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Steel Magnolias, Grand Opera House, York, May 7 to 12
DENISE Welch has left behind the tabloid bunfight of her victorious Celebrity Big Brother escapades for the world of touring theatre in Robert Harling’s bittersweet comedy Steel Magnolias.
“I’ve forgotten how hard work this touring palaver is, with hard weeks with two midweek matinees and Saturday matinees, but the show’s being going very, very well, and we’ve had good reviews,” says Denise, who plays beauty parlour owner Trudy in Harling’s play about six women bonded together by triumph, tragedy, love and humour in a hicksville Louisiana town.
The Benidorm, Loose Women and former Coronation Street star will be performing in York from tonight, sharing the Grand Opera House stage with Cherie Lunghi, Isla Blair, Cheryl Campbell, Kacey Ainsworth and Sadie Pickering.
“I was asked to do it a long time but ago I never tie myself to things too far in advance, and since Matthew was born – and he’s 23 now – I’d said no to tours,” says the 53-year-old County Durham actress.
“I last did a theatre show at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, when I won the Manchester Evening News Award for best actress in a leading role for my performance as Marie Hoff.
“I hadn’t done theatre for a while so I felt terrified, as doing theatre becomes more difficult when you have children, but I had success with that, but for various reasons, with being busy, having children, and with my on-off battles with mental health issues, then I didn’t do any more theatre.
“But for Steel Magnolias, Tim [Tim Healy] was happy to be the daddy for the length of the tour.”
Life on the road brings regular routine after what Denise calls “a rollercoaster time recently”, what with the break-up of her marriage to fellow North Eastern actor Healy and the newspaper headlines that came with Celebrity Big Brother.
She was ready for a return to the boards. “You have to work as an actor. If you stop, there are too many people who will step into your shoes,” she says.
“I feel the need to flex my acting muscles because the personality side of Denise Welch has been more prominent, and I didn’t feel a need to show it to the public but to do a theatre show for my own self worth.
“The great thing about this particular cast of actresses is that they don’t’ read or give a monkey’s about that [celebrity] side of my life. My face is on the front of magazines a lot and I was very worried they were going to look down on me but instead they’ve said, ‘No, thank god you’re on the covers because it’s put bums on seats’, even if it isn’t because people knew about my theatre work!”
Denise savoured the prospect of a stage role as a contrast to the demands of television work. “I wanted to be in control of my performance because on TV you’re not, and you now have no rehearsal time on TV; you have to go in with your lines sorted and you’re at the mercy of an editor,” she says.
“I wanted to create a character from the get-go and have the luxury of rehearsals, and we’ve had three and a half weeks of rehearsals for Steel Magnolias, but because of my Loose Women obligations I had to do those TV shows as well, which they were totally in agreement about me doing them – and I had to do the publicity for the play as I was the best known face of the moment!”
Now the tour is up and running, you can sense Denise’s pleasure in treading the boards once more. “It’s just a luxury to be able to go on stage for two hours with no-one to interrupt you,” she says.
After so much media attention and the prying eye of the television camera, life on tour is a step away from the goldfish bowl, but Denise would welcome a further step too. “I long for a bit of breathing space,” she says. “I want to have some time with my kids [Matthew and Louis]; that’s the main thing I’d like to.”
• Steel Magnolias runs at the Grand Opera House, York, from Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 3024