Hollywood’s lure doesn’t work on laughter-loving Katherine Parkinson

Almeida Theatre production of
by Rodney Ackland
based on a short story by W. Somers

Almeida Theatre production of BEFORE THE PARTY by Rodney Ackland based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham Directed by Matthew Dunster - Credit: Archant

The It Crowd actress tells Alex Bellotti about her new role and why she has no plans to move to America

Comedy is a troublesome word. In one sense, it is perhaps the only genre that unites us. Some people can’t stand action, some find sci-fi too far-fetched, but who truthfully doesn’t like to laugh? However, as actress Katherine Parkinson knows better than most, it’s a genre that can be typecast far too easily.

“Whenever I go to the theatre I want something that makes me laugh, but comedy can’t help but sound reductive as a label,” says 34-year-old Parkinson. “Maybe it’s because of television. In sitcoms and quiz shows, people expect jokes and little else. That’s one of the best things about a play; any good comedy worth its salt will have deeper, darker elements.”

It’s a depth that Parkinson, best known for her acclaimed performances as Jen in The IT Crowd, appears to be relishing. Starring in the Almeida Theatre’s new dark comedy drama, Before the Party, she plays Laura Skinner, a widow returning home from Africa in the aftermath of the Second World War. As her family plan their latest party in an attempt to climb the social ladder, they are forced to deal with a scandalous revelation that Laura murdered her husband.

Based on Rodney Ackland’s stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s short story, the production, directed by Matthew Dunster, is the play’s first revival in more than 25 years. Because of this, the story remains relatively unknown to most – a fact Parkinson thinks could greatly work in its favour.

“I love short stories and go through a lot of them, but I’d never actually read any of Maugham’s works. I was surprised by what a gem of a story it is though and hopefully it’ll be refreshing for a lot of people, like me, to come and see something with few ideas or preoccupations.”

This extends, Parkinson adds, to her character Laura. While the audience may know she is a murderer before even entering the theatre doors, they could end up surprisingly sympathising with the young widow.

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“Amidst the traumatic backdrop of the war itself, Laura was forced into marrying an abusive husband and following him to a strange country. There are certainly a lot of understandable circumstances behind her actions. One of the many great things Rodney Ackland added to the story too was a new love interest, David for Laura, so there’s an extra dynamic of hope that’s quite endearing.

“I find myself judging the hypocrisy and pretentions of the other characters more. You’d have thought that in light of the war, people would realise what’s important, but they’re so desperate to keep up appearances. It reminded me of An Inspector Calls from my GCSE days, but it also relates to modern times in that way.”

Appearances appear to be one of the key themes in both the characters Parkinson plays and her real life. Alongside Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade in Channel 4’s The IT Crowd, she found national recognition playing a hapless IT manager desperate to escape the tag of being a ‘loser’. Yet while O’Dowd and Ayoade have found fame in Hollywood, Parkinson insists she is not prepared to make the sacrifices women have to make to succeed in Los Angeles.

“I’ve been offered parts out there, but it’s never appealed to me. Chris was living in LA for quite a while before he broke. People don’t always realise what a huge commitment it is.

“The problem is also that when you look at examples of women out there, they’re generally not as well served as men. I’ve had just these little five-minute parts in a few American films, but still got told to do things like blow dry my hair. It makes you feel like a prostitute, when in reality I’m just a loser really.”

The main reason for staying in England, however, is that Parkinson has an even bigger commitment in the form of a six-month-old baby girl. Living with her husband, comedian Harry Peacock, in Blackheath, she’s quite prepared to settle in the city.

“I’ve got to the stage where I want to sit in my nest and lay eggs, which has been great. Upper Street particularly is ruining me with all its baby and women’s clothes shops. I used to live with [fellow comedian] Katy Brand in Islington, so I know it far too well. I collect my money from the theatre and take it straight down the road.”

Describing herself as very much a London product, Parkinson is openly proud about working as well as living in the capital. In addition to being miles ahead in its blow-drying etiquette, she cites the fact that few cities in the world can produce as much film, television and theatre in one place.

Does she not worry though that settling down might lead to her becoming synonymous with The IT Crowd, while her co-stars are quickly building a wider reputation on the big screen?

“Of course I always feel a ripple of pride whenever I see Chris or Richard on a billboard, it’s incredible what they’re doing. But I really wouldn’t mind being typecast – as long as I’m a type.

“I’d be happy to do it [The IT Crowd] forever in fact. I love television and theatre, but if it came down to it, the one thing I’d always want to do is comedy, if only because I’ll always love to laugh.”

n Before The Party runs at the Almeida Theatre from March 21 to May 11.