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I TALK TO Julie Hesmondhalgh

For 16 years she was loved and adored by millions as Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street and now four years after 10m people watched her final scenes, Julie Hesmondhalgh is making her Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut in a one-woman play, The Greatest Play in the History of the World...

Since leaving Coronation Street at the start of 2014, Julie has hardly been off our screens with significant roles in Cucumber, Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, Moving On, Inside No.9, Happy Valley and more recently Broadchurch.

Alongside her television work, Julie has appeared on stage in Manchester in plays such as Blindsided, God Bless The Child, These I Love, WIT, The Almighty Sometimes and now The Greatest Play in the History of the World... which after a very short run last year at the Royal Exchange is heading up to Edinburgh for the month of August.

The play, written by her husband Ian Kershaw, takes us on a heartfelt journey that starts and ends in a small, unassuming house on a quiet suburban road. Julie narrates the story of two neighbours and the people on their street, as she navigates us through the nuances of life, the possibilities of science and the meaning of love.

I was delighted when Julie agreed to speak to me about it as I was and continue to be a huge fan of Coronation Street and her work, so of course we had a good ol' chat about both.

So you're off to Edinburgh Fringe for the first time...

Yeah! I've been as an audience member before, but even then only for a couple of nights so it really is going to be a new experience for me. I'm really excited actually. The older you get, the more you relish these new experiences and being pushed out of your comfort zone a bit.

I'm a little bit nervous, we did the show last year at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, just a short run and it went down really well, so I know it's a good show that people enjoy. It's not like taking it to an audience for the first time.

But I suppose this will be a new audience for me, an audience full of complete strangers because whenever you do anything in Manchester, inevitably there'll be a few people in the audience that you know, some friendly faces.

And it's your husband, Ian Kershaw who wrote the play. How did that come about and what's the story?

I basically bullied him into it! Because he's a writer, I've been saying to him for a while, "Write me something! Write me a one-woman show that we can travel the world with and it'll be really romantic" and bless his heart, he did!

He disappeared over one Christmas, just for half-an-hour at a time and then presented me with this beautiful play that's all about love and loss and time and space and what really matters in the world. In these dark and confusing times, it offers a bit of love and hope. Cramming everything in and the legacy you leave and what matters at the end of your life.

Just all the things that I love really and he does too. It's just beautiful so I was chuffed. And we got Raz Shaw who directed WIT at the Royal Exchange so he came on board to direct it and he loved it as well. Now here we are about 18 months later about to take it to the Fringe!

It's going to be published as well by Methuen which is really great. So it's dead exciting!

Who do you play?

Well I'm sort of the narrator. I'm the storyteller in it. It's quite a difficult play to talk about because it unfolds during it and any time you speak about it in any way there are lots of spoilers which I wouldn't want to give away.

But what I can say is that it unfolds in many unexpected ways!

Do you enjoy being the only person on stage? Or do you miss having others around you?

I think I'll miss it in Edinburgh. The audience are the other part of this show really because when you're doing something that's storytelling you're very much talking to people. It's an exchange. It's not just me sitting in a dark room talking which would be really difficult for me.

But I mean I love acting with other people because it's the unexpectedness of what they come up with and reacting to that. It's quite the pressure when you're doing it by yourself because there's no one there to pick you up and save you!

You're performing the play at different times on different days. Why is that?

That's just the policy for the Traverse Theatre but I really like the idea of performing at different times on different days because it frees you up to see other stuff which means that you're not always going to be directly clashing with something that you really want to see. I don't know what their thinking was behind it really but it's wonderful for me definitely!

I actually bumped into Mark Thomas the comedian in London the other week and he's performing there as well and he's done it there before and he said that unexpectedly perhaps, the early morning shows are often the best shows. Because people are just fresh and caffeined up and ready for the day and haven't seen 20 other shows before coming.

I read that you're going to be out and about flyering. Is that true?

Oh God... I've really stuffed myself saying that now haven't I? So now I've got to do it! I just feel like it's a little bit cheaty to go up with everything in place and your tickets sold. It feels I'm not fully experiencing Edinburgh without having at least... half an hour (laughs) of flyering!

But that's the plan and I've also decided that I'll try and see one show that I get a flyer for every day. Rather than plan the whole festival to make it fair otherwise it's bloody hard for people who are trying to get audiences.

Are you more comfortable on stage than you are in front of a camera?

I really love it all. I've never been able to say which one, I enjoy the variety of doing both but I don't really have preference because there are pros for both of them.

And I love doing radio as well. I get real joy out of that.

You mentioned the director Raz Shaw earlier, what's it been like working with him again?

Oh it's hilarious! We've got such a great working relationship because we're totally disrespectful of each other. To the point where it's actually quite worrying when I have to work with anyone else because I have to be a normal person and not be really rude all the time! (Laughs)

Me and Raz have such a mutual disrespect that's so freeing because there's nothing ever lurking under the surface. It's all out there. He's become one of my best friends actually so it's a joy to come to work, be in a room with him, and mess around really. He's a really great director in an understated way because he pretends not to know what he's doing but he actually knows exactly what he's doing. He's fantastic.

