IT’S a bit of a shock to hear Jessie Wallace using a strong Illinois accent.
After two five-year stints on EastEnders, we’re just so used to the harsh London tones of Kat Slater, one of Walford’s feistiest residents.
But now, Jessie has swapped Albert Square and Kat for Chicago and Mama Morton, the mistress of Murderer’s Row, ruling the roost in the women’s prison block in the smash-hit musical.
Mama oozes power and domination and part of the attraction for Jessie was the chance to become one of the more frightening female characters in musical theatre.
As she explains: “I wanted to do Mama Morton as she’s such a strong character.
“I went and auditioned for the American producers which I was very worried about because I had to speak in an American accent and to do that in front of them was tough.
“But I got it and I am so proud to say to people I am playing Mama Morton.
“I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t want to play her.”
Jessie is no stranger to such strong women.
Kat Slater might be a bit more vulnerable than the likes of Albert Square matriarchs such as Peggy Mitchell and Pat Butcher, but you still wouldn’t cross her.
And Jessie was Bafta nominated for her performance as Corrie legend Pat Phoenix — who ruled Weatherfield both on and off screen — in the BBC4 drama The Road To Coronation Street.
“I am finding my niche now,” she nods. “It is very flattering that people offer me these parts and the chance to play such strong women. It is fantastic.
“Chicago is the sort of show I will never get bored of. There are just so many layers to it and it is just so sexy.
“The choreography is brilliant, everyone looks so stunning and when I’m not on stage, I just sit in the wings in complete awe.”
Jessie admits the creative team have pulled out all the stops to help her bring the perfect Mama to the stage.
She says: “As soon as I get the suit on, I am her. They certainly don’t cut corners in this production.
“I had a special suit made with a basque underneath and as soon as I get into that suit, I am Mama, walking proud, slow and masculine!
“It is all about the Roaring 20s and all these women who are in prison for murder. I am the only one in it who wears a suit. That alone makes a statement, do you know what I mean?
“I am finding a different layer to her every night and making her stronger and stronger.
“She is the queen of the clink.”
Jessie is also a massive fan of the music in Chicago, adding: “There is quite a lot of the musical where you are just sitting on stage waiting for your cue.
“I thought that was going to be so boring, but I was so wrong. I don’t mind sitting there because I just love this music and I love this musical.
“There is a phrase that Shane Richie uses when he sees a show that he likes. He says: ‘There is no fat on it’ and I never really understood what he meant until I did Chicago.
“There are no boring bits. It is just boom, boom, boom all the way through and it’s so tight.”
As for the rigours of touring the length and breadth of Britain, Jessie adds: Living out of a suitcase comes hand in hand with what you’re doing. Acting is what I have chosen to do.
“You get used to it.
“If I get the chance, I’ll go for a good, long run. That, to me, is relaxing. You can do that when you are on tour and in the theatre. You’ve got the whole day to sort everything out and just breathe.
“Going for a run makes me really refreshed and then I am ready to go.”
Chicago is touring the UK until December 31. For info, visit www.atgtickets.com
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