Willy Russell's Blood Brothers is a musical renowned for its emotional intensity.

The story of two working class brothers separated at birth when their desperate mother strikes up a deal with her rich employer, its combination of loss and love has made it a favourite with audiences for more than 20 years.

For its leading actress Linda Nolan, it has an especially poignant resonance. Linda, who plays the boys' mother Mrs Johnstone, lost her husband and manager Brian Hudson to skin cancer last September, shortly after battling breast cancer herself. Her mother Maureen died three months later.

Married for 25 years, she and Brian had worked on the show together since she joined the cast years before. Initially unsure she could face returning without him, she was persuaded she should by memories of how much he loved it.

"He would want me to come back - that's why I'm doing it, one step at a time," she explains, "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. My husband was my manager as well, so he always travelled with me. We were together for 28 years, 24/7, so everything's a reminder of him.

"Every night is hard - my opening line is Once I had a husband', and then I sing Tell Me It's Not True at the end."

Her large family, which includes the four sisters with whom she performed as 1970s pop act The Nolans, have supported her though the turbulent times.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my family - they closed in around me like the cavalry," she says.

"The Nolans are a great family. And my two step-children Lloyd and Sarah give me tremendous support."

And it helps it is a part she loves playing, despite the new challenges it has thrown up.

"This is such a worthy show that it is a kind of help for me, even though it is so intense," she says.

"I lose a little of myself every time I go on stage.

"It is definitely a tough role to play, but it's so worthwhile."

  • 7.30pm, matinees Thursday and Sunday at 2.30pm, £14.50-£26.50, call 01323 415500