What are you most looking forward to about Edinburgh?

That's a good question. I suppose seeing loads of stuff and I'm hoping that it will really fulfil me because I'll be doing a show every day to a different audience. This might be the longest run of a play that I've ever done actually. I can't wait to see how it evolves over the run and how that will feel for me as an actor as well as the experience of being in Edinburgh.

My family are coming up for a week but I'm away from my usual routine so for the rest of the time I'll be a free agent and because I'm this kind of person I'm looking forward to some self-improvement time. When you're your own boss you can do what you want. You can get up and go for a run... whether that happens or not I don't know! But I'm just really looking forward to being my own boss and doing what I want to do.

How would you sum up the play in just five words?

Love. Loss. Slippers. Time. Space.

Now let's talk about your telly work. You left Corrie four years ago, do you still get recognised out and about as Hayley?

Oh yeah, of course I do and that will always be the case. I've always said that me in my red anorak will be my obituary picture and I'm just so grateful to Coronation Street and Hayley because it changed my life in every possible way. The security it gave me and the happiness it gave me. I met my husband on it, I had my kids during it and I had the best acting apprenticeship in the world ever!

I'll always be so fond of it but I think when I first left, I tried to shake it off a little bit. I think instinctively you do because you're doing work that you're proud of in the theatre or whatever and everyone's like "Hayley! When are you going back?" and you're a bit like "Let me move on!" but actually there's a place of peace where you just go "That's great."

How great that people have really taken that character with everything that she was about, not just in terms of the big issues that were attached to her but just the lovely person that she was, to their hearts. How amazing to have that? And for people to naturally smile when they see you because you are this person that they loved. That's lovely.

I still remember how much I cried watching Hayley's final scene...

Oh my God you'd have to be made of stone not to wouldn't you? Honestly! It's awful because sometimes if I do a Q&A, they play that last scene and it's horrific because it makes me cry now. I just look like the most self-indulgent person "Look at my amazing acting, it's my brilliant acting!" - but of course for me it's completely tied up with saying goodbye to that job, saying goodbye to David Neilson and saying goodbye to Hayley who was a part of me. It was like pouring out my heart.

Even though it was a decision that I was happy to make and it was the right decision and I have absolutely no regrets, God it was a wrench. There's a picture of me after my last scene which had happened on the street where I'm actually fetal.

What had happened was that I was in in the window of the flat above the cafe and it took ages to finish this shot and when I came downstairs onto the street, everyone had been waiting for me around the corner, all the cast like Barbara Knox but also all the crew and production, there were about 100 of them, and they all swarmed round the corner and that's when they took this picture.

Do you still watch Coronation Street?

Oh yeah! Well my husband's joined the writing team now so it's brilliant for me. When I was in it, we used to always say that he couldn't possibly write it while I was in it because of his investments. Not only in me, but also in my friends.

If he was in a conference where they were talking about writing off a character, he knew too much. He knew if someone had just bought a new house or was planning to have a baby or whatever. But now he's joined at the right time and he loves it because he knows all the writers anyway. It's a real writer-led soap who are a complete laugh.

Writing can be a very solitary pursuit, especially when you've been an actor like he was. But now he's got his gang, he's got his tribe and he's actually in conference as we speak killing off people willy nilly now without me there to stop him! (Laughs)

16 years is a very long time to have been in a soap. Did you ever worry about finding work afterwards?

I did. I threw myself out of the nest and I knew it was a risk but I think sometimes life rewards you when you're brave. When you make a decision that's the right decision, what I always find is that things fall into place. Everything just happens in a straight forward and easy way that's leading you onto the right path and it felt like that for me.

So yes I was a bit apprehensive but I never had any ambition other than to be a working actor. I wasn't like "Right, I'll get my first BAFTA within the next five years" I just wanted to be happy doing whatever. And actually it's worked out great, beyond my wildest dreams actually!

Speaking of BAFTA, you were nominated for your work as Trish in the final series of Broadchurch. Congratulations...

Thank you. I was really really chuffed with it. I didn't win unfortunately but I was in a very tough category. I was like "Oh dammit! I've loved every single one of these performances!" It's not so bad when you're up against people that you're not that bothered about.

The only problem was that I was so adrenalised and I had so much to say! I hadn't written anything down but I had many things to say so when I didn't get it, it was like someone had pulled the plug out of me. I just wanted to go to sleep straight away.

What's next for you? Catastrophe?

Yeah! I've just finished filming that. I'm just a guest part in the first episode which is great. That was a really lovely experience. I did lots of stuff with Rob who was just absolutely gorgeous.

The Greatest Play in the History of the World... runs from 2nd - 26th August (no performances on Mondays) at various times at Traverse Theatre (Traverse 2). Book tickets here.


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