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Dec 3rd

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Bob Stott

By Steve Burbridge


She’s the heart and soul of the Customs House pantomime and one of the most-loved characters of all. She’s the mother of Cooksonville’s resident village idiot, Tommy, often the ship’s chief cook and bottle-washer or the proprietor of a Chinese laundry. Sometimes she’s a skint circus owner or a put-upon nursemaid. She’s often unlucky in love and desperate for a man to take care of her but, one thing is for certain, pantoland is going to be a lot less comedic and colourful without good old Dame Dotty.

This year’s production of Dick Whittington marks the end of an era at the South Tyneside venue, as it will be the final pantomime in which Dame Dotty struts her stuff. Her alter-ego, Bob Stott, has decided that, after an amazing 37 years in panto, it’s time to dispense with the dresses, wave goodbye to the wigs and give Dotty a send-off with style.

“I feel the time is right to move on,” says Bob, 66, who lives in Washington. “Not only right for me, but right for the Customs House, too. Everything changes in life and if you don’t change with it you get sucked into the dinosaur trap.”

But Bob is in no doubt that ‘the little panto with the big heart’ will continue to flourish and grow – even without the hilarious and loveable Dame Dotty.

“Ray Spencer is brilliant at producing pantomime and he is perfectly capable of putting a cast in place that will see the Customs House pantomimes continue to endure for many years to come. It is such a big part of Christmas in South Tyneside. The way Ray crafts a pantomime is amazing and he is also a very generous and giving performer.”

Ray and Bob’s comedy partnership has spanned four decades and delighted tens of thousands of theatre-goers, bringing them back year after year and smashing box office records in the process. Last year’s production of Aladdin brought in almost 27,000 people and this year’s show looks set to hit new heights. Such is the audience demand to see Dame Dotty take her final bow that Dick Whittington will be the venues longest run to date.

“I don’t say this lightly”, says Bob, “but what’s brilliant about the panto is that we’re all a big family and the audience becomes part of that as we all celebrate Christmas together.”

And despite the gruelling schedule that goes alongside performing in up to three shows a day for almost six weeks, Bob has always maintained that there is nothing like a dame.

 “Being part of the panto is always fun, but it’s a lot of hard work as well, and this year we’re doing 78 shows. For that whole time you have to be completely dedicated to your character and believe that you are them.”

Bob has very clear ideas about who and what Dame Dotty is, too.

“As a Dame, you have to be everybody’s mother, mother-in-law, auntie, friend and next door neighbour. I, personally, see Dotty as the archetypal Geordie wife: she likes a bet; she likes a tipple; she dotes on one son and despairs of the other, but she loves them both and worries about them. She’s also always looking for Mr Right to come along and she has a heart of gold.”

So, who does Bob consider to be the quintessential pantomime dame?

“Arthur Askey, Les Dawson and Terry Scott were all great Dames. Funnily enough, a lot of people say I remind them of Arthur Lucan as Old Mother Reilly.”

Obviously, throughout a career which has lasted 37 years, Bob has many fond memories to reflect upon.

“You really couldn’t print some of the funny stories that have happened over the years, not to mention the jokes Ray and I share in the dressing room. We have such fun together and I am proud to say we’ve never had a row.”

Bob, a grandfather of four and a great grandfather of two, can also recall the productions he has most and least enjoyed.

“My favourite pantomime was Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it was absolutely magical. I still have the soundtrack and play it in the car quite often,” he says.

“The panto I least enjoyed was Mother Goose because the dame is a sad dame. She wants to be beautiful and gives the goose away to achieve her wish. When I did my first pantomime, at the Westovians, it was Mother Goose and I realised how powerful the role of Dame is after I sent the goose away. This little girl came to the front of the stage, crying her eyes out, and said: ‘Please don’t send Priscilla away’. Well, I was devastated and ended up spending five minutes consoling the girl and a further ten consoling myself.”

The stagecraft associated with performing in a traditional slapstick pantomime is extremely physical and, in his time as Dame Dotty, Bob has sustained more than his fair share of injuries.

“Last year I had to perform with damaged ligaments for three weeks. I’ve also performed, in the past, with a broken rib and I no longer wear high-heeled shoes because I always end up breaking my toes,” he says.

“Luckily, I’ve never lost my voice but I have come very close to that frustrating point where you can’t give everything you want to give. That is absolute torture for me because I hate to think I’d be short-changing the audience.”

It’s very evident that the audience is extremely important to Bob and both he and his sidekick, Ray Spencer, always ensure they have a great time.

“It’s all about understanding your character and perfecting comedy timing. Ray and I are renowned for our ad-libbing and people often say: ‘Oh, I love it when you forget your lines’. But, of course, we know the script inside out – we have to because you can’t go back to something you don’t know.”

And, despite the fact that he will be taking his final curtain call in this year’s panto, he is already excited about next year’s show.

“I’m going to miss Dotty, all the gang and most of all our wonderful audience,” he admits. “But this time next year I can sit amongst them and enjoy the show from a whole new perspective.”

