Michelle Collins: Why the show must go on after ‘horrible’ two years
The phrase “the show must go on” seems to have been coined especially for Michelle Collins.
After taking the role of sultry Miss Scarlett in the new production of Cluedo, which is based on the board game and much loved movie Clue - she suddenly came down with Covid just as rehearsals started. Meanwhile she has been coping with losing two of the people closest to her.
The former EastEnders actress, best known for playing Cindy Beale in the soap, had been about to star in a Harold Pinter play at the start of the first lockdown. Two years later she’s finally returning to the stage, but the journey has been hard.
Michelle says: “I got Covid right in the middle of rehearsals for this show and ended up having to rehearse on Zoom. When I came back I had literally three days to prepare for going on stage. I came back on the Wednesday and we were performing on Friday.
“In fact, three of us got it at work. For the first two days with Covid I was really bad. And then I was kind of, okay, it was kind of a cold. But I was still rehearsing on Zoom every day from ten until six. And it's very, very frustrating when you're watching people rehearse, especially when you're watching your understudy rehearse your role. She’s been fantastic, thank God for her. And then suddenly, you're thrown back into it.
“It’s a very technical show as well, so we’ve got to be really on the ball. But other people have been really supportive along the way.”
Then just as Michelle was finding her feet in the new production, tragedy struck.
“I got the news that my best friend had died, literally on Wednesday, the day I went back. But we're in an industry where there’s that saying, the show must go on, and suddenly, all these things are thrown at us. And you just think, Oh, my God, can I kind of get through this? But you just do because you don’t want to let people down. The cast were really, really supportive and we kind of got through it. I still feel very tired. And it's just been a whirlwind of a week. And you know, I've got a funeral to go to tomorrow. And then I've got to go back to the theatre for more rehearsals. It’s a tough industry to be in in that sense, but it is what it is. I haven't worked properly in two years. I’ve done a couple of films and a couple of tellys, and a bit of theatre but I've not earned a proper living.”
During the pandemic, Michelle also lost her beloved mum to cancer. “It's been horrible. My mum dying was a big blow to my life,” she says.
“And it makes you think especially about your own mortality. Life is stressful and I think the older you get sometimes things get a bit tougher for us women. And sometimes you go, is all this stress worth it? And then you go: no, it is, it is worth it. Because what life's about is taking risks and still taking those chances. And making yourself take that extra step and that extra leap. I always think that's what my mum would have wanted me to do. My friend who died was going to come and see the show and now she has lost her battle with cancer. Life is very much like that, so you have got to live it from day to day.”
At the start of the pandemic when the theatres closed and Michelle was suddenly out of work, she quickly realised that many fellow actors were struggling financially and wanted to help. That’s when she decided to set up the initiative For the Love of Arts to support actors who fell through the net of the government support schemes for freelancers because they had a second job in hospitality.
“I’ve got a lot of other friends who are actors who were really panicking about what they were going to do,” she says.
“You know, they didn’t have any money coming in. A lot of the younger ones, especially, work in hospitality and hospitality had gone. So I just suddenly had this idea I would do some monologues (to raise money) and I started ringing up people. I didn't ring any agents, I did it all myself, because I think sometimes it's better not to go through the agents. And once you get people like Ian McKellen telling you, yes, and Derek Jacobi, then it gets a bit easier. I got Lesley Manville and Lesley Joseph, and suddenly all these people came on board. When you kind of mention younger actors, people are very supportive in my industry, so it was really successful. It was it was very stressful and challenging, but very fulfilling. So I was really proud of that.”
She compares being in the early stages of the pandemic to the Second World War effort where everyone helped out and she even spent time working with a friend for a food bank.
“I kind of kept busy. I think it was a kind of a weird time, wasn't it in the sense that we were kind of in shock. I suppose it's a bit like the war period where we're all going to get through this together. There was camaraderie, wasn't there? And we all did our NHS clapping. But, two years later, we all think, Oh, my God we're still here!” says Michelle.
Now, Michelle explains, she is happy to be getting back to some kind of normality with the Cluedo tour and is enjoying her role as Miss Scarlett.
“She's kind of got a lot of one-liners. And often that’s harder than learning monologues and big speeches. With these kind of cracking one liners she has here and there, you have to be really on the ball. But I think it's always good to do things that challenge you and things that are a bit out of your comfort zone. And I just wanted to get up on the stage really. And also, I think leaving London at the moment is quite therapeutic and a nice thing to do. I actually did panto at Cambridge so I’m looking forward to coming back and taking a trip around the charity shops.
“The show has an old fashioned, silly kind of humor. We have to play it for honesty and truthfulness. And that's then I think, where the comedy comes out, it’s certainly not slapstick. It's a kind of, it's a very kind of particular style, which the directors kind of created. You know, it's a kind of heightened kind of style.”
However, she doesn’t agree that she is always destined to play a femme fatale character after her time as Cindy Beale.
“No, I don’t think that’s true,” she says.
“I was going to play Meg in the The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter back in 2020 and she’s Miss Dowdy. I'd much prefer a role where I don't wear any make up or get my hair done. With Cluedo, my wigs didn't turn up. Apparently for reasons to do with Covid and Brexit. I mean, we've had so many challenges on this show, I can't tell you! So we've had to get someone to style my hair every day, which while it’s nice to do that when you’re going to a party It's a bit of a pain every day. But it is fun to play an iconic role like Miss Scarlett. In our show, Scarlett is an older woman. It's quite a nice to have this role as I suppose people would usually assume she was very young. But I think it works because basically Miss Scarlett is a kind of a madam. She runs a house of ill repute. We are set in the late 40s is when all this kind of controversy was going on and everybody's called to Boddy Manor because they are being blackmailed.
“So she is the scarlet woman who has all these clients in high places, so it makes sense that she's an older woman and that she's been doing it for a long time.”
Michelle, who will be 60 this year, adds: “It’s quite nice that they thought of me to play her. And maybe they thought I could add something extra to her rather than her being this kind of one dimensional kind of character. but I do think it's the kind of show where people could slip in and out of it. I’m sure it’s going to be really successful and maybe when I go someone will take over who has a different take on Miss Scarlett.”
Cluedo is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Mon 14 - Sat 19 February. Tickets from £24. Visit cambridgeartstheatre.com/whats-on/cluedo