She returns to this venue next month to star in Everybody Loves A Winner, Neil Barlett's new comedy play set in a bingo hall, which is part of the Manchester International Festival. We caught up with her during rehearsals to find out about life after Corrie, performing in-the-round and her blossoming career.
Everybody Loves a Winner is described as a "glorious, all singing, all dancing extravaganza." Tell us more...
It’s very difficult to describe. It’s written by Neil Bartlett and it’s a journey through one day with an underlying message that bingo is just like life. I play Linda, the manageress and Ian Puleston-Davies plays Frankie, the bingo caller and there’s a 14 string chorus and the play centres around their lives and the fundamental reason why they go to Bingo every day, what it does for them and how it fulfils their lives. It’s great for me because Linda is a character who is quite unlike any other I have played before. She’s very controlled and quite humourless. I wanted to do because it’s playing absolutely against character. I am finding it fantastically interesting to try and chip those bits of me away that are just naturally humorous all the time. It’s a big old challenge. It’s not a musical, but there is lots of music in it and some choral work. It’s almost like a Brechtian fantasy going in and out of reality. There’s time suspension for the songs. It’ll be visually amazing but it’s quite sad in places and very very funny in others and also at time down to earth. I’ve never done anything like it before. It’s a tricky one but we’ve got a great director so we’ll be alright.
The round at the Royal Exchange is an unforgiving space, how do you find performing there, following your debut in A Taste of Honey?
I think it’s magical. I toured earlier in the year with the Vagina Monologues on an end on stage and it feels like it's them, the audience, and us, the cast. With the Exchange it’s very much a shared experience, especially with this one because the audience have to play bingo and somebody will physically win £200 every night. It’s that kind of audience interaction that I find so special. At the dress rehearsal for A Taste of Honey last year I remember being absolutely petrified because there were just a few people doted about the auditorium but when I came on for the first preview it felt absolutely perfect, like we were all in it together, audience and actors. Most people come to the Exchange because they know it’s going to be quality and they’re going to have a nice time. The audience wants to be part of the action from the minute they walk through the door and you really feel that from the audience response.
During your time on Corrie, Shelley proved hugely popular with the public. Was leaving such an iconic programme a difficult decision?
Yes. It was a wonderful place and I still have some extremely good friends there and they’ll all be coming to support me. The writing for Shelley was fantastic, really classic stuff but it was a personal decision to leave. I was in a very prominent position behind the bar of the Rovers and I didn’t really get much time off to think about life and what I wanted out of it. I hadn’t finished playing other characters and I don’t think you get into an acting job for security, which at the time I was reliant on. I just woke up one morning and thought ‘I just need to do other things.' I wanted to do theatre again and it was absolutely my decision to go. This is my ninth play in three years since I have left Corrie. I’ll be filming a second series of Scallywagga straight after this in August for BBC 3. I’ve done so many different things that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I hadn’t left the street. I’ve been very lucky and I am very grateful for that.
Would ever consider going back?
Of course I would. The door is swinging open. But not yet! I am doing so many things now that I just didn’t have time for when I was in Corrie.
Soon after leaving the show you starred as Marilyn Monroe in the musical Ella, meet Marilyn at the Edinburgh Festival, a character far removed from Shelley Unwin. What attracted you to both the character and the festival?
After I left Coronation Street I was offered a various things. Celebrity TV shows or characters that were extremely similar to Shelley. That would have defeated the point of leaving. There would have been no point in going somewhere else to play another character like Shelley. So, when I got the offer for Ella, Meet Marilyn and realised someone was going to take a chance on me playing Marilyn Monroe, I thought ‘you can’t really get any different than that, so I’ll have a crack at that one’ It was very low budget, but it was a phenomenal experience and I adored it. I had my own dressing room and parking space at Corrie and the suddenly at the festival I had to get changed in a corridor! The whole Edinburgh Festival experience was fantastic, although tiring. I’d have to seriously think before doing it again but it was brilliant and I loved it.
You recently toured with another musical Eurobeat. Was it as fun to be in as it was to watch?
I was one of the funniest things I have ever done in my life! My agent pushed me into reading the script because I wanted to concentrate on some writing at the time. So I was in a café and I read it and I just laughed out loud. My character was a Bosnian Pole Vault champion. How often do you get to play that?
Another interesting choice was the open air production of Much Ado about Nothing at Stafford Castle in 2007 where you played Beatrice. Did you find Shakespeare a challenge, especially within such an unusual setting?
It was outdoor and in the flood plains! It was in the summer the country was hit with all those floods. The set was beautiful depicting a beautiful village in Messina, Italy with its beautiful sunsets but out of the two month run we had two days when it didn’t rain. Every other day was treacherous! But God love the British, we were sold out every night, the audience trudged up the hill and sat with their wine and sandwiches and wrapped themselves up in coats so we thought ‘well, if they’re going to turn up, we’ll risk the weather too!’ I had such a great time and met some fantastic people. We laughed a lot.
Did you find the Shakespearean language a challenge?
It’s down to the way the text is spoken. The Director of the production was very young and very committed to the cast understanding exactly what we were saying, so once we understood it completely the audience also did. We were complimented on how understandable it was.
You have also been a part of the Wallace and Gromit institution voicing Piella Bakewell in A Matter of Loaf and Death. That must have been an interesting experience?
I was surprised to get it actually. Nick Park been searching for the right voice for Piella for six months and was struggling. I had been on the Mark Radcliffe Show on Radio 2 and Nick had been listening to me. He wasn’t aware of who I was so he googled me then invited me in for a voice test. We got on really well I assumed there’d be hoards of superstars lined up to do it, but it turned out he had only tested me and I got the job! I was working on Wallace and Gromit whilst touring with Eurobeat. Poor Nick had to follow me round the country! He’s a genius and one of the nicest men I have ever met.
Everyone's Loves A Winner is about luck. Considering the great parts you have played, you must feel very lucky.
I can’t believe how lucky I am to be offered such a variety of work and I never stop being grateful for that.
Sally Lindsay was speaking to Malcolm Wallace
Everybody Loves A Winner runs at the Royal Exchange from 1 July - 1 August. You can read about the Manchester International Festival here.