Thoroughly Modern Millie, Theatre Royal Brighton, April 4 to 8, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinees on Wednesday and Saturday), 08448 717650

YOU would have thought Joanne Clifton, winner of numerous professional dance championships and last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, would be prepared for anything in the world of dance.

The daughter of former world number ones Keith and Judy Clifton, she has been immersed in the medium since the age of four. Yet, upon taking on a role in the award-winning musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, it became apparent there was one thing she hadn’t encountered – tap-dance shoes. Clifton is enjoying travelling back in time to 1920s New York, where the “jazz age” was in full swing despite prohibition but admits it was a challenge to learn a new skill.

“What I found difficult was the tap,” she says a few days before Thoroughly Modern Millie comes to Theatre Royal Brighton. “I’d never done it before. It’s completely different to ballroom and Latin [the modes of dance she specialises in] where you need to be very strong in the ankle. With tap you need to loosen and free the ankles up. I’m 33, I’ve danced since I was four and now I’m being told to free up my ankles. I thought I’d get fake tap shoes but the choreographer wasn’t having it – she insisted I had real ones.”

Thoroughly Modern Millie is revival of the musical that hit Broadway in 2002, which in itself was an adaptation of the 1967 film starring Julie Andrews. Millie Dillmount has moved to the Big Apple from Kansas determined to make a success of herself. But what does success mean in 1922? It was an era which saw more women enter the workforce and yet Millie feels that she has to marry for money rather than love, all the more so after she is mugged early on in the play (just before she encounters Jimmy, her eventual love interest).

“She has all these aspirations of marrying her boss,” says Clifton. “When she arrives in New York at the age of 19 all she wants to do is marry someone rich and dress up like modern ladies. She wants the bob haircut and the nice clothes, to go out to all the posh parties.” It takes a heart-to-heart with a famous singer to convince Millie of the need to “follow her heart” and embrace love for what it is, rather than go where the money is.

Wanting to put her unique spin on Millie, Clifton refrained from viewing the original movie. “I didn’t watch it because I thought I was never, ever going to be a Julie Andrews. She’s an absolute legend.” As you’d expect from a show with a champion dancer at its heart, Thoroughly Modern Millie has a rollicking energy to it. Yet there have been some concerns raised in some of the show’s reviews about an element of its plot, and specifically the character of Mrs Meers, who runs the hotel for aspiring actresses in which Millie resides.

Mrs Meers also pretends to be Chinese and the hotel is a facade for a slavery ring; in one song (They Don’t Know), the hotelier sings about how foolish the guests are not to understand that she intends to transport them all to Southeast Asia. While Clifton clearly can’t speak for the play or its script on that issue, I’m intrigued to find out what she makes of Mrs Meers’ stereotypical Chinese caricature and its perception as problematic.

The actress says the production is “not trying to put a point across or anything”. She adds: “Yes, she’s dressed up as a Chinese lady but the way the whole musical is done is very light-hearted and funny. You’ve got to take the musical as it is. We didn’t write it, of course – it was written way back when.”

That last point is obviously valid and it would be unfair to expect Clifton and the cast to justify the character. Clifton is concentrating on giving the best performance she can muster, night in, night out. She’s been praised critically for the vibrancy of her dancing and singing. The Charleston is a dance that features heavily in the play, being a big feature of 1920s “Speakeasy” life, and Clifton is relishing this form of dance in particular.

It will be a familiar sight for fans of Strictly Come Dancing, which Clifton won last year with television presenter Ore Oduba. Having retired from competitive dancing in 2013, Clifton says Strictly is a different kind of buzz. “With the professional stuff that was me working hard for myself, but Strictly is achieving something with a non-dancer; helping them over a period of however many months to win something.”

Does she miss professional dancing? “I feel I reached the maximum level I could with it; it’s a different chapter now. Obviously I still have a dance around on Strictly and in this show [Millie] and I still love the feeling of it.” It’s not just Clifton’s parents who are intrinsically linked to the dance trade. Her brother Kevin also dances on Strictly. Whatever sibling rivalry the pair have, they “play up to” according to Clifton. “Well I do more than he does – he doesn’t really care.”

Her brother came to a showing of Thoroughly Modern Millie and “was a bit moved”. As anyone with a sibling can testify, that approval will surely mean more than any glowing critical review. Despite her illustrious past in dance, music theatre was Clifton’s first love. She must feel gratified, then, that she is currently excelling on the stage – tap-dance included.