Linzi Hateley talks to Quays Life about taking on one of the all time great musical roles: Liverpool’s Marilyn Monroe – Blood Brothers’ Mrs Johnstone.
Mrs Johnstone is such an iconic role. Have you been longing to play her?
Absolutely. It’s a show people know and love and I’ve seen it a few times myself, and it’s one of those parts where you hope at some point you might fit the bill. It’s been a secret dream to get the opportunity to play her and now I am.
How do you hope to make the role your own?
It’s going to be an interesting process and I hope I can bring something of myself to it. I’m a mother myself and I’m working class. When you have natural connections to a part then hopefully you can bring a lot of yourself to it because that way it can be as truthful as it can possibly be.
What do you feel makes her such a coveted character?
There are more these days than there used to be but there still are very few iconic female parts in musical theatre, where you think ‘I’d love to have a go at that at some point’. It’s got everything. It’s comedic, it’s incredibly tragic, she’s strong but she’s vulnerable – it has it all in one big package and it’s written so brilliantly by Willy Russell. In a way, with a lot of his writing, it’s almost shocking that it’s written by a man because he has such an understanding of things from a female perspective. To get that sort of writing, particularly in a musical, is a very rare thing.
Why do you feel the show continues to enthral and move audiences 35 years after it premiered?
It is without doubt the best British musical there has ever been. It appeals to everybody. I’ve had that question asked of me many times when I’ve been in musicals that are so successful and I think the most successful ones tend to be the ones that appeal to an absolute wide range of people who can all relate to it in some way or another. It’s also nice when you have a musical that’s sort of more of a play than an actual musical. Sometimes the women might have to drag the men along but with Blood Brothers I think the men come out loving it just as much. It’s just a very collectively satisfying night.
What challenges does the show present to you as a performer?
I’ll be finding that out as I go along but the initial challenge is always about trying to sustain a performance and finding the right pitch to play it so it comes across to an audience. It’s a very emotional piece and I’m looking forward to the challenge of taking it on.
Can you recall when you first saw it?
I think the first time I saw it was the production starring Stephanie Lawrence, which I think was when it came back to London. Funnily enough years later I worked with Joanna Monro, who played the other mother in it. I worked with her in Mamma Mia! so it was nice to be able to chat to her about it because the production she was in was such a great one.
Did it move you to tears as it does everyone else?
Yes it did. It just has that effect on people, doesn’t it? Even though you watch it from the beginning knowing what the end is it still gets to you. It doesn’t make any difference. You’re just on this rollercoaster and [laughs] it just kills you. It’s going to be hard to play. I’m hoping I can get across what I need to and still be able to do it. In the song Easy Terms when she’s about to give one of her babies away I just hope I can get through it because, being a mum, I can’t begin to imagine having to give a child away.
Did you always know you wanted to be a performer?
I did, yes. [Laughs] I sort of came out singing, I think. I don’t come from a theatrical background at all but from a very young age it was obvious I had a good voice. I wasn’t very academic so it seemed like a natural thing for me. I’ve got very supportive parents but they didn’t know what to do with me back in the late 70s and early 80s because in Tamworth, where I came from, there wasn’t a great deal for someone like me. Nowadays I think locally there’s much more sort of geared up for people in the arts but in those days it was a bit like ‘What can we do with her?’ I eventually went off to theatre school and it went on from there, plus I’d done Annie as a kid at Birmingham Hippodrome and a few different things. It was just in my bones.
You were just 17 when you had your first starring role in Carrie The Musical in Stratford, then you went to Broadway with it. What are your memories of the experience?
‘Traumatic’ would be the overriding term for it. It was an amazing launch pad but it was also a very difficult subject matter, then to have the opportunity to go to Broadway only to have it go so catastrophically wrong was quite a big thing on little shoulders. It was definitely a learning curve. I think I learned more about the business in my first job than any other because I had the highs and the lows all in one go.
What have been your subsequent career highlights?
It’s always difficult because most of the time the one that you’re currently doing is the one you’re so into that it becomes your favourite. But of the ones I’ve done over the years, the pinnacles would have to include Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The London Palladium is just about the best theatre in the world to work in and although we only had a six-month contract it was such a massive success that it went on and on. With Jason Donovan in the lead it brought in a different audience and I think it was the first of that kind of musical. Being part of it was quite fantastic to witness because it opened musical theatre up to a much wider audience. It was truly an exciting time. I also loved doing Roxie in Chicago. I’d been at dance school as a kid as well as theatre school and I always loved to dance but I didn’t physically look like a dancer and my voice always got the attention so none of my parts before that had been so physical – they were all based primarily on my vocals. It was so lovely to get a chance to be fit and thin and to do all that sexy stuff. It was a great contrast for me as a young mum, taking my daughter to school every day, doing the school run in the morning and playing Roxie Hart at night.
Blood Brothers is only your second big tour in a musical, isn’t it?
It is yes. I toured with Barnum a couple of years back with Brian Conley, which started in Chichester and then went on tour. I was very nervous about touring because my daughter was doing her GCSEs so it wasn’t the most ideal time to be trekking off but she was able to tour with me for half of it once she’d finished her exams. I’ve always been fortunate that I’ve been able to stay at home a lot whilst working in the West End but I have to say [laughs] I couldn’t get over how much nicer the audiences were. It’s interesting because you can’t have both – you can’t be at home but have those warm audiences you get on tour. They’re so thrilled that you’ve come to them. A lot of the time I’m performing for tourists in London so it was nice to play your own country, so to speak. That’s one of the things I’m most looking forward to about Blood Brothers, apart from having a crack at the part of course.
What do you have to have with you on the road?
Throat sweets. And actually it’s my husband this time. He can work from wherever so he’s coming on tour with me, which is great. So it’s throat sweets, the husband and the dog. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Read our review of Blood Brothersat The Lowry.