SHE is indisputably West End royalty, an award-winning performer who has graced stages in London and on Broadway. She has taken on some of the most challenging roles in musical theatre including shows such as Les Miserables, Chicago, Miss Saigon and Billy Elliot. Oh and she’s also won a legion of new fans by taking part in TV reality show I’m A Celebrity.
But Ruthie Henshall is leaving the bright lights of London behind to spend a month at Manchester’s newest theatre.
Ruthie is to star in Steven Sondheim’s Passion at the Hope Mill Theatre, a venue opened by Joseph Houston and William Whelton in 2015 which has gained a deserved reputation for innovation and quality.
“I just think those boys are so clever to have done what they have done,” said Ruthie. “They have provided a really classy space to bring things that don’t necessarily have a home in the West End yet. It’s that old fashioned, out of town try-out place.
“That’s why we need places like Hope Mill and why we need people like me to go out to Hope Mill and make it part of the process.”
Joseph Houston and Will Whelton at Hope Mill Theatre
The cast for Passion would not be out of place in either the West End or on Broadway. As well as Ruthie, it includes Olivier Award nominee Kelly Price; Adam Robert Lewis, star of Phantom of the Opera and Dean John-Wilson.
“We are all going up there for threepence halfpenny,” laughed Ruthie, “and by time you’ve got your digs and everything like that you are literally paying to do the job. But this is one of those jobs that when they come along you just have to do. Shows like this are the reason we got into the business.
“If you’ll excuse the pun it’s definitely a passion project.”
Unless you are a Sondheim fan it’s unlikely you will be aware of Passion and Ruthie concedes that initially his work can be off-putting.
“I hadn’t really done Sondheim before I did the review Putting It Together on Broadway when I was about 33. Before that I remember thinking that Sondheim as a bit ‘arty’ and didn’t really get it. I didn’t have a favourite show or anything like that and then I did Putting it Together and I just fell in love with it and realised this man was a master of the human condition.”
Passion is based on a Nineteenth Century novel and Ruthie plays Fosca, married to a man she no longer loves and who is dying and a young soldier who becomes infatuated with her.
“Passion is about love but it’s nothing like anything you have seen before,” she said. “It’s about what love really is and what it looks like and it’s sometimes not very pretty.
“Fosca’s had a lot dumped on her. Physically she’s not well. In my head this horrible man she’s married to gave her syphilis and she’s dying of that. Then she’s suffering mental illness as well that takes its toll on her.”
It’s clearly a challenging role - in previous productions Fosca has been played by stage legends such as Donna Murphy and Maria Friedman.
Ruthie Henshall will star in Passion at Hope Mill
Ruthie is hoping that audiences will give the production a chance.
“When you first listen to Passion you think where’s the tune? Where are the songs? But that’s not Sondheim. All his shows have wonderful music in them but you’re not necessarily getting a hit song from each one.
“You can’t go in and watch Passion and have a little nap in the front row for 10 minutes, that’s for sure. But if you give it your attention you reap the rewards. It’s a beautiful piece - I’d describe it as being like a symphony/musical theatre opera.
“Sondheim doesn’t pick subjects that are little or light hearted. He’s always dealing with serious stuff, real stuff and the good the bad and the ugly.”
Playing Fosca means Ruthie has to invest a huge amount of emotional energy into each performance, so does she have a way of ‘switching-off’ after the show?
“Unfortunately I don’t” she admitted. “When I’m doing a show I’m pulling on all sorts of things to get me to the place I need to go within the show but that does cost you when you are doing a show like this.
“Every show is different. If you are doing something like Crazy For You that is physically challenging but not emotionally so; whereas this is emotionally challenging but not physically, I’m not having to do cartwheels and high kicks.”
But it’s that challenge that makes a show special and Ruthie admits that she and her fellow cast members have high hopes for Passion.
“In Hope Mill we have somewhere to have an in-depth, artistic look at this show and see if it’s something we want to have a life afterwards. I really hope that’s the case as we’re putting together a hell of a team and fingers crossed that magic happens.”
Passion, Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, Thursday, May 5 to Sunday, June 5. Details from www.hopemilltheatre.co.uk