Dick Whittington is at the Customs House, South Shields, until Sunday January 6, 2013. Tickets are priced from £8 to £17, with concessions available. To book call 0191 454 1234 or log on to

Nov 28th

Haunting Julia

By Steve Burbridge



Haunting Julia – Darlington Civic Theatre

There is no disputing that Alan Ayckbourn is one of this country’s best contemporary playwrights. The trademark wit and masterful insight into the human condition sets him apart from his peers. However, with Haunting Julia, he seems to have ventured into a genre to which he is, clearly, not very suited – the supernatural thriller.

Chronicling the life – and subsequent suspected suicide – of Julia Lukin, a musical prodigy, from childhood to her demise at only nineteen, through three characters who all knew her to varying degrees, there should be plenty of opportunity to build tension and suspense. Unfortunately, Ayckbourn’s wordy and verbose monologues create something of a barrier which is reinforced by an implausible scenario and some clichéd characterisations.

The audience is introduced to Joe, the boorish, overbearing father who stifled Julia with his misguided parental pride; Andy, her former co-student and brief boyfriend, and Ken, a local psychic. The action takes place in the building which housed Julia’s cramped and dank attic flat, which has now been recreated into a visitor centre in her memory – complete with her room restored to the way it was during her student days.

It is established early on in the play that Julia shunned her father during her time away from home, despite the fact that her parents moved to within a few miles of her, and that he never visited her flat. That, in itself, makes it extremely questionable as to how Joe would have any kind of contact with Andy, as, in all likelihood, they probably never met. It is possible to pick other holes in the plot if one were inclined to do so.

What is more difficult to deduce is where to apportion the blame for the lack of credibility of the characters: is it the writing, the direction or the performances? Duncan Preston, as Joe, paces lethargically around the set – all hands like spades and feet like boats – as though imitating a giant sloth. Joe McFadden, as Andy, seems to offset Preston with his over-projection and exaggerated facial expressions (His eyebrows worked so hard as featured performers that they should have been allocated a dressing room of their own!), while Richard O’Callaghan, as Ken, adopted a ridiculously camp voice and eccentric manner.

The loud bangs, flickering lights and ringing alarms, which are supposed to elicit the jumps and squeals from the audience fall flat until the final scene, which is genuinely impressive. However, by that point, you are left with the feeling that it’s all too little, too late. Ultimately, Haunting Julia is a production which over-promises and under-delivers.

Steve Burbridge.


Haunting Julia runs until Saturday 1 December 2012.

To book telephone 01325 486 555 or visit

Nov 27th

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Sarah Jane Buckley

By Steve Burbridge

 SARAH JANE headshot.JPG

The two roles could not be any more different – as Mrs Darling in Peter Pan she is kindly and virtuous, but as Kathy Barnes in Hollyoaks she was a mad and meddling mother who caused chaos in her midst.

‘Kathy was a bit crazy, wasn’t she?’ laughs Sarah Jane Buckley, the actress who, in her three-and-a-half year stint on the soap, made Kathy Barnes a cult character. It’s now almost five years since Sarah Jane left the series, yet she is still constantly stopped by fans – even in the unlikeliest of places.

‘I still get recognised as Kathy - including on the top of the Rock of Gibraltar,’ she chuckles.

‘I was with my boyfriend and I asked him to pull over as we drove toward the top as I was suffering with vertigo. This woman began shouting we had to move and couldn’t park where we’d stopped before suddenly announcing that as it was Kathy Barnes we could park where we wanted!

‘I’m gobsmacked when people recognise me, but I’ve never had anyone say they hated me, or that they didn’t like what Kathy got up to,’ says Sarah Jane.

And, boy, did Kathy get up to some dastardly deeds. From seducing her daughter Sarah’s boyfriend and then blackmailing him into breaking up with her, to kidnapping the baby of her other daughter, Amy, and waging war on her neighbours, the Ashworth’s, Kathy was at the centre of a series of sensational and shocking storylines.

The decision to leave Hollyoaks was made by producer Bryan Kirkwood, rather than Sarah Jane herself, and she admits it was a disappointing one.

‘I never wanted to leave, because I loved playing Kathy,’ she explains. ‘I think they could have done more with her.’

However, Sarah Jane picked herself up, dusted herself down and returned to her musical roots, starring in a number of high profile stage roles, including Gina in Pop Star! and Eva Cassidy in Over The Rainbow, a biographical musical-play chronicling the life of the tragic singer.

‘To play Eva Cassidy is quite simply the role of a lifetime,’ says Sarah Jane. ‘To sing 24 songs a night, in a lead role, is phenomenally rare and I don’t think it happens in many other shows. I was on stage constantly and the acting element was as important as the singing. It was a mammoth part and incredibly challenging.’

But Sarah Jane’s background stood her in good stead to cope with the demands which accompany the role of leading lady. Indeed, she made her first television appearance, at the age of 17, singing on an ITV talent show, ‘Scramble’, hosted by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.

She went on to train at The Guildford School of Acting and, upon graduating, entered the world of musical theatre to play roles in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Oliver! and Elvis The Musical.

