We catch up with Hairspray star Claire Sweeney ahead of the show’s visit to Canterbury next week. Since we chatted to Claire, it’s been announced that she’ll be back here at the end of August, to play Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
When I catch up with Claire Sweeney on the phone one Thursday, between the matinee and the evening performance of Hairspray, she sounds remarkably chipper for someone who’s been on the road for several months, with several more to go: “The tour started in September, so we’re well into it. We don’t finish until May, but I’m really enjoying it.”
Part of the reason for her enjoyment is her character, Hairspray’s villainess, Velma von Tussle: “Velma’s fantastic. She’s so evil, she’s vile. She’s fat-ist, she’s everything you shouldn’t be. She’s hysterical. She’s so bad she’s funny! She’s great fun to play, I get to go completely over the top.” Her fellow cast members also come in for praise: “They’re fantastic. They’re really good fun, a really good fun cast. And they’re young and vibrant. They’re great.”
Not that Claire has time these days for socializing with her fellow cast members. When she’s not on stage she tries to spend as much time as possible with her son, Jaxon, who’s 18 months old: “I don’t go out partying, I just want to get home to my baby really. I’d rather be at home with him, although he does come on tour with me.”
Claire is probably best known to the public for her television work. She first came to prominence playing the part of Lindsey Corkhill in the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside, as well as starring roles in TV dramas such as Merseybeat and Clocking Off. She’s also presented several shows, and was a regular panelist on ITV’s Loose Women for several years. She’s also no stranger to reality TV, having appeared in the first series of both Celebrity Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing.
But although the public may think of her as a TV star, Claire’s heart is firmly in the theatre: “I’ve done a lot of theatre, as well as the television. I love theatre, I really love it. It’s the live response, that instantaneous response that you get. The audience for Hairspray, every single night, they go absolutely crazy, it’s amazing.”
Her theatre career has certainly encompassed some iconic roles, ranging from the title role in Educating Rita to Roxie Hart in Chicago, as well as the one woman show Tell Me On A Sunday. Claire says: “I’ve been dead lucky, I’ve done some great roles. I think my favourite was probably Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls, that was a really special one.”
That latter role involved her working alongside Patrick Swayze, the late star of the film Dirty Dancing, of whom Claire says: “He was wonderful, absolutely amazing.” She counts working alongside him as her best on-stage experience. However, it was that role of Miss Adelaide that also led to what she regards as her worst: “I fell over in Guys And Dolls. I had pearls round my neck and they snapped and went all over the floor and I fell over them. That was probably the worst.”
Future roles she has her eye on include Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers: “It’s just an amazing role, fantastic… I think I prefer musical theatre [to straight drama]. I started out as a singer, in clubs and things, which was great.” Outside of her career, she’s pretty content: “I’ve had my son so that’s my dream. Box ticked. I just want to carry on working and providing for him now.” (Claire split up with Jaxon’s father a few months after his birth).
For now, she’s enjoying her time touring with Hairspray: “It’s a wonderful show. People think of it as just being frothy, and fun, but people don’t realise how amazing it it, and the message it has. It’s a wonderful, wonderful show with great songs and a really strong message attached to it.” She also relishes the chance to see new places that her job brings with it: “I haven’t worked in Canterbury before, it’s going to be a first. I’m looking forward to it, seeing the town, the architecture. It’s great to explore a new place. I like travelling and getting to see different places. I worked on cruise liners when I was younger, and it’s so nice to travel and get to see different places. An international tour of Hairspray would be great!”
Hairspray: Monday 25 to Saturday 30 April. Book here.