When a star of not one but two of the nation’s biggest soap operas works in theatre you would expect the show to be big — in size and reputation. And, sure enough, the recent touring production of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie in which Coronation Street and EastEnders actor Michelle Collins has been playing the evil slave-owner Mrs Meers, is of a size commensurate with Collins’s box-office draw.
But if you look at the two shows Collins did either side of the musical, what strikes you is not just how small they are, but how niche. That is, niche as in Jewish.
At the Chicken Shed Theatre’s recent revival of Diane Samuels’ modern classic Kindertransport, Collins played Evelyn, an English lady who as a child arrived in the UK as Eva, one of the thousands of Jewish children who escaped the Nazis and were adopted by English families. And now Collins is at the Park Theatre starring in the latest work by Stewart Permutt, the Jewish Alan Bennett of the stage whose plays are distinctive for their closely observed and often very funny character studies.
A Dark Night In Dalston brings together two characters who would never normally meet. Gina (Collins) is old-school east London, a warmhearted, solitary, salt-of-the-earth type who cares for her bed-bound husband, while Gideon (Joe Coen, seen previously in Bad Jews) is the ultra observant Jewish boy who one Friday afternoon is visiting the area for reasons that are somewhat irreligious. After being assaulted he finds himself stranded by Shabbat laws. Gina, who witnesses the assault, takes him in.
“I asked Stewart to write it,” says Collins when we meet at her members’ club for media types in Covent Garden. The star wattage burns bright today. She’s doing a round of interviews to promote Millie. The blonde hair is positively luminous, but nothing can upstage those cheekbones.
“I wanted to do a play about a woman of a certain age who is going through a crisis in her life,” she adds. “So I put feelers out for a writer and Stewart’s name came up.”
“She commissioned me,” Permutt tells me later. “I think initially she wanted me to write a one person play but I didn’t want to do that any more.
“I wrote the first draft. It got very political . The male character, who is a very Orthodox Jew, not Chassidic but a top end of the United [Synagogue] type. He believes that the state of Israel should not be formed by any act of violence. I had him talking about this in the first draft but it became a tract. So I took that out and just concentrated on Gina and Gideon’s relationship.”
“She’s raw. You see what you get,” says Collins. “She’s big, in-yer-face and full on. I like that.
“In some aspects, Cindy, my character in EastEnders, was raw and open, which is why people loved her. But Gina also has vulnerabilities about her.”
For Collins, it is pure coincidence that two of her latest three shows are so Jewish. But Jews have always been close to the 55-year-old actress.
“I was born in Hackney. I remember going to Clissold Park and the Jewish kids were covering their ears because they weren’t allowed to listen to loud music,” she laughs.
And then there is her maternal grandfather, a Belgian-born orphan who she thinks was Jewish.
“I have no memories of him. He was a boxer and become quite well known. He was a really handsome man. Very dark. He died in his thirties when my mother was ten.”
A bit like Collins, Gina remembers the Jews of the area she was raised in. They are the kind that often populate Permutt’s plays. “That generation of Jewish people — my parents’ generation — were incredibly funny,” says the 66-year- old playwright. “And in the play Gina talks about the older generation of people that aren’t in Dalston anymore.”
While developing the play they did several read-throughs, one of which was seen by Miriam Margolyes who recommended it to the Park.
“It’s a play I subconsciously wanted to write anyway,” says Permutt. “I like Michelle as an actress. I saw her in Coronation Street. I like what she does. She’s a very honest actress. Here she plays quite a disturbed woman — but quite funny.”
“I think Stewart is slightly worried some people may be offended,” says Collins. “But I think he’s written a beautiful play.”
A Dark Night In Dalston is at The Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, until April 1