Sarah Jane then formed a cabaret duo called The Polka Dots, alongside fellow actress Jo Michaels, and for six years they travelled the world with comedians and artistes including The Chuckle Brothers and Joe Pasquale.

So, Sarah Jane’s acting and singing talents will, undoubtedly, be a welcome addition to this year’s pantomime at the Sunderland Empire, Peter Pan.

‘Panto is such a wonderful experience,” says Sarah Jane. ‘Peter Pan is such a great story and lots of fun. I just love seeing children coming to the theatre. Some people ridicule panto but I see it as a great way to give children a real theatre experience which is massively important.

‘If just one child grows to love theatre as a result of seeing our panto, then I feel we will have done our job.’

And Peter Pan is Sarah Jane’s favourite pantomime, too. She has performed as Mrs Darling in Malvern, Rhyl, Tunbridge Wells and Lowestoft, with Sunderland marking her fifth consecutive season in the role.

As well as playing Mrs Darling, Sarah Jane also performs as a mermaid in the production.

I play Mrs Darling quite straight but then play the Magical Mermaid as a real down-to-earth Liverpool lass, heavy Scouse accent, the works. It’s such fun and a real hoot.

‘It always makes me chuckle, after the show, when someone asks where the Scouse accent has gone? At least I know I must have been convincing when that happens.’

Although Sarah Jane is in constant demand and working regularly on stage, she has her sights set on an alternative television career.

‘I’d love to be a presenter on television programmes like This Morning or Loose Women,” she reveals. “I have actually done a lot of hosting and interviewing on stage for corporate events, so it’s definitely something I’d enjoy doing on television.’ 

And if that particular role does not materialise, she would never rule out a return to Hollyoaks.

‘I’d really love it if Kathy were to return with a toy boy in tow!’ she admits. ‘Everyone always says to me, “Oh, I wish you were still in Hollyoaks”, to which I reply, “Why? Kathy was so terrible”. Maybe we should start a campaign to have her brought back.’

But if that call never comes, Sarah Jane has wouldn’t mind trying her hand in another soap.

I love soaps, they are never boring. You can really develop a character, too. I auditioned to play Stella Price in Coronation Street, but it’s understandable why Michelle Collins got the role, as her profile is massive.’

Not easily deterred, though, Sarah Jane would also jump at the chance to become a diva of the dales.

‘I live in the North now, so a part in Emmerdale would be absolutely smashing!’

For the time being, though, Sarah Jane can’t wait to begin performing in Peter Pan.

‘We have a really lovely cast and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be part of the team who are bringing pantomime back to the Sunderland Empire. I can’t wait to get started!’


Peter Pan is at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland, from Thursday, December 13, 2012 until Saturday, January 6, 2013. Tickets are on sale now and are priced from £10 to £25, with concessions available. To book call 0844 817 3022 or log on to



Nov 22nd


By Steve Burbridge


 Encore 1.jpg

Encore – The Customs House, South Shields

There’s something reassuringly cosy and familiar about Encore. Like a favourite pair of slippers, you know that as soon as they go on you will feel comfortable, soothed and relaxed.

There are those who might say that the group are slightly predictable and a little formulaic, but it would take a brave soul to voice such dissent in the Customs House, where a large band of loyal followers flock to see the group perform their cabaret shows, again and again.

In fact, Encore are masters of their craft and they adhere to the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I have had the pleasure of watching productions by them on several previous occasions, so it is a rare treat to arrive at a theatre safe in the knowledge that you are guaranteed a great night’s entertainment.

Proceedings got off to a rousing start with a medley of upbeat band-themed numbers including Come Follow The Band, Alexander’s Rag Time Band, 76 Trombones and, a personal favourite of mine, Before The Parade Passes By from Hello, Dolly!

Then, the mood turns to the romantic with a selection of love songs by Burt Bacharach, such as Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, Close To You and I Say A Little Prayer. The songs, as always, are utilised to facilitate the storyline of the sketch that is taking place simultaneously.

The spotlight is also shone on the world of musical theatre, with both Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins receiving the Encore treatment. If I were to nit-pick at all, it would be to suggest that the Mary Poppins segment went on for slightly too long. That said, I wouldn’t have wanted them to omit the brilliant performance of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious which the audience and myself absolutely loved!

The highlight of the second act, for me, was a wonderful foray into pantoland where all the familiar characters (Snow White, Cinderella, Goldilocks, Captain Hook, The Wicked Queen, The Ugly Sisters, Buttons and Peter Pan) were present. However, it was Caroline Wells (as an hilarious Humpty Dumpty) and Gareth Hunter (as a terrific Tinkerbell) who stole the show, with Patricia Haws’ principal boy thigh-slapping pins taking a well-deserved third place.

Once again, Encore has proven that variety is alive and well. We, in the North East, are fortunate to have this calibre of entertainment performed live on stage in such a beautiful venue as the Customs House. If I had my way, Encore would have a prime-time slot on Saturday night television, too!

