Express & Star

Lesley Joseph on her love of theatre and a new role in Sister Act

Lesley Joseph is known to many as Dorien Green from Birds of a Feather. Her stage work, however, has brought her to numerous local theatres and she’ll be returning again soon as she stars in Sister Act, next month.

Lesley Joseph

Joseph will bring considerable skill to her role, having won plaudits for extensive theatre work, including an Olivier-nomination for Young Frankenstein. She enjoys flitting between stage and screen, with that mix of work keeping her sharp.

She said: “If you asked me why I came into the business, it would be because I love theatre. I went to drama school in the 60s, and it was a very different world then. I grew up doing theatre and started first when I was seven.

“Theatre was always what I was destined to do and then gradually television took over. Birds of a Feather came along in 1989 and has never been off since! I love television, I love the opportunities television brings, but if I had to choose it would be theatre because I love the connection with the audience. With television can always do it again, whereas with theatre it’s a question of doing it that night and that’s your one chance."

Joseph has a rich list of shows she has appeared in and has been to the West Midlands many times, including a run at the Grand Theatre in 2016 as Miss Hannigan in Annie and in Calendar Girls back in 2012 as well as panto in 2006.

She says: “I think theatre is where my heart is. I love the atmosphere and the family you build. I love to stand in the wings and watch other people work. I also love what theatre can do to an audience. Live theatre can change people’s lives.”

She’s looking forward to playing in Sister Act, which is a much-loved movie as well as a musical. Prior to being asked to appear, she’d been aware of the production in its different iterations.

“I saw Craig Revel Horwood’s Sister Act revival with Alexandra Burke, so I was very aware of the show before I joined. The musical doesn’t have the music from the film, but it’s Alan Menken’s music, who is a genius. He’s been to see our show twice and loved it.

“I think people love the production because of the great music, and it’s very much an audience show. You leave feeling so uplifted. We were playing in London to 3,000 people per night, with every show packed full of people waving their arms in the air at the end and just having a fantastic time.”

Joseph will play Mother Superior, a role she looks forward to with relish.

“Well, Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her boyfriend shoot someone and gets put into hiding in a convent. Mother Superior who runs the convent is a very religious person, and suddenly into her world comes this woman who is a singer, who wears short skirts, who’s full of bling and very over the top. It’s about how these two worlds combine and ultimately rub off on each other.

“Mother Superior is quite strict and holy. She provides the juxtaposition of strict religious beliefs against this entirely over the top being, which is Deloris Van Cartier. You need the two extremes to rub up against one another, and quite a lot of sparks fly.”

It’s not just stage work that keeps Joseph busy. She appeared on Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome and met the Pope. It was a remarkable experience – and one she can choose to draw on when playing Mother Superior.

“Funnily enough whenever I’m in the show I do always think of this moment. I had half an hour with the Pope and I blessed him and made him laugh, and he gave me a medal to celebrate his six years in the papacy.

“I’ve always had a spirituality about me. I love going in churches. Whenever I go into a church I will always light a candle for both of my parents and Linda Robson’s mum, and say a quiet prayer. That’s a spiritual thing more than an actual religious thing. I always find churches very healing in a way. It’s a place to sit, contemplate and meditate, and you can come out feeling a slightly better person.”

Sister Act features a fantastic score by the multi award-winning Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid). It’s a remarkable piece and Joseph is a fan of the music.

“I think the soundtrack is amazing. I must say, the audience responses so far have made me feel like we’re doing a pop concert. My favourite song is one that Mother Superior has called ‘Here Within These Walls’ where she describes what life is like in the convent, and how the outside world is full of sin, but inside you find God and you find yourself.

“It’s a beautiful number, but probably the most serious number in the show to an extent. The other number I love is when Deloris first takes over the choir and she teaches them to sing and brings out their voices. It’s called ‘Raise Your Voice’. The audience just go wild. Up until then you’ve only heard the nuns sing very badly. It stops the show!”

Of course, in these post-Covid times, there’s a special sense of wonder as people are able to enjoy a different type of communion in local theatres. All of the cast members for Sister Act are looking forward to putting on a show. Joseph is no different: “I think audiences will take away a reinvigorated love for live theatre. It’s a production that also says something about community, and that’s one thing that the lockdown showed us was important – caring about your neighbours, caring about your friends, and helping those in need. It’s an absolutely joyous musical! To see the audiences at the end, where they stand waving their arms and singing along, they rediscover the joy of theatre.”

As a veteran of the stage, Joseph is thrilled to be playing with a new generation of performers who are looking to keep the flame burning bright for theatre.

“I don’t know if you remember a man called Quentin Crisp, he was very flamboyant and wonderful, and way before his time. He was avantgarde and he was an amazing character. He always used to call me ‘Miss Joseph’. His piece of advice was, ‘Miss Joseph, believe in fate, but lean forward where fate can see you’. I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I could give to anybody.”

Sister Act is at Birmingham Hippodrome from Tuesday October 4 until Saturday October 15.

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