Tue 20 Feb 2024
When did you last play Mrs Johnstone and how is it returning to the show?
I last played her in 2012 and returning to it was scary at first. The first time I did it I’d never done a musical or been a part of the theatre world so when [producer] Bill Kenwright called me I think I turned it down four times. I was like ‘No, you’re OK!’ but he persuaded me to audition, and my audition was terrible. But he saw something in me and within a week I was on stage in the Phoenix Theatre. It was such a whirlwind. Since then, I’ve done lots of other roles, mainly funny ones, so to come back to such a dramatic role is very scary but it’s like a dream come true. They’d asked me to come back before but I had to be ready, and now I am.
What makes her such an iconic musical theatre role?
It’s because of her strength and the emotions you have to go through when you’re on stage. She starts as a young girl in her 20s, then within 20 minutes she’s got seven kids and has to give one away. It’s a big part and it’s a big part for a woman, which is rare at my age. My window is tiny to get a part where you’re on for more than ten minutes. She’s a strong female lead and she’s so real. Every mother in this country can relate to her on some level because of how real she is. Every mother must see something in Mrs Johnstone that they’ve also gone through. I know I can. I’ve got two sons so her Micky and Eddie are my Morgan and Jonah. My kids have had troubles, I’ve had troubles, and the way I look at it is: I don’t have to play her, I just have to be her.
Are you discovering new things about her and the show this time round?
[Laughs] Yes, she’s not such a feisty tiger as I thought when I first did the show. They used to call me ‘The Feisty Tiger Mrs Johnstone’. I come from a family of four, we grew up on a council estate, we had no money, I used to go to school in jelly shoes even in November, and my mum was a tough cookie. You didn’t mess with her and that’s how I thought Mrs J. was or at least that she was how I was, like ‘Don’t mess with my kids or I’ll come at you with a baseball bat’. But now I’m older I’ve mellowed. I’m 50 now and I’m not so bouncy as I was ten years ago, so my take on her is much more grounded. She’s stronger without being quite so feisty.
It’s such an emotional rollercoaster for the audience. Is it the same for you as a performer?
It is, yes. There are a couple of parts in the show, without giving spoilers, where it rips me to shreds. I do it as though someone is about to take one of my children and I can’t hold back. I have to feel it every time I do it.
Was performing something you always wanted to do?
Singing was always my passion as soon as I could open my mouth. It’s like breathing to me, it’s so natural for me to do, but the actual performing scares the pants off me. I was always happy as a backing singer or in the studio where nobody is looking at me. I know that sounds really weird but when I’m out there I have to forget there’s people watching because it’s terrifying.
You made the top four on X Factor in 2007. How did doing that show change your life?
Completely. It’s given me a career I didn’t think I was capable of, although it did eventually break up my marriage because I was never there. My life since X Factor couldn’t be more different. My kids didn’t even know I sang because I’d given it up. So much has happened in the past 15 years career-wise and I’ve got a partner and I’m getting married soon, which is very exciting.
You’ve done lots of musical theatre. Apart from Blood Brothers, what have been your other favourite jobs?
There’s loads and I’ve loved every character I’ve played but if I had to pick one it would be Paulette in Legally Blonde. To go from playing Mrs Johnstone to Paulette in just two weeks was brilliant because it was such a contrast. I’ve never laughed and smiled so much as I have doing the bend and snap. It was the first time I realised I could make people laugh as well as cry.