Julie Hesmondhalgh has my phone number. Yes, you read that correctly. One of my favourite actresses is calling me and I’m almost too excited to answer. Eventually, after taking a couple of well-needed seconds to freak out, I pick up and garble a “hello”.
“Is that Emma?” comes her instantly recognisable voice.
Oh my god, she knows my name. Say something, Emma. Say words.
It’s no secret that Julie Hesmondhalgh is a Northern treasure. From her ground-breaking portrayal of transgender Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street to roles in Happy Valley, Cucumber and, most recently, a gripping part as a rape survivor in Broadchurch, her phenomenal acting ability has made her a household name.
I may be overstepping the writer’s bounds when I say that not only is she wonderful on the small screen, she’s bloody great at treading the boards. I’ve seen Hesmondhalgh play the mother of a murdered teenager in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, a cancer victim in Wit, and the mother of a young person with a mental illness in The Almighty Sometimes – all of which made me blub like a newborn. There’s something magical about her performances, and I can’t help but gush about how much The Almighty Sometimes moved me.
“Oh, thank you,” she says. “It was a special play, wasn’t it? It really moved and touched people because I think it’s something that so many people can relate to, and there was a lovely response to it right across the board.”
She adds, and I can tell that she’s entirely genuine, “thank you so much for coming, Emma, that was really lovely of you”.
It’s an extremely sunny day and Hesmondhalgh is waiting to catch her train so she can dash over to Manchester Art Gallery for the launch of Making Contact, an event to mark the next stage of Contact Theatre’s building transformation. We both joke about how a heatwave in Manchester is usually a rumour – or wishful thinking. The new-build has been designed alongside Con:Struct, a dedicated team of young people involved in all aspects of the refurbishment, and the event will reveal the next stage of development.
At Northern Soul, we love the work created by Contact (winners of the LGBT Business Award at 2017’s Northern Soul Awards) and Hesmondhalgh’s admiration for this Manchester theatre is evident.
“My involvement with Contact really started when I moved back to Manchester to do Corrie in the late-90s, early 2000s, when the old new-build had been done, and I was also volunteering as an actor in Flip the Script which was a monthly play-writing slam where writers would send in five minutes of a script, we’d act it out and then the audience would vote what they wanted to see more of.
“My husband, who was an actor at the time, sent in a five-minute piece and it ended up being a full production and that started him on his writing career. That has quite literally changed his life and changed our lives forever. [Contact] has always been this amazing place because I didn’t grow up in Manchester [Hesmondhalgh is from Accrington] so I wasn’t part of the whole Contact Young Company or any of that, but the amount of people that I’ve met throughout my life whose lives have been completely transformed by that place. It’s always had an emphasis on young people and properly on young people from Manchester.”
She continues: “I don’t know how they did it, or what their outreach was, but they seemed just to get people in who really needed it, you know, young, creative people who had no idea that they had a creative spark in them, and who are now world-famous poets and performers. It continues to do so. It’s just an incredible place because it’s so young person-led. They were doing things long before it became the norm. Even to have a Young Company, like they did way back when, that wasn’t taken up by theatres until much later.
“In terms of the diversity of the place, it’s always been somewhere that Manchester was properly represented in a way that we have only recently started to see in other theatres. And also, in terms of not just ethnicity but also in terms of disability, it was the first theatre I’d ever been to where I’d seen young people with disabilities completely integrated there, writing and performing. It was ahead of its time. It’s always been ahead of its time, and people have always talked about it with such love and appreciation because of the way that it’s nurtured them.
“And some of these people – Lemn Sissay is a famous example. He came from the care system and he really found a family there. It’s been exciting to see [Contact] move forward with the times. This new-build will continue with this work but in an up-to-date way because it has got out of date.”
Hesmondhalgh adds: “Take Back, my theatre company, did a short there last year and we had, by a country mile, the youngest and most diverse audience [at Contact] than all the venues that we’d been to in Manchester doing our shows, but we had a performer with cerebral palsy who is a wheelchair user and what we did notice was, that although the building was really accessible for audiences, it wasn’t accessible for performers particularly and that needed to change. The whole ethos of [Contact] is inclusivity and what is so unique about their new-build is that it’s been done in consultation with the young people that have been using it.”
Working alongside a dedicated team of local young people, Con:Struct and architects Sheppard Robson, the building will re-open in 2019. The refurbished area will include a new performance space, a recording studio for young people, new offices and rehearsal spaces for artists and other cultural organisations, as well as a new café and bar.
“A group of young people have been actively involved in choosing the architect and the caterers and everything,” says Hesmondhalgh. “I mean that’s an exciting thing that, isn’t it?”
I agree that it is. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been done – or considered – by another theatre as established as Contact.
Hesmondhalgh says: “They call it a young people-led and run theatre, and it is. It’s really taken that to another level. I’m just happy to support them and, in terms of what they’ve already raised, it’s such a phenomenal amount and they just need £500,000 now which sounds like a huge amount of money but out of £6.75 million, it’s not much at all.
“I think they just need people to step up and step forward and put in that last bit of money because it’s not just a new super-duper arts space, because we’re teaming with them in Manchester now, which is brilliant, it’s something unique and it’s a proper investment in the young people of the city. It is life-changing for them, it really is, and it’s not an exaggeration. They really do transform people’s lives. It is going to be amazing when it finally opens, hopefully next year.”
I’ve always been amazed by Contact alumni. The theatre churns out immense talent.
“It is almost like a magnet for people,” agrees Hesmondhalgh. “How people find their way there from troubled backgrounds and end up going like ‘oh, yeah, this is my place and it’s for me’ and it’s not intimidating in any way. Other theatres in Manchester have got young companies, the Royal Exchange Young Company is absolutely brilliant and award-winning as well, but Contact were doing it back in the late 80s.”
Finally, I want to ask about Take Back, the political theatre company co-founded by Hesmondhalgh. What’s next for the team?
“There’s a double bill of The Manchester Project in June which will take place over two nights with a full-length play written by [writer and Take Back co-founder] Becx [Harrison], which was long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize, so we’re putting that on with Monkeywood and doing The Manchester Project again.
“Over the Summer, we’ve got quite a lot of stuff around the NHS because it’s the 70th anniversary of the setting up of the NHS. We’ve got something for Refugee Week in June at HOME. There’s always loads of stuff going on with that. When you’re doing immediate responses to social and political events there’s never a shortage of material at the moment. It’s constant.”
There will also be a special career-spanning event in which Hesmondhalgh will be presented with Pilot Light TV Festival’s inaugural Excellence in TV award.
“It’s so lovely,” she says of the accolade. “They contacted me to say they have this TV Festival every year now, which is a brilliant idea because there’s so much amazing telly now, and it’s a celebration of that. They’ve created this Excellence in TV Award and they wanted to give the first one to me which is really lovely. It’s going to be an evening of chat and clips and stuff like that. I am really chuffed and honoured.”
To find out more about Contact Theatre’s transformation, click here.