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 24th November 2012.
Tickets (£8-£13): Buy Online

Nov 20th

Soul Sister

By Steve Burbridge



Soul Sister – Darlington Civic Theatre

The popularity of the jukebox musical continues to rise as Soul Sister soars into the Civic, direct from the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End. With so many theatrical productions, nowadays, being built around the back catalogues of pop music’s biggest stars (Queen - We Will Rock You, Madness - Our House, Boney M - Daddy Cool, Barry Manilow - Can’t Smile Without You . . . you get the point, right?), it was inevitable that, at some point, the music of Ike and Tina Turner would form the basis of a stage show.

However, Soul Sister doesn’t just showcase the hits – it also tells the story of the life and times of Ike and Tina, following the highs and lows, passions and heartbreak of the couple as their careers soared and their marriage crumbled. Okay, so the storyline may be slightly superficially slotted into a stunning song set and delivered with corny comic strip projections to substitute sets and scenery but, in all honesty, the vast majority of audience members had come along to hear classic Tina Turner hits such as Private Dancer, Proud Mary, What’s Love Got To Do With It? and Simply The Best. What they really wanted to do was have a party.

Notices hastily posted around the theatre informed patrons that the leading lady, acclaimed newcomer Emi Wokoma, was unwell and her part would be played by understudy Rochelle Neil. It was an opportunity Miss Neil grabbed with both hands and nailed with precision. Her stunning vocals were utilised brilliantly as she belted out the big anthems including R-E-S-P-E-C-T and River Deep, Mountain High, whilst also seducing the audience with beautifully delivered ballads such as Help and I Don’t Wanna Fight Anymore.

Miss Neil’s acting was also convincing as she portrayed Tina Turner through her transition from gawky teenager to abused wife to global icon. Chris Tummings, as Ike, had a far more difficult job in playing an ostensibly unlikeable, controlling, abusive and neurotic man but he did so with great aplomb – even managing to elicit a degree of sympathy from the audience, at times.

Supporting roles were well played – even if the indisposition of Miss Wokoma caused something of a domino effect throughout the cast, with performers having to move up a role to cover her absence – and the choreography was well-executed and suitably evoked the style of the period.

Although, in principle, I am not a great fan of productions (other than pantomime) which encourage audience participation, dancing in the aisles, and other such distracting behaviour, I have to admit that Soul Sister did have even me tapping my feet to the beat of those epic Turner hits.

Steve Burbridge.

Soul Sister runs until Saturday 24 November 2012.

Nov 7th

Blood Brothers

By Steve Burbridge



Blood Brothers – Darlington Civic Theatre

It would be no exaggeration, on my part, to claim that I have now lost count of how many times I have seen Blood Brothers. Since first being introduced to the production at the Phoenix Theatre in London’s West End (which, incidentally, closes this weekend) in the mid-nineties, starring Siobhan McCarthy, I have seen the role of Mrs Johnstone performed by three of the Nolan sisters (Bernie, Linda and Maureen), Lyn Paul, Helen Hobson, Marti Webb and Niki Evans.

Such is the emotional impact of this fantastic piece of theatre that it has now established itself as a part of the cultural fabric of Britain, uniting theatre-goers from all walks of life in their enjoyment and admiration of this moving and compelling tale of twin brothers who, having been separated at birth, grow up on opposite sides of the social spectrum, only to meet again with tragic consequences.

The play centres around Mrs Johnstone, the single mother who struggles to cope with her seven unruly kids and the news that she is expecting twins. With ‘the welfare’ already looking over her shoulder, she desperately tries to hold things together but learns that ‘living on the never-never’ only makes things worse. Through a heady mix of religion, superstition and desperation, Mrs Johnstone is persuaded into giving one of her new-born sons to her infertile middle-class employer, Mrs Lyons and, in doing so, a chain of events is set in motion that will, inevitably, culminate in the heart-rending denouement, played out to the hauntingly beautiful and emotionally-charged Tell Me It’s Not True.

niki tell me its not true.jpg 
Having starred in the West End and several touring productions of Blood Brothers, Niki Evans reprises the lead role of Mrs Johnstone. She looks perfect for the part and is vocally impressive, too. Her clear, strong voice is powerful without being harsh and travels throughout the auditorium, raising hairs on the backs of necks as it goes. She can convey any emotion with a look or a gesture and her Liverpudlian accent is faultless.

pram 1.jpg 

The skilful and understated performance delivered by Evans is in stark contrast to that of her ‘leading man’.  Marti Pellow is billed as the ‘star’ of the show, which is something I disagree with, in principle, anyway. To me, Blood Brothers is the story of Mrs Johnstone – something which is supported by the lyric ‘and did you never hear of the mother so cruel, there’s a stone in place of her heart? Then bring her on and come judge for yourselves how she came to play this part’ – and the actress who plays her should be credited as the ‘star’.

 That said, Blood Brothers has often utilised ‘stunt casting’ as a way of appealing to audiences who may not ordinarily consider going to the theatre. Indeed, it is claimed that Willy Russell had specifically written the part of Mrs Johnstone for “a pop star who could sing wonderfully” and history demonstrates that this theory has been tried and tested many times, with successful, high-profile recording artistes such as Barbara Dickson, Kiki Dee, Petula Clark, Helen Reddy, Carole King, Lyn Paul, the Nolan’s, Mel C and Natasha Hamilton donning the crossover pinny and care-worn smile to play her.

Similarly, the Narrator has been played by big ‘names’ including Carl Wayne, David Soul, John Conteh and even Willy Russell himself. So, perhaps, it is entirely understandable why former Wet Wet Wet frontman Marti Pellow would be cast in the role. After all, he has proven himself to be a competent musical theatre performer (having played leading roles in Chicago, The Witches of Eastwick and Jekyll & Hyde) who, by his own admission, prefers the darker roles. However, it appears that he has totally misinterpreted the part.
Marti Pellow as the Narrator in Blood Brothers 2 - credit Keith Pattison.jpg

Whereas other Narrators I have seen (including Craig Price, Robbie Scotcher, Keith Burns, Scott Anson and Mike Dyer) opt to perform the role as a sinister, spectral figure who skulks around the shadows of the stage, pondering the consequences of each and every decision Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons make, reminding them both that ‘the Devil’s got your number’, Pellow is far less subtle. He thrusts himself into the foreground, pulling focus relentlessly, and adopts the persona of some kind of psychotic, stalking menace, adding a number of profanities in places where there have previously been none. Instead of personifying the moral consciences of Mrs Johnstone and Mrs Lyons, he attempts to be the Devil made manifest. And his Liverpudlian accent was, at best, variable.

The absence of Sean Jones, as Mickey, left a void that fell to James Templeton to fill. Jones (who is currently part of the ‘dream-team’ ultimate cast, assembled to ensure the West End production ends in a blaze of glory) has, over a number of years, honed and developed his performance to a degree that he is now the quintessential Mickey to many of the shows aficionados. James Templeton is to be commended for his valiant effort and the odd fluffed line can easily be overlooked, yet his characterisation never quite exuded the emotional gravitas which Jones consistently delivers by the bucket load.

Still, the return of Daniel Taylor (who has recently been indisposed due to illness) was a very welcome one. Much like Sean Jones as Mickey, Taylor has made the role of bad-boy Sammy very much his own. Tracy Spencer, as Mrs Lyons, also perfectly depicts the manipulative, barren and selfish woman who puts her own wants and desires above everybody else’s – whatever the cost. The solid supporting cast includes Tim Churchill as Mr Lyons, Olivia Sloyan as Linda and Tori Hargreaves as Donna Marie.

Such is the sheer strength and popularity of Blood Brothers as a piece of theatre that it can withstand a minor distraction or two. It is a production that goes from strength to strength, its appeal growing over the years rather than diminishing; a powerful play that it can be watched time and time again without ever losing any of its emotional impact or social relevance.

Wherever it is performed, Blood Brothers receives a standing ovation from an approving audience and press night was no exception. This production is heart-warming, tear-jerking, uplifting, devastating and, above all else, brilliant!

Steve Burbridge.

Blood Brothers runs at Darlington Civic Theatre until Saturday 10 November, 2012, before continuing to tour.


Nov 4th

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Debbie Arnold

By Steve Burbridge


Actress Debbie Arnold talks to STEVE BURBRIDGE about joining the cast of Britain’s best-loved soap.

Setting foot on the hallowed cobbles of Coronation Street may be a daunting prospect for even the most experienced of actresses, but for Sunderland-born Debbie Arnold it feels like a homecoming.

‘About thirty years ago I played the part of Sylvie Hicks, a girlfriend of Mike Baldwin’s father, Frankie,’ says Debbie. ‘It was around the time of Dallas and Dynasty, when a man in his seventies could be seen with a girl in her twenties on his arm and nothing odd was thought of it.’

Debbie has the honour of having appeared in all of the major British soaps. At various points in her highly successful career she has played April Branning in EastEnders, Debbie Wilson in Emmerdale and Janice Bolton in Hollyoaks. It’s something she’s extremely proud of.

‘I think a lot of people may have appeared in a lot of the soaps, but possibly not as regular characters, and I don’t know if anyone else has actually done all four,’ she says. ‘All my characters have been totally different and there was even one period when I was on air playing Janice in Hollyoaks and April in EastEnders at the same time.’

Now, though, Debbie is poised to make a return to Weatherfield as Carole Evans.

‘She’s the landlady of the Weatherfield Arms and an old acquaintance and sparring partner of Stella Price,’ Debbie reveals.

During their reigns as Queen of the Rovers Return, the larger-than-life landladies of the most famous pub in Britain have always had to contend with rivals from other bars. Bet Lynch had to suffer the scheming Stella Rigby from The White Swan, whilst Annie Walker revelled in the long-running game of one-upmanship she played with the licensee of The Laughing Donkey, Nellie Harvey (who was portrayed by Mollie Sugden).

So, is that the kind of relationship we can expect to see between Stella Price and Carole Evans?

‘If it’s the same sort of relationship I’d be delighted because it was very bitchy and also very funny,’ says Debbie, enthusiastically. ‘Mollie was one of my most favourite actresses and my absolute idol, so if Michelle and I could replicate or emulate what they had it would be fantastic.’

annie walker and nellie harvey.jpg

Debbie is looking forward to working with fellow ex-EastEnder Michelle Collins, who plays Stella, and also catching up with some old friends.

‘I’ve worked a lot with Nigel Havers and because I’ve been in the business for quite a while, I know most of the people anyway. We see each other at the soap awards and various other events, so I’ve never gone out of their radar.’

Although some aspects of working on the top-rated soap have not changed, others certainly have, including the pace at which the programme is produced.

‘There’s a huge amount of difference in that respect,’ admits Debbie. ‘There was a rehearsal period when I was last there and, of course, there isn’t any more. We were only doing two episodes a week and there are now five, so it’s massive.

‘We would rehearse on Monday’s and Tuesday’s, have the run on Wednesday, have Thursday morning off, film on Thursday afternoon and all day Friday and have the weekend to learn our lines,’ she recalls.

Nevertheless, Debbie is used to the demands of working on series’ which are broadcast all year round.

‘They all have different ways of filming,’ she says. ‘But my favourite has always, always been Corrie, probably because I hail from the North.’

Debbie was actually brought up in Ashwood Terrace in Thornhill, Sunderland.

‘It used to be a toss-up, every night, whether to wet the bed or get up and go to the toilet because it was so cold,’ she laughs.

However, Debbie has only fond memories of her former home city, adding that she still supports the Black Cats. And despite the fact that she has lived in Surrey for many years, she can still revert to her native accent at the drop of a hat.

Indeed, it is due to her extraordinary talent for mimicry of accents and voices that Debbie became the country’s top voice-over artiste.

‘For twenty-five years, you could hear me in virtually every commercial break,’ she jokes. ‘I never ever had a week out of work and I was the voice of everything from Red Bull to Asda to Ford, but now my daughter, Ciara, seems to have taken over the crown.’

A showbiz career was, perhaps, inevitable for Debbie. Her father, Eddie, was an impressionist and her mother, Mary, a theatrical agent. After a brief spell working as a secretary, Debbie’s talent was spotted by comedian Johnny More, who introduced her to the producer of Now Who Do You Do?, and her fate was sealed.

She went on to appear in many of television’s top-rated sitcoms, such as The Liver Birds, Terry and June, Don’t Wait Up and Birds of a Feather and played diverse roles in hundreds of television dramas, including Holby City, Footballers Wives, Doctors, The Bill, All Creatures Great and Small, Miss Marple and Minder.

Her theatrical career has been equally impressive. She has many West End credits to her name, such as Women Behind Bars, Four in a Million, Lives of the Wives, Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Sleeping Prince, in which she was leading lady to Omar Sharif. Her most recent stage role saw her take on the character of Rose, sister of the social-climbing Hyacinth Bucket, in the national tour of Keeping Up Appearances.


And yet, she has still managed to avoid becoming typecast.

‘I made the business work for me,’ says Debbie, her voice revealing a trace of steely determination. ‘If you’re not doing television or theatre you do radio or voiceovers, you know. You juggle around, but you’ve got to be doing something else within the industry – the minute you come out and start doing things that aren’t connected, you might as well forget it. You’ve got to be committed.’

·         Debbie Arnold will be appearing in Coronation Street from 5th November onwards.


Oct 29th

Marti Pellow & Niki Evans Feature

By Steve Burbridge

Marti Pellow as the Narrator in Blood Brothers - credit Keith Pattison.jpg

Few stage shows have received quite such acclaim as the multi-award-winning Blood Brothers, written by Willy Russell. The captivating and moving tale of twin brothers who, having been separated at birth, grow up on opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with tragic consequences, continues to receive standing ovations at every devastating performance. The critics have described it as ‘unmissable and unbeatable’ and hailed it as ‘the musical for all time.’

Yet, this accolade is something that Marti Pellow doesn’t wholeheartedly agree with.

“I think Blood Brothers is more a play with some songs,” asserts the former Wet Wet Wet frontman, who is currently appearing as the ominous Narrator in the touring production. “It’s a little bit different from other musicals.”

The multi-platinum selling recording artist has, in recent years, made a hugely successful transition from pop pin-up to fully-fledged West End leading man. His roles have included Darryl Van Horne in The Witches of Eastwick, Billy Flynn in Chicago and the starring role in Jekyll & Hyde.

“I prefer the darker side of musical theatre,” he admits. “I really wouldn’t be interested in performing in the ‘bubbly’ musicals.”

So, is his current role sufficiently dark and challenging?

“I’m on stage more than anybody else, with the exception of Mrs Johnstone, so the role of Narrator is just as much of a challenge as any of the others I’ve done,” he explains. “It has a stillness that speaks volumes – I hope I do it justice.”

Pellow’s desire to perform well is something that is shared by Niki Evans who stars as the pivotal character, Mrs Johnstone.

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“When I first played the part, back in 2008, I didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be to put that level of emotion in,” she admits. “I cry every night during the final scene, it just gets me to the point where I’m absolutely sobbing my heart out.”

Evans recalls watching Blood Brothers for the first time and the impact it had on her.

