party, February 4-9, The Theatre Royal.