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Second helpings of Dinnerladies

PUBLISHED: 14:17 27 June 2011

Dinnerladies

Dinnerladies

John Kemp

There will be laughter - and a few tears - on the menu when Victoria Wood's Dinnerladies returns to Norwich Theatre Royal. EMMA LEE meets actress Sue Devaney, who is reprising the role of toast-loving Jane from the planning department.

As an actor, to have the chance to play one character on television that viewers take to their hearts is an achievement — so to score a hat-trick is something really special.

Sue Devaney has done just that.

To a generation she will forever be known as “our Rita” – Jonny Briggs’s big sister.

To Coronation Street fans she is remembered as Kevin Webster’s tearaway younger sibling Debbie. And to millions she is paramedic Liz Harker from Casualty.

A regular on our screens, she’s popped up in numerous other well-known roles too, including in Shameless, Heartbeat, Doctors and The Royal.

A gifted comedian to boot, she also played Jane – the toast loving woman from the planning department – in Victoria Wood’s much-loved ensemble piece Dinnerladies.

The show followed the lives and loves of the catering staff – and customers – from HWD Electronics: Bren, Tony, Twinkle, Anita, Dolly and Jean. Written in Wood’s warm, witty and accessible style it was hilarious and heart-breaking by turns. And the cast read like a who’s who of stage and screen, including Anne Reid, Thelma Barlow, Thora Hird, Maxine Peake, Shobna Gulati, Celia Imrie, Duncan Preston, Andrew Dunn and Victoria Wood herself.

A brand new stage show, Dinnerladies – Second Helpings, based on the hit show, is at Norwich Theatre Royal this week. As well as playing Jane, Sue also takes on another role, and has some very big shoes to fill – Bren’s awful mother, Petula, who was played on screen by Julie Walters.

Showing what a great actress she is, bubbly northerner Sue says that sometimes the audience doesn’t even realise that it’s her beneath the wig.

“We did the original series 13 years ago and it’s nice to play Jane again for the theatre,” Sue says. “And it’s brilliant to do Petula, the part that Julie Walters did in the TV series. A lot of people don’t recognise me – they think I’m just on at the beginning as Jane, they don’t realise I’m her as well. I think in this day and age, with so much doom and gloom, people want a good belly laugh and they’re guaranteed that with this show.”

In this new second stage version of the show – the first won rave reviews when it came to the Theatre Royal a couple of years ago – the staff of HWD Electronics have to take stock of their lives after they discover that the factory is closing down.

It’s a topical and bittersweet subject – but Victoria Wood’s terrifically observational writing provides plenty of comic relief.

“When I went for the audition, just to meet Victoria Wood was an amazing experience. And to work with people like Celia Imrie, Julie Walters and Thora Hird was fantastic,” says Sue.

“The show that we did last year was about Tony and Brenda – will they won’t they? This show is a combination of the first series and the second series, about the canteen closing down and what will happen to them all.”

Much-loved actor Andrew Dunn, another ex Weatherfield resident, who played Tony in the original Dinnerladies, is also returning. He is loving being reunited with his former co-star.

“Sue is brilliant as Petula. She really makes me laugh. She has had to adapt to a new role and she has done it brilliantly,” he says.

Sue is an accomplished stage actress – she’s appeared everywhere from the Royal Court to the Royal Exchange in shows such as The Wizard of Oz and the Beggar’s Opera.

Lancashire-born Sue has also done many radio plays and voiceover work – she can currently be heard on CBBC children’s animated cartoon Harry and Toto. She is also one half of the double act Mave and Maureen and has a comedy singing act called Double Bubble.

So what was it that made her want to become an actress?

“On a Sunday I used to watch Doris Day movies and I wanted to be Doris Day... I did school plays and I was part of the youth theatre. I got my first acting job when I was 14. I like to be other people. I like to work on good things.”

One of those things was, of course Jonny Briggs, the mid eighties Children’s BBC adaptation of Joan Eadington’s tales of a little boy and his furry sidekick, Razzle the Dog. With her cool cropped hair cut, Sue’s character, Jonny’s older sister “Our Rita” was a bit of a pin-up for teenage boys. “I can’t believe how many people remember that,” she laughs.

n Dinnerladies is at Norwich Theatre Royal from June 27-July 2, £19-£5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

IT WAS ALL A LAUGH

Thirteen years on from their last appearance on our TV screens, the Dinnerladies are still hugely popular. Victoria Wood had the first germ of an idea for the show while touring back in 1996. Once the tour was over, her hard work began.

“I sat in my office and lay there with my head on my arm like someone who didn’t want their sums copied. I wrote bits and threw them in the bin and I went round a couple of canteens and saw where they kept their gravy powder,” she said.

“I told people like Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie that I had really good parts for them in the hope that it might come true.

“Once I had six scripts I could bear to read more than once we started casting.”

This led to parts for the likes of Julie Walters, Celia Imrie and Thelma Barlow. Victoria says the casting experience bore fruit with some really strong actors making up the ensemble cast.

She said: “We met some really good actors and a couple of snotty horrors and at the end of it we had what I thought was a really strong cast. “I tend to go for people I can have a laugh with, assuming they can act, because although some dingbat said comedy is a serious business, I don’t really see why we should have less of a laugh than, say, dustmen.”

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