West End star Jodie Prenger swaps singing for cooking chips and egg as Shirley Valentine
- Credit: Manuel Harlan
Having found fame being cast as Nancy in Oliver! on BBC's I'd Do Anything, West End star Jodie Prenger has never looked back. She tells us about her latest role as Shirley Valentine at Norwich Theatre Royal.
'If you fancy chips and egg, I've become a connoisseur,' laughs Jodie Prenger, the West End star who has been mastering the down to earth delicacy as part of her role as Shirley Valentine.
Her skills with the chip pan come from practice as she cooks live on stage every night in a new production marking the 30th anniversary of Willy Russell's classic, something that isn't as easy as it sounds.
'You know it was actually quite difficult to get the hang of. It's the timing of it. I know it sounds ridiculous but it's timed to certain lines in the script so getting it right in just the right point was tricky,' she adds, though she has it down to a fine art now.
'Watch out this Christmas their might be a cookery book: 101 ways to cook chips and egg! My bit of advice to the audience before they come to the show is to make sure you've eaten. You'll not be able to wait until after the show so you can have a chip butty.'
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Northern, blunt as a shovel and ready with a quick laugh, Jodie seems tailor-made for the role of Shirley, the Liverpool housewife whose kids have left home leaving her cooking for her husband while talking to the wall and feeling life has passed her by. Until out of the blue, her best friend offers a trip to Greece for two weeks and she secretly packs her bags.
'There is warmth about it and a down to earth grittiness, perhaps that's northern,' she says of the enduring appeal of Russell's one-character play, which went on to become a West End success and most famously a hit film starring Pauline Collins as Shirley and Tom Conti as Costas Dimitriades, the owner of a Greek tavern with whom she has a holiday romance.
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'It's got a cult following which is magnificent really. You say some lines and you get people in the audience finishing them for you when you're on stage. I think its really universal humour actually.'
Ironically given all this talk of chips and egg our chat comes amid the sound of clucking. 'I'm surrounded by my pet chickens and they think I've got them food,' she explains amid more laughter. 'You have to do these things when you've got a farm there is no one else to look after them.'
Jodie, who lives with businessman fiancé Simon Booth, has moved to what she describes as 'a little piece of heaven', part of an old farm, not far from Shrewsbury. They have quite a menagerie: dogs, chickens, tortoises, degus, you name it.
'Everyone needs a bit of heaven in a busy schedule,' she adds. 'I try to get home was much as I when I'm on tour because it is just nice to see your family, your fella and your animals.'
Born in Blackpool, that epicentre of northern showbiz, Jodie's parents Madeleine and Marty ran a hotel and one of her earliest memories is her grandmother miming along to Shirley Bassey to entertain guests.
'There was a buzz in Blackpool because of the performers who went there,' she has previously said. 'I was completely obsessed. My uncle knew Danny La Rue. I loved the drag queens you'd see performing and I was into all the old-time movie stars such as Doris Day and Judy Garland. I wanted to be like them.'
She began performing as a teenager when her dad would drive her to working men's clubs — 'the toughest start you could have' — where she would sing songs from the musicals. By the age of 23 she was the warm-up act for the likes of Ken Dodd and Joe Pasquale, as well as performing on cruises and in gay bars.
Her first brush with TV came in The Biggest Loser, a strangely un-PC series that saw overweight contestants compete for a cash prize, with the aim of shedding as many pounds as they could. Jodie won the second series in 2006, dropped from 18 to 9.6 stones.
But her big break came when she won BBC1's I'd Do Anything a search overseen by judges Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh to find a young actress to play Nancy in a West End production of Oliver!
Almost 10 years on, Jodie, 38 – a size 16 and proud of every curve – has never stopped working since, with shows from Spamalot to Les Misérables and television roles in Hustle and Waterloo Road. More recently she appeared in One Man, Two Guvnors and toured the UK in the classic Lloyd Webber/Don Black one-woman musical Tell Me on a Sunday.
The later has proved a good grounding for appearing in Shirley Valentine, which unlike the film is a one-woman play told entirely from Shirley's perspective. 'That was a little daunting and there is no singing, its just me cooking chips live on stage and talking to the wall. But there are more little stories in the play and bits that weren't in the film. One of my favourites is a story of Brian, her son, and a nativity play. That really makes me laugh.'
Jodie read the play when she was 14. 'Like many people it captured me and I think that is what's amazing about what Willy Russell does. He makes the ordinary extraordinary. The way he writes it's a joy to perform. It makes audiences laugh out loud and it makes audiences cry.
'It's so poignant still today the message still rings true and not just for women, I think there are many men too who recognise it because it is just about being stuck in that rut.'
Does she identify with Shirley? 'You trying to say I'm going to go to Greece and find a Costas?' she shoots back in mock-indignation. 'No I feel more than lucky to nip home to clean out my chickens.
'Having said that perhaps when I think back to the I'd Do Anything days. I'd kind of given up trying for the West End. I'd tried so much but it had just never worked out. Though I was still singing I was stuck in a bit of a rut, never got that break. I'd kind of given up. That show in a way of was my version of the plane ticket that Shirley receives. It's finding the bravery to put your heart into something in front of the nation. That was my Shirley Valentine moment.'
This 30th anniversary production is being directed by Glen Walford, who was at the helmed of the original production at Liverpool's Everyman theatre back in the 1980s.
'She actually commissioned Willy Russell to write Shirley Valentine so she has directed almost all the stage versions, including the original production,' said Jodie. 'She is just magnificent. I call her Superwoman. Her insights into the show are amazing and it was really an honour to work with her. It really has felt like going back to the roots which I think is very endearing 30 years on.'
While Shirley Valentine is a comedy role involving more cooking than singing, Jodie is best known for stage musicals and she will be back singing later this year.
'The very next day that I finish the tour of Shirley Valentine in October I will be embarking on a new musical, written by Kay Mellor, with music by Nicholas Lloyd Webber, son of Sir Andrew. It's all new and it's based on Kay's TV series, Fat Friends, about the trials and tribulations of a group of women attending a slimming club. So that's something very exciting to be involved with and I'm really looking forward to it.'
• Shirley Valentine is at Norwich Theatre Royal from September 5-9, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Sept 7/9, £26.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk