Drama queen: why Michelle Collins commissioned her own play

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Drama queen: why Michelle Collins commissioned her own play


Thu, 19/01/2017 - 15:10


Michelle Collins is appearing in A Dark Night In Dalston, at the Park Theatre
Michelle Collins is appearing in A Dark Night In Dalston, at the Park Theatre
19 January, 2017

THE theatre should be a forum for discussing the world we live in today, says actor Michelle Collins – and her belief in the power of the stage to work as a prism to make sense of the here and now has prompted her to commission, produce and act in a new two-hander at the Park Theatre.

It is a return to the stage of the actor who became a household name for her roles in both EastEnders as Cindy Beale, and then Coronation Street as Rovers Return landlady Stella Price.

Her TV roles mean Michelle is a face everyone recognises, but she wanted to create a new project for herself rather than work in roles that casting directors were proposing.

The result is a play called One Night In Dalston, in which she stars as Gina, a former nurse living on a Hackney housing estate. Set over a 12-hour period, she offers a safe haven to an Orthodox Jewish man, Gideon, who has been attacked in the street and now cannot get home to Stanmore as darkness falls on the Sabbath. Gideon has to stay the night – while Gina’s husband Billy lies, incapacitated, in the bedroom of the small home. 

“I was looking for a new project, rather than waiting for a play,” says Michelle.

Her plan was to find a new piece of work she could take to Edinburgh and so she approached writer Stewart Permutt, whose work she knew.

“Edinburgh is all about new material, so I wanted to find something fresh,” she says.

“Stewart had written a monologue called Unsuspecting Susan, about a mother whose son had fought in Afghanistan, that I greatly admired. We met and I asked him to write me a play.”

Between them they discussed the type of characters Michelle wanted, the circumstances they would meet and the settings their story would unfold against. 

“I wanted it to be character led and I was also keen for it to be London-centric. 

“I wanted it to be about of a woman of my age. I wanted to touch on themes of loneliness, of being lost in a community, a sense of life passing by. And most of all I wanted it to feel real – think Joe Orton, Mike Leigh.”

Stewart, who is a creative writing teacher at The Actors Centre, completed an early draft last year and Michelle organised readings and showed it to others for feedback. 

“Miriam Margolyes read it and really liked it,” she says. “She said to me: ‘You really must put this play on’.”

The pressures and tensions of living in London through stressful economic times and the fractures this causes are discussed through the play. While Gina and Gideon may seem at first to have little in common, they have shared experiences of being Londoners that becomes clear as the story progresses.

Michelle adds she has noted there is a lack of working-class London dramas and hopes this play will offer something new.

“London dramas telling the lives of the people who make this city what it is are just not being written at the moment,” she says.

“To hear working-class voices, it tends to be from the regions – plays set in the North, in Scotland or in Wales. It sometimes feels that everyone thinks people in London are all well off, all posh. And in this play, I am going back to my own roots – it means I am being very honest.” 

Michelle grew up in Highbury – “I could never afford to live there now,” she laughs – and attended the Highbury Hill school as a child.

“We’d stop off and buy sticky buns and bags of chips,” she remembers.

“I can’t imagine the same experience for school children today. You see the people who make a city work being pushed out, priced out. 

“Even where there are lots of council flats, so many have been sold off. You cannot help but be sad to see it happening, and in the play, Gina sees this happening to her.”

Taking the story to the Park Theatre – behind Finsbury Park station – is another form of homecoming as it isn’t only in a neighbourhood she has known all her life, but helps support the vibrant fringe theatre that gave her experience when she was hoping to break into acting.

“The fringe theatre scene in London is vital,” she says.

“It is all about giving space to perform and offer new writing. Fringe is a vital cog in the performing arts and it is always under intense pressure.”

She recalls gaining experience as a young actress at The Gate in Notting Hill, and has seen first hand how off-West End theatres provide a soul for the performing arts in Britain today.

“We are living in an age when people in power do not believe the arts are important,” she says. Going to the theatre is an amazing experience that should be available to everyone. 

“The West End is so expensive to put on a play, and expensive to attend. This means more people are going to fringe theatre.”

She says that fringe is a major bulwark in the battle against a trend to sacrifice arts in harsh economic times.

“What is the first subject they always cut? It’s drama,” she says.

“It doesn’t matter if children pursue the arts as a career – it helps people look at the world around them in another way.”

A Dark Night In Dalston is at the Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP from March 7. See www.parktheatre.co.uk

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