Niki Evans Interview
Niki Evans returns to the iconic role of Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers, visiting Leeds Grand Theatre from 6-10 September. She discusses the show, her time on The X Factor and performing at the Queen’s Jubilee.
Written by Ellen Carnazza.
When did you last play Mrs Johnstone and how is it returning to the show?
“I last played her in 2012 and returning to it was scary at first. The first time I did it I’d never done a musical or been a part of the theatre world so when [producer] Bill Kenwright called me, I think I turned it down four times. I was like “No, you’re OK!” but he persuaded me to audition… and my audition was terrible! But he saw something in me and within a week I was on stage in the Phoenix Theatre. It was such a whirlwind. Since then, I’ve done lots of other roles, mainly funny ones, so to come back to such a dramatic role is very scary but it’s like a dream come true. They’d asked me to come back before but I had to be ready, and now I am.”
What makes her such an iconic musical theatre role?
“It’s because of her strength and the emotions you have to go through when you’re on stage. She starts as a young girl in her 20s, then within 20 minutes she’s got seven kids and has to give one away. It’s a big part for a woman, which is rare at my age. My window is tiny to get a part where you’re on for more than 10 minutes. She’s a strong female lead; every mother in this country can relate to her on some level because of how real she is. Every mother must see something in Mrs Johnstone that they’ve also gone through. I know I can. I’ve got two sons so her Micky and Eddie are my Morgan and Jonah. My kids have had troubles, I’ve had troubles, and the way I look at it is: I don’t have to play her, I just have to be her.”
Are you discovering new things about her and the show this time round?
“[Laughs] Yes, she’s not such a feisty tiger as I thought when I first did the show. They used to call me “The Feisty Tiger Mrs Johnstone”. I come from a family of four; we grew up on a council estate, we had no money, I used to go to school in jelly shoes even in November, and my mum was a tough cookie. You didn’t mess with her and that’s how I thought Mrs J. was, or at least that she was how I was – like “Don’t mess with my kids or I’ll come at you with a baseball bat”. But now I’m older I’ve mellowed. I’m 50 now and I’m not so bouncy as I was 10 years ago, so my take on her is much more grounded. She’s stronger without being quite so feisty.”
It’s such an emotional rollercoaster for the audience. Is it the same for you as a performer?
“It is, yes. There are a couple of parts in the show, without giving spoilers, where it rips me to shreds. I do it as though someone is about to take one of my children and I can’t hold back. I have to feel it every time I do it.”
Does live theatre feel more important than ever, given what everyone has been through over the past couple of years?
“I did two shows post-lockdown, namely Girls Just Wanna Have Fun on tour and the panto Peter Pan at the Wycombe Swan before going straight into Blood Brothers after just two days off. That first time I got back on stage I was petrified because I hadn’t done it for two years and had to open myself up again to people watching me. All your insecurities come back and you’re like “Am I good enough? Can I still do this?” But the feedback from the audience, the love and the warmth – I can’t tell you what it means and how it feels.“
How did you keep busy during lockdown?
“I worked in a factory packing boxes for Amazon because I didn’t want to lose my house. I’m a working mum and I have to pay bills. Then when theatre came back it was just amazing. People told me “This is just what we needed” and recently I was talking with a bunch of students in a theatre cafe who saw Blood Brothers and loved it. That enthusiasm is something you can’t buy. To have young people go “You were so real, we were so engrossed” is priceless. To know that you’re not just reaching older people but young kids as well makes me so emotional. What’s also interesting to me is how men in the audience react to Blood Brothers. When I look out into the auditorium it’s the men who have their heads down because they can’t watch. It’s always the men who say “I don’t like musicals, she’s dragged me along, but oh my God I’m coming back to see this again”.”
Was performing something you always wanted to do?
“Singing was always my passion as soon as I could open my mouth. It’s like breathing to me, it’s so natural for me to do, but the actual performing scares the pants off me. I was always happy as a backing singer or in the studio where nobody is looking at me. I know that sounds really weird but when I’m out there I have to forget there’s people watching because it’s terrifying.“
You made the top four on X Factor in 2007. How did doing that show change your life?
“Completely. It’s given me a career I didn’t think I was capable of, although it did eventually break up my marriage because I was never there. My life since X Factor couldn’t be more different. My kids didn’t even know I sang because I’d given it up. So much has happened in the past 15 years career-wise and I’ve got a partner and I’m getting married soon, which is very exciting.”
You’ve done lots of musical theatre. Apart from Blood Brothers, what have been your other favourite jobs?
“There are loads and I’ve loved every character I’ve played, but if I had to pick one it would be Paulette in Legally Blonde. To go from playing Mrs Johnstone to Paulette in just two weeks was brilliant because it was such a contrast. I’ve never laughed and smiled so much as I have doing the ‘bend and snap’. It was the first time I realised I could make people laugh as well as cry.”
Singing at Windsor Castle for the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations must have been another highlight?
“[Laughs] I thought they were taking the Mick at first! I thought my mates had set some posh bloke up to call me and I kept putting the phone down. Then when I realised it was real I was like, “Oh my days!” and I cannot tell you what an honour and a privilege it was. I’d never sung with an orchestra before and my heart thumped when I went on. I know the Royals are going through hard times but I speak as I find and they were lovely to me – although I was so nervous when I met The Queen, I called her ‘Your Honour’ instead of ‘Your Highness’.“