SUSAN Penhaligon certainly plays contrasting roles when she visits York in touring productions.

In October 1999, at the Grand Opera House, she cut a frightened figure as Nurse Plimpton, dressed in the voluptuous Barbara Windsor mode of the Carry On capers, in Anthony Horovitz’s not entirely serious but sophisticated psychological thriller Mindgame.

As chance would have it, she performed alongside two actors who had each played Jesus Christ in the York Mystery Plays in the Museum Gardens, Simon Ward and Christopher Timothy.

In May 2011, she returned to the Cumberland Street theatre, cast as the Eastern European Lisa Koletsky, who fled her Communist nation for a new life in England, only for matters to turn murderous in Agatha Christie's last stage play.

"It's a little-known Christie play and I took over a big part at less than two weeks' notice," Susan recalls. "It turned out to be ten days; not enough rehearsal time for a part like that, in what was virtually a three-hander but you go on by the skin of your teeth and learn while you're on stage."

Now, Susan switches to the Theatre Royal to take on the prim and proper guise of governess Miss Prism in the Original Theatre Company's tour of Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners, The Importance Of Being Earnest, from tomorrow. This time she had three weeks' of rehearsal with director Alastair Whatley in London in her "Earnest" debut.

"I didn't play Gwendolen or Cecily when I was younger, though I have seen the play quite a few times and I loved the 1950s' film version with Michael Redgrave, Edith Evans and Joan Greenwood," says Susan, 68, who is delighted to be appearing in Wilde's best known work.

"Like a lot of Oscar Wilde's work, it deals with class; he's poking fun at the English class system, and all the repression that goes on in social behaviour, and I'm not sure that in Britain today we've got away from those values and the worst of the class system.

"We still have Eton and Oxbridge and Etonian Prime Ministers and I don't think we have travelled that far from Wilde's world, though thankfully we still love wit, we still love language.

York Press:

Susan Penhaligon as Miss Prism and Gwen Taylor as Lady Bracknell in The Importance Of Being Earnest

"Wilde understands the upper classes so well, and in some ways his comedy is like a sitcom, where he's so clever with such wonderfully drawn characters, and I'm sure Victorian audiences would have laughed out loud, recognising types in the play, as well as being a little shocked."

Miss Prism is a joy to play. "I just love her. She's scatty; she's forgetful; she thinks she's more intelligent than she is, but her heart is in the right place - and she's funny," says Susan.

"She's got the hots for Dr Chasuble, but then everyone's got the hots for someone in the play, apart from Lady Bracknell!"

Susan is chalking up a series of firsts in her late-60s. "I've done my first musical role in Cabaret and now my first Wilde, so I must be doing something right," she says. "I was in heaven doing Cabaret as I'd always wanted to do a musical right from when I first wanted to act but I wasn't blessed with a singing voice.

"At drama school, at 18, I was told I would never do musicals, so they took my singing lessons away, at a time when it was a much tougher system so they went with the students who had the big voices.

"But I was brought up on musicals; I fell in love with them when I was eight, nine, ten, and what happened at drama school was a huge disappointment, though I resolved it by saying to myself, 'well, you can't have everything'.

"So to be given this chance in Cabaret in later years, when I could do a role where I could 'act-sing' was a total joy."

You may have seen Susan playing Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret at Leeds Grand Theatre last October on that tour. "I would sit there pinching myself, thinking, 'I'm actually in a musical' and I have the wonderful Bill Kenwright to thank for that."

Now come her Wilde days in The Importance Of Being Earnest.

The Original Theatre Company presents The Importance Of Being Earnest, York Theatre Royal, tomorrow to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday matinee and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at