Returning to musical theatre for the first time in a decade, Jennifer Ellison admits: “It’s nerve-wracking but also really exciting. “I’m reassuring myself that it’s like riding a bike; it’ll all return when I get back up there.”
Jennifer’s last major musical role was as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain on the West End in 2013, with a recent appearance in the pantomime Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in Norwich in 2016.
Embarking on the UK tour of the Official Take That musical Greatest Days, she says: “It’s a bit scary for sure because I haven’t done theatre for such a long time but nerves are necessary. They give you the adrenaline to get up there and do a good job.”
Embracing Greatest Days
When the chance to appear in Greatest Days came up, Ellison didn’t hesitate. She’d seen the show on the first leg of the tour. “And I absolutely loved it,” she smiles. “I was so captivated by the story, I laughed, I cried, and I was on my feet at the end. It’s such a feel-good musical.
The mother of three children, married to boxer Robbie Tickle, adds: “When it means leaving your kids and home, it must be something you’re passionate about. And when you’re doing something that you really love, it doesn’t feel like a job.”
In the show, Jennifer, who turned 40 in May, plays a fortysomething mum named Rachel who back in the 1990s was obsessed with the boyband. Reunited with her four best friends two decades later, she’s hoping to see her idols one more time after she enters a competition to see the lads perform in Athens. “She’s had a pretty normal life,” Jennifer says of Rachel, “and she’s longing for that little bit of excitement again.
“When she enters the competition, never in her wildest dreams does she think she’s going to win but she does, and she and her friends are suddenly setting off to Athens on an adventure.”
As an actress, singer, dancer, businesswoman and reality TV star, Ellison has led a far from normal life. But she can relate to Rachel on a general level, saying: “When you grow up and you have a family and stuff, I think you forget yourself sometimes and you lose touch with friends. A lot of women and indeed a lot of men are guilty of that. We lose touch with people too easily because of how busy we are.
The timeless appeal of Take That
One thing that really hit home with me when I watched the show was how you should keep in touch with people you grew up with and the people you love.”
When asked if she’s a Take That fan, she smiles again. “Isn’t everybody? Their music is fantastic and I don’t think you can not be a Take That fan. And when you see them live, they’re incredible.”
Born and raised in Liverpool, she grew up listening to their songs, although she didn’t have posters of the boys on her bedroom wall. “That’s because my mum wouldn’t let me put posters up,” she laughs. “But they’ve been in my life from when I was a young girl to now, because they’re still touring and making new music.”
A childhood filled with performing arts
Jennifer trained as a dancer from age three, after she saw the film version of Annie on TV. Her mum was a keen horse-rider. “So she’d have me on horses but I kept falling off. I ended up in hospital so many times with concussion that my grandma told my mum ‘She’s got to stop this horse-riding’. Then I watched Annie and they were dancing all around the house, and that’s when my love of dancing started.”
As a teenager, she studied at the Royal Ballet School before leaving to pursue an acting career and soon landed the life-changing role of Emily Shadwick on Brookside.
She was just 15 years old when she joined the soap and feels “it opened up every single door that’s ever come about for me since, really. And to get to work with such incredible actors, writers, producers and directors at that young age was basically my college. That was my training and I learned on the job.”
She stayed in Brookside Close for five years, then in 2003 launched a pop career and racked up two Top 20 hits with Baby I Don’t Care and Bye Bye Boy.
“It was fantastic,” she says now of her brief stint as a popstar. “I got to do festivals and things like Party in the Park at the Pier Head in Liverpool.
If I could go back, though, I’d appreciate it all a bit more. At the time, you’re going from one job to the next and you’re just constantly focused on what’s coming next and never enjoying the now.”
Fulfilling her dream role: Roxie Hart
In 2004, Jennifer made her musical theatre debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago.
It was her “dream role from when I was a little girl” and another learning curve. “I learned so much from working with such an incredible cast and it was a real pinch-me moment because when the show had just opened in the West End, Ruthie Henshall, who originally starred as Roxie, presented me with a dance award and I was in complete awe, thinking ‘I want to play that role one day’.”
After her own West End run, she went on to tour the country with the show and has subsequently been in such musicals as The War of the Worlds, Legally Blonde and the aforementioned Singin’ in the Rain. She’s also been in comedies Boeing-Boeing and Calendar Girls and has appeared in classic pantomimes like Cinderella and Peter Pan.
Ellison has also modelled, released fitness DVDs, DJ-ed on Liverpool’s Radio City 96.7, been a frequent guest on Loose Women and fronts the UK version of Dance Mums, which revolves around her very own Jennifer Ellison Fame Academy.
In addition to all of this, she has competed on Dancing on Ice, Hell’s Kitchen (which she won), The Verdict and SAS: Who Dares Wins.
The latter remains a personal favourite because it saw her conquer a series of daunting challenges. “It had such an effect on me personally,” she recalls now, “because never in a million years did I think I’d be able to do it.”
Embracing life in her 40s
She’s very happy in her 40s, saying: “Someone said to me that these are the years where you don’t care and I get that. You learn to relax and enjoy yourself more.
For me and my husband, we’re no longer surrounded by nappies and babies. Our youngest is nine now, so it’s been a lot easier. You get this new lease on life.”
The last time she toured was with Legally Blonde in 2012, so what is she most looking forward to about taking Greatest Days around the country?
“Getting to meet new people, getting to see new cities and getting to return to cities I’ve played before because then you know the area, you know the theatre and you know the staff, which is lovely. I’m eager to be in front of a live audience again; it’s been a while.”
And what does she hope audiences will take away from seeing the show? “I just hope they have a great time because it’s got everything that you need from a night out.
“You laugh, you cry, you stand on your feet, and everyone of all ages stands with you. I’ve never seen a reaction to a show like this before.”
As for the themes in it, Jennifer adds: “It covers everything. It’s about love, friendship and loss, with a thread of nostalgia running through it. You’ll be watching a heartbreaking scene and then suddenly a Take That song kicks in and you’re like ‘Wow, that brings back memories’.”
Greatest Days Live at Sunderland Empire 14 – 18 November. Get your tickets here.