DIANE Keen is returning to the stage this autumn after more than a decade away, starring in the nine-week tour of The Vagina Monologues that began in September.

She is leading the cast of three in Eve Ensler’s controversial exploration of “the last frontier, the ultimate forbidden zone” in a celebration of female sexuality in all its complexity and mystery.

Joining 67-year-old Diane, right, at the Grand Opera House in York tomorrow night are two Hollyoaks soap actresses, Terri Dwyer, who played Ruth Osborne for six years before becoming a television presenter, and Hollie-Jay Bowes, alias Michaela McQueen in the Channel 4 series.

“We have three women who’ve never met each other before doing an incredibly frank show, initially feeling very bare up there on stage, sat on our stools, when we began,” says Diane. “But we’ve been getting on really well, travelling together, and that’s been very important because you really have to trust each other when you’re doing an ensemble piece like this.”

Diane’s long stage hiatus can be explained simply. “I did ten years in Doctors [playing Julia Parsons in the BBC soap], so there was no time to do anything else,” says the former star of The Cuckoo Waltz, Rings On Their Fingers, You Must Be The Husband and those 1980s’ Nescafe coffee adverts with Gareth Hunt.

“You take what job appeals to you, where you think ‘I want to do that’, and Doctors just turned into a long-time commitment, which I hadn’t envisaged.”

Diane had always wanted to perform in The Vagina Monologues with its true women’s stories of intimacy, vulnerability and sexual self-discovery. “I’d never seen the show but I knew of its subject matter and how diverse the piece, how it shocks, it distresses, it amuses,” she says.

“So I’m thrilled to be doing it, now that the opportunity has come along. As an artist you get the chance to play a lot of different characters in one show – and how often do you get to do that?”

Ensler’s intensely researched series of monologues has attracted all manner of celebrity performers over the years.

“It’s the subject matter that makes people want to do it. I would put it in the same bracket as Calendar Girls. It’s one of those shows that whenever it goes out on tour, it sells, and I think that’s partly down to the subject, as the show is a little risqué and audiences discover things that will shock them,” says Diane.

“There’s always a new generation coming up that hasn’t seen the show before, and one thing you have to remember about it is that everything you say on stage, apart from the ‘direct’ talking to the audience, comes from the mouths of real women from Eve Ensler’s research.”

Diane is enjoying that responsibility.

“You have to get it right, make sure that you say it in a way that people will understand the message and tone of each monologue, conveying what’s going on in that person’s head,” she says.

And yes, Diane will deliver the most notorious of the Vagina Monologues, the one where the ‘C’ word is reclaimed for women. “They asked me if I would do the ‘repossessing one’, and I’d wanted to do it anyway, though I felt very awkward before I did it the first time, but by the third week I was very comfortable with it.” “You have to experiment a lot with the delivery, and the less uncomfortable it becomes to say it, the more it makes sense. Once you get over that, that’s really what it’s all about, reclaiming it from being a crude word to a proper word, so it’s seeking to stop the world using it as an insult – but until the whole world reclaims it, I’m not sure I agree with comedians using it increasingly in their live shows.”

• The Vagina Monologues, Grand Opera House, York, tomorrow, 7.30pm. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york