Sue Devaney: ‘I didn’t start out in musical theatre, but you go where the work is’

Sue Devaney

While preparing to portray the entertainer Gracie Fields at Oldham Coliseum, Sue Devaney talks to David Hutchison about the Rochdale icon, being roommates with Patricia Hayes and touring the world with Mamma Mia!.

What made you want to take on the role of Gracie Fields?

I was brought up in Rochdale and I hold Gracie dear to my heart, because we grew up with her. She put Rochdale on the map, and I’ve always been interested in her as a human being. It’s that thing of coming from a very working-class background and having huge worldwide success, before the internet, before mobile phones.

What kind of pressure do you face when acting as one of your heroes?

All I can do is give my truth, and my interpretation of Gracie. She had an incredible voice and I haven’t got that voice, you know? She was so skilful at changing keys and going from one type of singing to another… but we’re getting there. It is daunting, but I’m taking it one day at a time.

You’ve acted in several musicals but also a lot of plays. Are you drawn to one over the other?

I never started off as a musical theatre person. To get my Equity card I was performing in pubs and clubs around Rochdale, but I never saw myself as this big musical singer. I’m an actress who can belt out a tune. But my career has gone more to that side recently. Also, you go where the work is. So if someone says ‘Do you want to do Mamma Mia!?’, I’ll try that.

A lot of your recent theatre credits are in and around Manchester…

I love it. And it’s new work. It’s about taking risks, and especially at Oldham. And it means I can stay at home.

Did you want to work in London?

I did live in London for 10 years. I went down to do When We Are Married in the West End. I was 18, had just come out of Coronation Street, and I shared a dressing room with Patricia Hayes. We ended up living together for seven years and were best of friends. She was 76 and I was 19.

Why did you leave?

London’s great when you’re young and ambitious, living the life and going out partying. As I got older I was missing the Pennines and my friends, so I moved back up north. But I spend my time now between London and here. Saying that, Mamma Mia! took me all over the world – I didn’t see my house for a year.

How tiring is a world tour of a major show like Mamma Mia!?

You don’t realise until you finish how tired you are, because you just keep going. When you get a job as a freelancer you tell yourself, “I can’t be ill until the end of this contract.” Now, normally, you do a show and it’s seven weeks. But a long contract like that you think: “Right, I’m signing the contract for 18 months. I’ll be ill in 18 months.”

CV: Sue Devaney

Training: Oldham Theatre Workshop (1981)
First professional role: Mildred Bailey, In Loving Memory (ITV Yorkshire)
Agent: Oliver Thomson, Cole Kitchenn

Our Gracie runs at Oldham Coliseum from March 4 to 26