The Sister Act cast in nun costumes in front of a blue and pink background

Meet Sister Act's Sandra Marvin and Lesley Joseph

It’s just one month until the brand-new production of Sister Act comes to Leeds Grand Theatre. We spoke to two of the show’s stars, Sandra Marvin and Lesley Joseph, to find out more about this award-winning, smash-hit show.

Written by Guest Author


Film vs Theatre

Lesley, you’re well known to many as Dorien Green from Birds of a Feather, alongside your stage work which includes an Olivier-nomination for Young Frankenstein. And, Sandra, you also have a career that spans both stage and screen, from big hit musicals (Waitress) to TV Soaps (Emmerdale).

What are the key differences between the disciplines of stage and screen, and do you have a preference?

Lesley Joseph (LJ): If you asked me why I came into the business, it would be because I love theatre. I grew up doing theatre, starting at seven, it was always what I was destined to do but then gradually television took over. Birds of a Feather came along in 1989 and has never been off since! I love television, I love the opportunities television brings, but if I had to choose it would be theatre because I love the connection with the audience. With television you can always do it again, whereas with theatre it’s a question of doing it that night and that’s your one chance. I love the atmosphere and the family you build. I love to stand in the wings and watch other people work. I also love what theatre can do to an audience. Live theatre can change people’s lives.

Sandra Marvin (SM): I’ve loved working in both TV and theatre…

With theatre though, it’s all live and right before you. The emotion of the actor on stage is what they are living at that particular moment. Your experience as an audience member is specific to what you personally view at any given moment – whether you’re watching who’s speaking or who’s reacting. And the energy! The energy pouring off the stage from performers, from the moment you hear the first bars of the entr’acte being played, it’s incredible. For me the response from the audience is immediate, unedited and in the moment. It’s very much a shared experience between the performers and audience.

Sandra Marvin singing with her arms raised up

Sandra Marvin in rehearsal as 'Deloris Van Cartier' with the Company. Photo Manuel Harlan

Lesley Joseph leaning on a piano while a man plays it

Lesley Joseph in rehearsals as 'Mother Superior'. Photo Manuel Harlan

Jeremy Secomb puts his hand on Sandra Marvin's shoulder

Jeremy Secomb as 'Curtis Jackson' and Sandra Marvin as 'Deloris Van Cartier' in rehearsals for Sister Act. Photo Manuel Harlan

Sister Act is a much-loved movie as well as a musical. Were you aware of the show before you joined?

LJ: I saw Craig Revel Horwood’s Sister Act revival with Alexandra Burke, so I was very aware of the show before I joined. The musical doesn’t have the music from the film, but it’s Alan Menken’s music – who is a genius. I think people love the production because of the great music, and it’s very much an audience show. You leave feeling so uplifted. We were playing in London to 3,000 people per night, with every show packed full of people waving their arms in the air at the end and just having a fantastic time.

SM: I have vivid memories of the film as it was a family favourite! We’d sit and watch all together and we’d always laugh at Whoopi’s antics with the nuns. I’d recite all of her dialogue, singing out with all the nuns and try and learn their routines! It was definitely an interactive experience watching the film Sister Act with me as a kid! When I first heard about the stage show, I was dying to audition but at the time I was in the middle of my contract with Hairspray playing Miss Motormouth Maybelle, so there was no chance of being available. When I watched it, I was blown away! The humour and the music – it was such a brilliant tribute to a film I loved so much!

The Characters

Can you briefly summarise the plot (without spoilers), and tell us about your characters?

LJ: Well, Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her boyfriend shoot someone and gets put into hiding in a convent. Mother Superior (who I play) who runs the convent is a very religious person, and suddenly into her world comes this woman who is a singer, who wears short skirts, who’s full of bling and is very over-the-top. It’s about how these two worlds combine and ultimately rub off on each other.

Mother Superior is quite strict and holy. She provides the juxtaposition of strict religious beliefs against this entirely over-the-top being, which is Deloris Van Cartier. You need the two extremes to rub up against one another, and quite a lot of sparks fly.