“When I saw Lyn Paul play the part I was just absolutely speechless, her performance broke my heart and tore me to shreds. She was absolutely brilliant.”

During the last four years, Niki has reprised the role of Mrs Johnstone several times, having taken breaks to appear in Legally Blonde and pantomimes.

“The thing is, you have to take breaks when you’re playing such a big, emotionally-draining role,” she explains. “It’s not fair on the public if I’m just a robot saying lines and not feeling anything. I want the audience to go away feeling like I did when I saw Lyn Paul do it.”

Undoubtedly, the demands of performing in eight shows a week can sometimes take its toll, but Pellow and Evans are philosophical.

“I’ve been on the road for the last twenty-five years really, doing shows at night,” says Marti, matter-of-factly. “This is very similar.”

“You have to remember it’s a job not your life,” adds Niki. “So, you have to kind of detach yourself from what you’re doing.”

Both Evans and Pellow have performed in the West End production of Blood Brothers at the Phoenix Theatre in Charing Cross Road, yet they each prefer the touring version.

“Touring audiences seem to ‘get it’ more than the West End, which has international audiences where the first four or five rows may be foreign and might not understand the references or accent,” Marti explains.

“I don’t really like London,” admits Niki. “I’m not a West End Wendy, I’m not a diva, I’m a working class Mum – and proud of it, as well.”

Although Niki’s association with Blood Brothers has spanned four years, Marti has only been involved with the production since 2011. However, during that time he has appeared opposite four different actresses playing Mrs Johnstone – Amy Robbins and Vivienne Carlyle in the West End and Maureen Nolan and Niki Evans on tour.

Niki has a great deal of empathy for her onstage alter-ego, a woman who starts out as a twenty-something single mother ‘with seven hungry mouths to feed and one more nearly due’, but ends up a down-trodden, distraught grandmother who has to comprehend the most tragic of events.

“Through a mixture of superstition and religion, she is bamboozled into giving one of her new-born twins away, but she is a very down to earth, loving, strong woman. Mrs Johnstone is such a fantastic character that once you’ve played her she never leaves you, she’s always with you.”

In complete contrast, Marti’s character is the sinister, spectral figure who skulks around the shadows of the stage, pondering the consequences of each and every decision Mrs Johnstone makes, reminding her that ‘the Devil’s got your number’. Pellow’s compelling and charismatic presence and captivating voice is perfectly suited to the role.

“I try to do a musical every couple of years,” he reveals. “Sometimes it’s like waiting for a bus and a couple will come along that I want to do.”

So, is Blood Brothers a bus he immediately knew he wanted to board?

“I thought: ‘Aye, I will do that’.”

It seems particularly pertinent that, in an age of recession, Blood Brothers’ themes are based upon social injustice and the systematic failures in dealing with the psychological fall-out.

“Willy Russell writes from his heart and from his own personal experiences,” says Niki. “Everything that happens in the play is happening in this country now. It really does reflect real life.”

Although Blood Brothers is famed for its devastating climax and emotionally-charged closing number, Tell Me It’s Not True, it also includes some great comedic moments.

“When I first watched the show, I was surprised by how funny it is,” admits Niki. “The whole piece is absolutely brilliant.”

Marti agrees: “For a couple of hours people want to leave their own lives behind, come to the theatre, and be entertained. The thing about musical theatre is that it’s all about escapism.”

Blood Brothers is at the The CivicTheatre, Darlington, from Monday 5 to Saturday 10 November. Tickets cost from £18 to £31 (concessions available). To book, call 01325 486 555 or log on to

Oct 18th

Great Expectations

By Steve Burbridge

Jack Ellis (Jaggers), Taylor Jay-Davies (Young Pip) and Steve North (Joe) in GREAT EXPECTATIONS credit Alastair Muir.jpg

Great Expectations – Darlington Civic Theatre

The publicity material for Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations promised a ‘lavish, spectacular and unashamedly theatrical show (which) brings some of the most memorable characters ever created to life’.

Most theatre critics are accustomed to such hyperbole and we disregard it with the proverbial pinch of salt. However, it is only in the rarest of cases that such tag-lines can genuinely be considered as understatements. This production of Great Expectations is a case in point.

From the moment the curtain rose to reveal Robin Peoples’ magnificent set, I was certain we were in for something special. Indeed, the production values throughout the show were never anything less than utterly outstanding and the creative team are to be congratulated and commended for such perfection. The stunning combination of costume, jewellery, make-up, millinery, wigs and masks all resulted in an exquisite show that was altogether more ambitious than any other adaptation of a period piece that I can think of.

Gloriously gothic, deliciously dark and, at times, marvellously macabre, there was a tone and style to the piece that would not have been out of place in one of Tim Burton’s movies.

The stellar cast performed their roles with undisputed conviction and believability. Paula Wilcox presented the most sympathetic portrayal of Miss Havisham I have ever been fortunate enough to witness, whilst Jack Ellis was an imposing and impressive Jaggers. Chris Ellison’s performance as Magwitch was superbly understated, and Taylor Jay-Davies was perfect as Pip, skilfully and completely believably, developing from boy to man before our very eyes.

