‘We all need a bit of glamour in our lives, don’t we, darling?’ says Michelle Collins.
The glamour in question comes in a role she has dreamed about since she was just a little girl, that of Miss Scarlett, the most glamorous and potentially most deadly member of the cast of Cluedo, the new play based on the film Clue and, originally of course, the murderous board game that Michelle was obsessed with as a child.
‘We all wanted to be Miss Scarlett,’ says Michelle, a full-scale national treasure in waiting – well, she’s only 59, way too young for that honour – famous for parts in EastEnders, where she played Cindy Beale for a total of eight years and then Stella Price in Coronation Street for another three though she’s also been in everything from Doctor Who through Casualty (several times) to Sunburn and Two Thousand Acres of Sky.
‘Miss Scarlett is one of the most iconic characters, along with Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum maybe, which makes it more difficult to play,’ she goes on. ‘Me and my sister would go and stay with my five cousins and we would all fight for that part but because I’m the bossy one, I would always get it.’ She laughs. ‘And I think because of lockdown people have gone back to board games, just to be together really.’
Then she remembers how her mum once bought her a board game that turned out – to her horror! – to be a ouija board: ‘Doing séances at the age of 10! But it’s funny that board games have brought us back together when you find out that Cluedo was actually invented during the Second World War, when people were stuck at home during air raids, almost out of boredom!’ It adds a lovely dollop of nostalgia to the fun – and the murder! – of Cluedo.
It may sound a bit of a strange concept, a play based on a film based on a board game but to Michelle it makes perfect sense. ‘It’s a comedy whodunit,’ she says of the story of a group of disparate people who turn up to a mansion one dark and stormy night at the behest of the one person they all have in common: their blackmailer. ‘I’ve done a Miss Marple and everyone loves those,’ she goes on. ‘And it’s great to dress up in period clothes, 40s clothes. So glamorous! And we are in the hands of the perfect director in Mark Bell…’ he did the smash hits The Play That Goes Wrong and A Comedy about A Bank Robbery. ‘It takes a very particular director to get the best out of something as fun and escapist as this.’
As for her character… ‘I’ll have to have my own take on her but it’s really exciting to play someone who, like most women, has more going on than you see on the surface. She has a history. She’s very smart, looks glam and dressed up but she’s the smart cookie. I’ve never seen the film but I might swerve it because this will be very different: very funny, very dry a little dark at times but ultimately great entertainment. And I think it’s the perfect climate for something feel-good like this. People are desperate to get back to the theatre. They miss that creativity in their lives. And it’s great that the play is something for all the family, something everyone can enjoy after the couple of years we’ve had.’
And Michelle has had a tougher time than most – ‘a real rubbish year’, she calls it – quite apart from losing all her work. ‘I was in the middle of doing Pinter’s The Birthday Party,’ she says, ‘Meg, a dream role. Then I was doing a one-woman show in Edinburgh and that had to close. This panto is giving me a chance to dip my toe back in to live work but I’m so excited to be doing Cluedo. I think usually I would think a six-month tour, that’s so long, but I think it’s going to fly by.’
The fact that this is the British premiere of a play that has been a smash hit in the States makes it even more exciting, says Michelle. ‘And it’s kind of nice that it’s not all on me, it’s an ensemble piece… even if I don’t know any of them yet. Oh except Daniel Casey (of Midsomer Murders fame), who I’ve just done a film with and is playing Professor Plum. I’m sure we’ll all get to know each other pretty quickly. Actors are quite good at making friends. And I think people are really excited to be getting back to some kind of normality.’
And normality is something Michelle is definitely looking forward to after her ‘real rubbish year’. ‘My mum died,’ she says, when you ask how bad things have been. ‘And a really good friend of mine died of Covid and I was quite ill for a while. It’s been horrible. My mum was fine during Covid but she had cancer and couldn’t have her immunotherapy treatment through lockdown: she was on a trial and it was really keeping her going. But I feel like she’s giving me her blessing because she always knew I was happiest when I was working. She would want me to push forward.’
The last time she went out on a major tour like this one that goes from Southampton to Glasgow, Wolverhampton to Cardiff was in the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when her 25-year-old daughter was just a child. ‘And I’ve actually got friends in most of the places we’re visiting, so it will be fun to see them,’ she says, meaning it may well be Michelle you see with a group of people in the corner of your local bar. ‘Touring can be hard but you get used to living out of a suitcase and my partner will come and see me. It’s just the doggies that are the problem. You can sometimes have them with you, some theatres are dog-friendly and people are nicer about animals than they used to be, so you just play it by ear.’
So, is Miss Scarlett the one to watch? You can’t help but wonder as Michelle gets back to watching the films she has to vote on for BAFTA, something she’s been catching up on in her dressing room. Is it her in the library with a revolver? Or Professor Plum in the library with a candlestick? She taps her nose conspiratorially. ‘Well, you’ll just have to come along and find out, won’t you?’ she laughs.