I’m sitting in the Royal Northern College of Music, a leading international conservatoire a mile south of Manchester city centre. Next to me is Julie Hesmondhalgh. We’re perched at the edge of the RNCM’s restaurant, on the periphery of the buzz of students and guests awaiting the evening performance.
The intense nerves of a young writer who has never spoken to, let alone interviewed, an actress fresh off The Street are immediately dispersed by the calm familiarity of her Northern accent and her openness. When I pose the first question about her involvement with Wonderland, she says “they just asked me to do it”.
This comes as no surprise. Some 15 years of playing one of the most adored characters in the history of Corrie, a Best Serial Drama Performance Award and Best Actress at last year’s British Soap Awards – of course they just asked her.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland. Hesmondhalgh explains that it’s not always been her Mad Hatter cup of tea.
“I know you’re a big fan of Alice,” she says. “But it does get on my nerves a little bit. But that’s just the nonsense of it. What I like about this particular project is the specially written script by Louis de Bernières and it’s really beautiful.”
De Bernières is best known for his fourth and most famous novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, later adapted into a feature film in 2001. His literary work often references music and the composers he admires. Along with pianist Ashley Wass and violinist Matthew Trusler, Hesmondhalgh brings his work to life with her melodic yet commonplace narration. She explains: “It’s simple, and there is meaning to be found in the nonsense.”
Of Wonderland, Hesmondhalgh says: “Ashley Wass and Matthew Trusler commissioned 13 composers to each write a short piece inspired by the preface and 12 chapters, starting with All in the Golden Afternoon. Some of the composers asked were very famous themselves.”
Names like Howard Blake, Stephen Hough and Roxanna Panufnik were among the renowned talent. In addition, artist Emily Carew Woodard has created illustrations to accompany each chapter. Her quirky Victorian vibe recollected the period in which the original tale was written, and the use of sepia tones and vintage paper textures worked stunningly well.
The show itself begins and I soon realise I’m being told Alice’s story under an unusual archetype; there are no ghastly colours or wacky costumes, no in-your-face weirdness. The music makes me experience Wonderland as a place, as an emotion. While I’m sitting laughing and reminiscing about all the different ways in which I’ve seen this story told time and again, it’s clear that this Wonderland has new meaning for both me and Hesmondhalgh.
So, I’m becoming curiouser and curiouser to find out what life has been like since Hesmondhalgh left Coronation Street and whether she has taken to more literary projects.
She says: “I suppose I’m quite drawn to things with an artistic quality that appeals to me. I made a decision when I left [Coronation Street] to get into theatre straight away. I did a Simon Stephens‘ play [Blindsided] at the Royal Exchange and then I worked with Simon Armitage on Black Roses.”
Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster, a BBC film that recently won the Best Drama Royal Television Society Award, was one of Hesmondhalgh’s projects that hit close to home, both for her and for me.
Black Roses tells the shocking story of how, in August 2007, a quiet, 20-year-old goth was beaten to death in a park in Bacup, Lancashire. The original play combined the words of Sophie’s traumatised, grieving mother Sylvia (played by Hesmondhalgh) with those of the poet Simon Armitage. The play gave a voice to Sophie before, during and after the savage attack.
I had the opportunity to meet Sylvia at my college’s conference day, and listened in shock to her traumatic tale. I was astounded that she had transformed her grief into what is now The Sophie Lancaster Foundation.
“It’s something I don’t understand at all being a mum myself,” Hesmondhalgh says, the black S.O.P.H.I.E band adorning her wrist. “To lose your child in those kind of circumstances and then to turn it into something positive. Black Roses was a sad and beautiful film but I was happy to be a part of it.”
She goes on to tell me that even though the film was released over a year ago, Sophie’s mother Sylvia saw it for the first time earlier this month.
“She told me that she’d been running from it for so long, but that she thought the time was right now.”
So, what now for Hesmondhalgh?
“I’m filming the second season of Happy Valley at the moment which is great fun, and I’m back at the Royal Exchange working on Wit, a hard-hitting play centred around death, but showing that it’s never too late to learn how to live. I’ve also been a part of a theatre project called The Gap, which is helping to promote paid new writing. The kind of writing that sits between established larger venues and fringe work.”
Her final thoughts on Wonderland?
“I think people will really enjoy it. There’s beautiful music. It’s simple and it’s clear. You can close your eyes and be transported.’’
Finally, the most important question of all – what are her feelings about the North of England?
“Honestly, I don’t think I’d live anywhere else. I love Manchester, the people I know that come up from London love it, and I feel like it’s my city.’’
The Wonderland project was created to raise funds and build further awareness for the Lenny Trusler Children’s Foundation, touring as a live event throughout 2015 and beyond, with performances already scheduled in several countries across Europe. Wonderland will be released on Orchid Classics in March 2016.