Staged as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Charles Dickens, this adaptation visits Darlington prior to its West End transfer. It is a production that I would urge people to see because, quite frankly, in all likelihood it may be another two hundred years before an adaptation of such quality as this is produced.

Steve Burbridge.

Runs until Saturday 20th October 2012.




Oct 14th

Steve Burbridge In Conversation With . . . Jack Ellis

By Steve Burbridge

Jack Ellis (Jaggers) in GREAT EXPECTATIONS credit Alastair Muir.jpg

Renowned for his roles in many of television’s top-rated drama serials, Jack Ellis has a reputation for playing the type of character we all love to hate. However, he has great expectations that his latest stage role will enable him to demonstrate his true range and versatility as an actor.

“On television, casting directors tend to go with what the safe option is,” says Jack Ellis.

He makes this comment in response to my observation that, on television at least, he seems to be rather typecast as an actor who is employed to portray characters ‘with a bit of an edge.’ It’s a suggestion which is met with an irascible rebuff.

“Listen, I’ve done Shakespeare, you know – I’ve played Kings, I’ve played Dukes. On stage I’m not typecast at all, I can play all sorts of different people.”

A glance through his impressive list of theatre credits does, indeed, verify his claim. Most recently Jack played Hastings in the Old Vic's production of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey, which also toured internationally, culminating in a successful run on Broadway. He is also a founder member of ATC London, for whom he performed all over the world in productions including Don Quixote, The Provoked Wife, The Tempest and Measure For Measure.

 He has worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Hamlet, Cymbeline and Twelfth Night and at the Queen’s Theatre in Much Ado About Nothing with Mark Rylance. He has also performed with The Agatha Christie Company in The Unexpected Guest and played Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men at The Haymarket Theatre and Leon Czolgosz in Assassins at the Donmar Warehouse.

 Nevertheless, on the small screen he will always be remembered for his roles as wide-boy bookie Harry Mason in Coronation Street and, more notably, corrupt prison officer Jim Fenner in Bad Girls.

 “Playing Fenner provided me with six years of employment and put me very much in the public eye,” Jack admits. “I enjoyed it, to a degree, and I even supplied some of the storylines, but by the end it became impossible for me to continue playing such a selfish, murdering rapist.”

 Surprisingly, despite playing such an evil and ruthless character, Jack didn’t receive that much hostility from members of the viewing public. He was spared the wrath of little old ladies hitting him with their walking sticks in the supermarket, which often seems to afflict many other television villains.

 “After the nine o’clock watershed, people have a very different view of television characters,” he explains. “They tend to associate more closely with soap characters than they do with characters in a drama – somehow, there seems to be more of a distance.”

 The lack of public attention is something which Jack enjoys.

 “I’m not a celebrity, I never have been,” he maintains. “I became an actor to work in the trade, to learn the skill of being able to turn into different people.”

 It is partly this ethos that attracted him to the role of Jaggers, the manipulative lawyer, in a new stage production of Great Expectations which is being staged to mark the bicentenary celebrations of the birth of Charles Dickens.

 “It’s a huge privilege to be involved in this particular production at this particular time,” says Jack. “It’s the only Dickens production around at the moment that looks as though it is going to go anywhere.”

 Indeed, this production is lavish, spectacular and unashamedly theatrical, and it brings to life some of the most grotesque and memorable characters ever created. The stellar cast also includes Paula Wilcox as Miss Havisham and Chris Ellison as Magwitch. It tours to Darlington prior to its West End transfer.

 “We are, in a way, characters within Pip’s imagination, so we are exaggerated. However, in this production, the characterisations are exaggerated even more than Dickens wrote them, so it is a bit reminiscent of a Tim Burton film.”

 This dark, gothic and intense production has been adapted by Jo Clifford and conceived and directed by Graham McLaren.

 “Dickens’ work has a very broad appeal,” explains Jack. “And the thing about this production is it is only two hours long. I’d encourage people to come and see it – it’s got a huge and beautiful set and a brilliant sound-scape of music and sounds that underscores the whole piece.”

 During recent years, the public appetite for period drama – both on stage and television – has become insatiable, and Jack has a theory for why this is the case.

 “I think in periods of recession there’s a great desire to hark back, it’s a bit of an escape. I also think that we are intensely proud of our Victorian past and, in a way, we like to hold the mirror up to our nature, which hasn’t really changed that much at all. We seem to love looking at ourselves through the spyglass, really.”

 Jack’s current theatre roles are something of a return to his first love, too.

 “I haven’t worked on television for about four years, I’ve just done stage work because that’s what I really love doing,” he admits.

 But, he has not completely ruled out returning to the small screen – if the role was right.

 “I would be very pleased to accept a television role which was more sympathetic,” he says. “But I think that’s going to take some time.”

Great Expectations is at the Civic Theatre, Darlington from Tuesday, October 16, 2012 until Saturday 20 October 2012. Tickets are priced from £17.50 to £26.50, with concessions available. To book call 01325 486 555 or log on to