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"I'm exactly the same person"
Leslie Ash isn’t taking her first stage role for 15 years lightly. After her much-publicised troubles, being cast in Abigail Burdess’s All The Single Ladies means “a hell of a lot”, she says.
Ash contracted hospital superbug MSSA in 2004 and is now unable to walk without a stick. For a long time, the Men Behaving Badly star assumed she would never act again and certainly, her current role is one of only two she has won since the illness (she appeared in Holby City a few years ago). Yet here she is and, as she puts it, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”
The tour is an opportunity to draw a line under the past decade, she says – the botched cosmetic surgery that left her with the “trout pout” monicker, the speculation about her marriage to Lee Chapman (she got MSSA while being treated for broken ribs – she blamed an energetic bedroom session but the media had other theories) and the News Of The World hacking her family’s voicemails.
She hopes appearing in All The Single Ladies will help people to see her as she is now.
“Inside, I’m exactly the same person, it’s just my body won’t do what my head tells it. I think I’m improving all the time, or at least adapting, and I want people to see I can still function as an actress. It’s been a long, hard tour – my balance is quite impaired and a lot of the stages we’ve played have steep rakes – but we’re coming to the final leg and I’ve actually been OK. It’s been a challenge, but I’ve felt quite strong.”
The comedy-drama centres on a friendship between three women who have all found themselves single for very different reasons. Brooke Kinsella plays a squaddie’s widow and Tara Flynn a woman in desperate search of a man.
Ash plays a woman in her early-60s who has just come out of her seventh marriage.
“She’s very over the top and says exactly what she thinks.
It’s the first time I’ve played a character part and it’s great.”
Ash’s own life couldn’t be more different, of course. She has been married to Chapman for more than 20 years.
“And doing this play I was particularly relieved about that,” she laughs. “I’d hate to be a woman looking for love at my age [she’s 52].”
The couple have had their moments, but she is a great believer in marriage, she says.
“People don’t try as much as they used to. When the slightest thing goes wrong, they don’t talk, they just part.
But in all marriages there are changes and I think you have to be patient and understanding.
You have to work at it.”
She says she is tremendously grateful to her husband for his support over the past few years. It was Chapman who nursed Ash and protected her from the media furore around her operation and her illness.
“He kept me well away from any of the press about me. I read one story while I was in hospital and the nurses went crazy because it was so upsetting it stopped me recovering properly. He’s been fantastic all the way through.
He’s been my friend, my carer, my lover and I think we’re inseparable now.”
Ash finally settled the phonehacking business out of court. After years of concern about what was going on, did she feel vindicated when the News Of The World closed? She’s quiet for a moment.
“I’m just glad people who are in the business now have a fighting chance of privacy. Of course you open your doors to scrutiny if you’re in the public eye but it should be as much as you want, not being followed around and having private voicemails listened to. It’s a shame. There are some very good tabloid journalists out there but there was that horrible side to the business too.”
It’s certainly been a difficult time for Ash. After years spent playing pretty blonde leads, she is now adjusting to the idea of taking older, character parts, of being a disabled actress, of acting becoming a hobby rather than a career.
For a woman who started in the business when she was four, this is some undertaking.
“I was really lucky, doing a job I loved and couldn’t get enough of, my career was going well and yeah, it’s a real shock when you suddenly realise you might not be able to carry on in that career,” she says.
“I thought I’d bounce back, but it’s not as simple as that.”
Roles have been few and far between of late – and she blames that partly on getting older. But the difficulties of being a disabled actress can’t be overstated, she says.
“It took a lot to learn how to balance, stand-up, walk again and this profession is very fickle. If you can’t do the job, people move on, and why shouldn’t they?”
She’s delighted to be in a comedy again. The last play she was offered was Tom Kempinski’s Duet For One, about a concert violinist stricken with multiple sclerosis.
“I had to turn it down.
It took me back to the past too much and it was just too depressing. I didn’t want to go down that road.” She’s also been pleasantly surprised by the number of theatres set up for people with disabilities.
“I’ve been amazed by how many actually have a disabled dressing room. There was only one in Blackpool that was tricky as it had flights of steps to access it – though I managed them.”
One senses the tour has also been good for Ash’s battered ego. “There have been all these different generations coming backstage to get memorabilia signed,” she says.
“One guy came all the way from Manchester with pictures and posters of me.
I was really touched. Even though I ended up signing for about an hour, it was so flattering to know that people still wanted to meet me.”
* Leslie Ash appears in All The Single Ladies at the Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, on Saturday, April 21. For tickets, call 01323 412000.