Suranne Jones on gender roles in acting

PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 March 2014

Suranne Jones

Suranne Jones

Archant

Kevin Bourke catches up with Suranne Jones as she prepares for the role as a gender-bending time-traveller

Suranne Jones is so tired after a series of thirteen-hour days rehearsing for Orlando at the Royal Exchange that she can barely raise her voice above a croak to tell me that “before we even got to the previews my back was done in because of the flying harness and I was so completely bruised that instead of meeting my mates for a coffee or whatever I’d be sat in a bath of Epsom Salts! On my day off, I spent all day doing steam and drinking honey and lemon to try to get my voice back.

“So yeah it’s been pretty tough…”

However painful it may have been, it marks another huge step forward in the career of an actress, who when she left Coronation Street ten years ago said: “You have to believe you can have a life after a soap.”

That life has so far included the hugely popular TV cop show Scott And Bailey, the recent pilot of Lawless for Sky TV, a national tour in Beautiful Thing and, not coincidentally, an earlier stint at the Exchange, in Blithe Spirit, directed by Sarah Frankcom.

“Since then, Sarah and I had been really trying to find something that I could come back and do. We had read about ten or fifteen plays over the years. We were looking at musicals or plays with music and we looked at Mary Stuart and Therese Raquin. Then she introduced me to Max Webster, who directed To Kill A Mockingbird there, and sent me an email saying “read this, what do you think?” That was Sarah Ruhl’s script, based on the Virginia Woolf book Orlando. “I hadn’t read the book and I thought it was really magical, just a page-turner. Max told me about the style in which he worked - very European, physical theatre - so rehearsals would be a very different way of working from what I’d done before. I started to rehearse with a movement coach, a director and an aerial coach! So it’s a very different experience from Blithe Spirit.”

Despite its time-travel and gender-changing plot, Orlando is a lot funnier than people might expect.

“I hope so,’ she chuckles. “I think what happens is that once the audience get an idea that they are allowed laugh at Virginia Woolf then they really enjoy it. Sometimes at previews, that’s taken until Richard Hope, who’s six foot something and a 50-year-old man, comes on in a huge red wig as Queen Elizabeth!”

Her disciplined but enthusiastic approach to acting comes, she believes, from her early start at Oldham Theatre Workshop and to Coronation Street. “I started when I was eight and was a child actor for four years,” she says.

“Like a lot of children, the strictures of the education system just didn’t suit me. But my mum and dad believed in me in a way that I didn’t feel I was believed in at school.

“When I wanted to go to drama classes, my dad would come home from work, get his tea, take me on the bus to class, come home and then pick me up. Without him doing that and my mum working so hard, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

“When I did TV, I learned discipline and that I was prepared to be a jobbing actor. Being part of a team, working hard and not moaning, being punctual and knowing your lines – that, for me, was the lesson Corrie taught me. Basically, that hard work pays off.”

After she decided four years as Karen McDonald was long enough, scripts were coming in, but mostly to play “the partner of”, “the mistress of’.” She grimaces. “There’s a snobbery, I’m afraid, that exists around casting soap actors.” Then she and her ex-Corrie pal Sally Lindsay got the idea for Scott & Bailey. “There seemed to be a gap for female characters who were actually leading shows and people love a cop show, don’t they? So, over a couple of bottles of wine, we wrote a treatment. A bit Cagney & Lacey, but grittier and set in the north.

“I think it was a success because audiences took to these female lead characters and because it’s not self-consciously funny or dark. It’s just life.’

Despite the bumps, bruises and being on stage throughout, she also seems to be genuinely enjoying Orlando. “Virginia Woolf is a wonderful mix of fun, hedonism, gender, love and depression,” she believes. “Hopefully what we do is we make people laugh, then we give them a bit of a shock, then we show them that we actually take it quite seriously, then we make them laugh again. It’s quite a ride really.”

*Orlando is at the Royal Exchange until March 22nd.

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