Julie and Rosa Hesmondhalgh: interview

Julie and Rosa Hesmondhalgh have wanted to work on a project together for a while.

“We keep putting it out there into the universe that we should play mother and daughter, because we look more like each other than our respective mothers,” laughs Julie.

In the meantime, the acting aunt and niece are both set to appear at Storyhouse in May – albeit one after another rather than on the same bill.

Rosa brings her life-affirming one-woman show Madame Ovary to the main stage from this Friday to Sunday, while Julie follows hot on her heels with the exquisite The Greatest Play in the History of the World next week.

“I’d love it if we were in the building at the same time,” says Rosa, who is returning to Storyhouse after playing Rose in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 2019. “We could have a cup of tea in the dressing room before our shows and have a de-brief afterwards.”

There is, however, another important Hesmondhalgh who will be making the journey to see her, and that is Rosa’s grandmother (and Julie’s mum) who will be watching her granddaughter’s autobiographical show for the first time in what is, Rosa admits, likely to be an emotional experience for both of them.

She was due to see the show at Manchester’s Royal Exchange last spring before the Covid lockdown brought live performance to a sudden halt.

Julie says: “There’s a big operation to get her to Chester, but it was massively important to me that she came and saw it live and not on a live stream.”

It was in 2018 that Rosa, aged 23 and recently graduated from drama school, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

During a gruelling six months of treatment, Julie gave her a notebook with the advice to “write the **** out of it” and Rosa did just that. Her notes became a blog, Madame Ovary, and the blog became an honest and humorous stage show which she took to the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Before I was diagnosed, I was looking for a story to tell because I felt like I couldn’t just keep waiting, as an actor, for the phone to ring,” Rosa explains. “I wanted to take some control over that.

“And then the control was taken completely away from my life when I was diagnosed and so writing about it was again a way to take control of the narrative and make something that was my own.”

The reaction from audiences has been an important part of the whole experience.

“It’s very humbling to get out afterwards into the bar and people want to talk about their stories,” she admits. “There’s this really amazing connection between storytellers and audience members in a way that you don’t get with TV and film.”

The return of live theatre means a welcome return for that visceral shared experience, although with social distancing still in force, tweaks have had to be made to elements of some shows.

The original version of the critically acclaimed The Greatest Play in the History of the World, penned by Julie’s husband Ian Kershaw, involved her borrowing shoes from the front row for example.

“There’s no more shoe borrowing,” Julie reveals, “which is obviously really sad for anybody who has seen it before. But what I must remember is that most people won’t have seen it before.”

“At first I was quite daunted by it, because it felt like a complete recalibration,” she adds of the changes for the touring production which starts in Yorkshire this week. “It’s a very intimate studio show in its former incarnation, and now we’re playing in huge auditoriums.

“But actually, I love the scale of it because even though it’s a little story about a love story on a northern street, of course it’s also this huge story about life, the universe and everything and space and time.

“And we’ve had to find to find different ways to connect with the audience. It felt like it still needed that slight breaking down (of the fourth wall) a bit, it’s not just me telling a story into the void.”

While Julie has continued working during the pandemic – she’s currently to be seen in new prime time BBC drama The Pact which was filmed last autumn – and Rosa spent Christmas performing in Guildford, both actresses admit they can’t wait to get back on stage again, and emphasise that audiences can be confident of being kept completely Covid-safe.

“We’ve got to really support theatres,” Rosa says. “We’ve got to show up, we’ve got to buy the live stream tickets, we’ve got to really put the work in to make sure they stay running.”

Madame Ovary is at Storyhouse from May 21-23 and The Greatest Play in the History of the World from May 26-30.