SM: Deloris Van Cartier is a singer, trying to get a gig as a professional singer in the late 70s in Philadelphia. She’s dating local gangster Curtis whom she hopes will give her a big break at his club when she witnesses a murder and has to be taken into police protection in a nunnery… with a bunch of strict catholic nuns! Whilst there she finds herself and her community where she least expects it!

Deloris has a dream of being like her idol, Donna Summer, singing on a stage but fears it might be too late for her. I love playing her! She is a dream of a role. Her humour, her energy. I love her drive and that in any situation she has the courage and confidence to be authentically, unapologetically herself.  This is also hilarious to play, especially opposite Lesley as Mother Superior!

Sandra Marvin singing on stage in front of a wall of lights with a spotlight shining down on her

Sandra Marvin as 'Deloris Van Cartier'. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Lesley, you appeared on ‘Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome’ and met the Pope, what was that like and were there any elements of that experience that you’ve drawn on when playing Mother Superior?

LJ: Funnily enough, whenever I’m in the show I do always think of this moment. I had half an hour with the Pope and I blessed him and made him laugh, and he gave me a medal to celebrate his six years in the papacy. I’ve always had a spirituality about me. I love going in churches. Whenever I go into a church I will always light a candle for both of my parents and Linda Robson’s mum, and say a quiet prayer. That’s a spiritual thing more than an actual religious thing. I always find churches very healing in a way. It’s a place to sit, contemplate and meditate, and you can come out feeling a slightly better person.

Sandra, some incredible talents have played Deloris, from Whoopi Goldberg on screen, to Alexandra Burke, and most recently Beverley Knight. How does it feel to be part of the production, and what do you bring to the role to make it your own?

SM: I’d say my Deloris obviously celebrates the wonderful music as written by Alan Menken, but I really enjoy playing with Deloris’ humour and her quick-thinking energy. Whoopi’s Deloris always has me in stiches! She’s a hustler, astute, keeps moving, and always has a plan, but is also funny as hell! That’s the side of Deloris I enjoy playing.

A woman dressed as a nun hanging from a rope as nuns below her put their arms up to catch her

The Company in Sister Act. Photo Manuel Harlan

The Show

Sister Act features a fantastic score by the multi award-winning Alan Menken (Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid). How would you describe the soundtrack, and do you have a favourite number to perform and/or watch?

LJ: I think the soundtrack is amazing. The audience responses so far have made me feel like we’re doing a pop concert! My favourite song is one that Mother Superior has called Here Within These Walls where she describes what life is like in the convent, and how the outside world is full of sin, but inside you find God and you find yourself. It’s a beautiful number, but probably the most serious number in the show to an extent. The other number I love is when Deloris first takes over the choir and she teaches them to sing and brings out their voices. It’s called Raise Your Voice. The audience just go wild. Up until then, you’ve only heard the nuns sing very badly. It stops the show!

SM: Sister Act is set in the late 70s in an era where disco was dominating the dance floors and Studio 54 was definitely the place to be seen. Alan Menken clearly pays homage to all of the fabulous disco divas of that era. His songs are reminiscent of Donna Summer, Cheryl Lynn, The Stylistics, Bee Gees and so many more of our Disco favourites. You can’t help but dance to this music and every night we’ve seen audiences up on their feet dancing in the aisles!

My personal favourite to perform is probably Fabulous Baby, but to watch, it’s definitely Lady in the Long Black Dress! It’s a smooth Barry-White-meets-Stylistics number. Bradley Judge, Tom Hopcroft and Damien Buhagiar who perform this number are not only hilarious, but their harmonies and vocals are so smooth! But also watch out for Lizzie Bea playing Sister Mary Robert who has a DIVINE vocal (see what I did there!).

Nuns on stage in colourful habits with their arms outstretched

The Company of Sister Act. Photo Manuel Harlan

Four men in 1980s suits pointing out to the audience

The Company of Sister Act. Photo Manuel Harlan

Sandra Marvin sits on a bed with women dressed as nuns surrounding her

Lesley Joseph, Sandra Marvin and Company in Sister Act. Photo by Manuel Harlan