Actress Sue Devaney has become one of TVs most recognisable faces, with iconic roles in Dinnerladies, Casualty, Johnny Briggs and Coronation Street behind her. Devaney though also has an extensive stage career and is currently in rehearsal for J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married for Northern Broadsides and York Theatre Royal. She spoke to Glen Pearce about the play in a break from rehearsal.
For Sue Devaney, appearing in Priestley’s When We Are Married has a sense of coming full circle, having appeared in the play on both TV and in the West End. “The play is so close to my heart and brings back so many memories.” Devaney explains that she landed a part in the play aged just 17. “It was a dream job because I was working with Prunella Scales, Timothy West, Patricia Routledge, just brilliant, brilliant actors, and there were four of us in a dressing room, Matilda Thorpe, Patsy Rowlands, myself and Patricia Hayes, who played the original Ruby Birtle in 1938.”
That job with Hayes led to a long term friendship for Devaney. “I ended up living with her for seven years in London and we became really good friends.”
Despite being a fan of Priestley’s play and his writing, it wasn’t initially this play that drew Devaney to work with director Barry Rutter and his Northern Broadsides company.
“I’ve wanted to work with Barry Rutter for a long time now,” she admits, “and I always wanted to do Shakespeare with him.” A phone call to the director, though, revealed that he wasn’t planning a Shakespeare production this year but a revival of When We Are Married. The chance to revisit a pivotal moment in her career and the chance to work with Rutter seemed a perfect combination.
“What Barry has done is fantastic and he did it at a time when it was really necessary and he’s given a lot of Northern actors fantastic work,” she shares. “Sometimes actors who haven’t trained can’t get into the RSC or do fabulous Shakespeare elsewhere but Barry has given lots of those actors wonderful parts.”
Rutter, Northern Broadsides and the York Theatre Royal have all been credited with championing what has become known as the ‘northern voice.’ The local connection is also an important factor for the actress. “It’s great that it’s up here and it’s Northern. We go all over with this tour but it’s really important that we do wonderful plays for the North of England.”
The touring aspect of this project is something Devaney is gearing herself up for. “It gets harder as you get older! I won’t say it doesn’t but I just try and embrace it,” the 49-year-old laughs. Life on the road, though, is something she has become accustomed to. “It’s what I’ve grown up with and all I’ve known all my life, I was in Mama Mia and toured all over the world for two years.” The strain of being away from friends and family is tough but Devaney also recognises the opportunities. “We were in South Korea for four months and it was exciting and good fun to be in another culture but sometimes you just want your creature comforts.”
Fans of her TV appearances may be surprised by the role in Mama Mia, but Devaney has always covered a wide range of genres in her work – musicals, comedy, drama, stage, TV and radio. Is variety an important consideration for her?
“I’d like to say it is but I just go where the work is. I’d like to say I have a choice but sometimes I don’t,” she admits. “It’s only the 10% that have a choice of what they want to do and not do; I’m not that fortunate in having that. I feel blessed that I’ve got to this stage, folks still want me and I can still learn the lines!” Once again her infectious laugh comes to the fore.
“Patricia Hayes used to say to me : ‘Don’t worry about work, keep going, enjoy yourself, and when you get to around 80, you’ll make it as everyone else will have retired. You’ll come into your own by then and grow into your face!’”
She may not consciously choose the variety and has a self-confessed passion for comedy roles but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like a challenge. “I love jobs that stretch me and the only Shakespeare I’ve done is Loves Labours Lost at the Royal Exchange, so that’s why I was chasing Barry for some Shakespeare!” So is there one dream Shakespearian role on Devaney’s wish list? “I’ve always wanted to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but I don’t know if I’m too old or not!” she shares with typical self-deprecating charm.
TV viewers grew to love Devaney’s appearances as toast-mad Jane in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies and Devaney recently led the tributes following Wood’s untimely death at the briefly renamed Victoria Wood Station in Manchester. Wood’s work in creating strong roles for women is something Devaney remains grateful for.
“Vic was extraordinary in that respect; she was a brilliant comedy writer and she shared her comedy. On Dinnerladies with the parts she wrote for Julie Walters, Thelma Barlow and Anne Read, she’d share the comedy and she’d give her best lines away,” Devaney reminisces. It wasn’t just Wood’s skill as a comedy writer and performer, though, that she admired. “She was an extraordinary woman and a brilliant actress as well. When you watch Housewife, 49 and Pat and Margaret you see her skill there, you really do.”
There are also connections between Wood, Devaney and When We Are Married. “I’m now staying in York with one of Vic’s best friends from school, who I met doing the Victoria Wood train station tribute,” she confesses. As she shares that thought, another connection springs to mind. “When I was working on When We Are Married with Patricia Hayes, she had tickets to Wood and Walters and we used to go to LWT to watch the live performances.” It is, though, a more mischievous secret that Devaney recounts. “We sneaked into a big posh party for Victoria once that we weren’t supposed to be at. That was before I ever worked with her – I never told her, though!” she laughingly recalls. Perhaps, though, it wasn’t an incursion unnoticed by Wood, who later would pile mountains of toast onto Devaney in the Dinnerladies script. “I ate all the canapes that night and I shouldn’t have done!”
When We Are Married runs at York Theatre Royal9-24 September 2016 and then tours.
Image: Nobby Clark