The Interview: Claire Sweeney
From soap star to West End stage, we’ve grown accustomed to think of Claire Sweeney as an actor and performer, but next week she’ll give Preston audiences a chance to experience her writing abilities with hit touring show Sex in Suburbia. Debbie Bennett spoke with the star about life, love and her new baby.
From small screen to West End stage, Claire Sweeney has been a fixture of British drama and entertainment since 1989.
From Brookside, Clocking Off, Merseybeat and Candy Cabs to Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Educating Rita and September In The Rain, Claire has more than proved herself a versatile performer, but now she is showing off her skills as a writer.
She brings her comedy Sex in Suburbia show – penned with close friend Mandy Muden – to Preston Charter Theatre next Wednesday night.
The show promises to reveal the mysteries of men, dating, finding Mr Right, and motherhood – so where did the idea come from?
“All the appallingly bad dates my friends and I have ever experienced,” said Claire.
“We’d tell each other what had happened and get over the horror of the experiences by laughing about them.
“Mandy and I started writing them all down in my front room with the notion of turning them into a comedy.
“At first we weren’t even sure if we were funny! But the play went down a storm with the audiences last year when it first opened in Liverpool.
“We take them through every emotion and they enjoy themselves so much that they get up to dance in the aisles and sing along to the big musical anthems we’ve included, such as I’m Every Woman, I Want To Break Free and, of course, I Will Survive.”
What’s the show about?
“The eternal subject of love and romance, and the quest to find Mr Right through a series of mainly unsatisfactory dating experiences,” she laughs.
“The host of a late-night radio show is Britain’s leading agony aunt and she takes calls from listeners about their dates from hell – and the occasional one from heaven – and dishes out her advice.
“In the original show I played a relationship expert, but this time around I play myself – a working mum with a baby. I decided to update it because my baby boy Jaxon, who was born in September, has changed my outlook on life.
“As a result, I’ve injected my own personal experiences of motherhood into the show.”
“I’ve also de-Scoused it so it will appeal more to a national audience!
“It was localised, about famous names and places in Liverpool, so I’ve taken out those references, but all the dating stories remain the same – they relate to everyone, wherever they’re from.”
Have you included your own experiences of dating?
“Yes, all the material comes from me and my friends.
“I’m the woman who goes on all these dodgy dates looking for love then reaches a stage in her life when she would like to settle down and become a mum!”
A self-fulfilling prophecy?
“Maybe! I was due to go on tour with the show when I found out I was pregnant.
“Being a mum is the best thing ever and Jaxon is the love of my life.”
Did you think twice about putting personal stories in?
“No, I found it liberating. I’ve changed the names and places but a few of the dates are based on my real dating experiences.
“I thought they were funny and I’m glad all the women who saw them in the show thought so too. You have to laugh in the face of adversity. At first you go, ‘Woe is me!’ but then you turn it into a funny story and laugh.”
What are some of the more outlandish dates experienced by friends?
“Well, one of them found the macho man she was dating wearing a frilly rah-rah dress!
“There’s another extraordinary tale about a cross-dresser. It’s the true story of a woman married to an uncommunicative, unpleasant man who suddenly discovers that he likes to wear women’s clothes.
“After the initial shock, she becomes the best of friends with his alter ego – who’s softer, warm and kind – and it saves their marriage.
“There’s another cautionary tale that carries the warning, ‘be careful what you wish for.’ A man wants to take his wife to a ‘swingers’ club, but she is reluctant.
“When he finally persuades her, she ends up loving it. He gets jealous and they end up divorced. But there’s nothing vulgar about our show; we’ve made it sympathetic and, most of all, amusing.”
Do women in the audience volunteer their own stories?
“Oh gosh yes! We have a slot in the show where they can share their dating nightmares. Instead of ‘Blind Date’ we call it ‘Bad Date.’
“We’d been hearing all these disastrous stories and decided to ask the audience if any of them knew the secret to a happy marriage.
“A woman who’d been married for years replied that her tip for marital harmony with a husband was that you should ‘Just ignore him’.
“Every woman brave enough to stand on stage receives a free goodie bag from Ann Summers, which is supporting the show. An older lady had been married for 50 years and never looked left or right, so we had to explain to her what the bag contained, bless her. It was all done with good humour.”
Will the show appeal only to women?
“At first we assumed it would be a comedy for women, but we’ve seen men too.
“During a matinee performance, I saw a whole group of fellas fill a row, and at the bar in the interval I asked them why they’d come.
“They replied that one of their mates had seen it, loved it and recommended it, and so they’d come along as part of a lads’ day out. There are elements of the show men can definitely relate to.
“One story involves a bloke whose wife is pulling out all the stops – the lingerie and what have you – to seduce him when all he wants to do is watch the footie.
“Another bloke told us how he went on a date with this gorgeous girl, but when she took him around her house for a cup of tea he was horrified to realise he’d taken her mother out the week before!”
Is the dodgy dating experience a modern phenomenon?
“No, it’s always been like that,” she replies.
“We know this because our audiences include women from all generations – we’ve had grandmothers, mothers and daughters coming to the show on a family outing – and they can all relate to many of the stories we tell.”
Who would your ideal date be and where would you go?
“My guilty pleasure is Ray Winstone. I’ve never met him but he seems to get more fabulous as he gets older.
“He’s such a geezer, the type of bloke who’d look after you. A night out at the theatre followed by a slap-up meal would be perfect. Food and the theatre are my two favourite things.”
You starred in panto in Liverpool just seven weeks after Jaxon was born. Has it been difficult getting the baby/work balance right?
“It was hard at first and Jaxon probably wants to know why he’s no longer being breastfed by a genie!
“I was playing the genie in Aladdin, wearing fabulous sparkly purple costume, and used to feed Jaxon in the interval.
“He seemed to love the music, the magical surroundings and all my theatre friends who’d help me look after him.
“Some people said, ‘You should take time out and stay at home with your baby,’ but I’m a working mum who has bills to pay so going back to work so early wasn’t a case of getting my life back and getting back on stage. It’s what I do and I believe it’s possible to combine both!”
Will there be wedding bells for you and Jaxon’s dad, Daniel Riley, this year?
“We’ve no plans for that at all. We’re taking every day as it comes with Jaxon and I’m full-on being a mum and preparing for my UK tour.
“I’ve relocated with Jaxon to my house in London and it suddenly dawned on me that the house isn’t baby-friendly at all, so I’m having all the sharp corners on tables and worktops softened and warm carpets laid on all the floors.
“Will you be taking Jaxon on the Sex in Suburbia tour with you?
“Yes, a close friend is coming with me who will look after him while I’m on stage but he’ll be with me the rest of the time. I love him so much that I don’t want to be away from him. How lucky am I!”
Sex in Suburbia is at Preston Guild Hall on Wednesday, April 29, from 7.30pm. Tickets £25, concessions £2.50 off, groups of 10 or more get the 11th FREE.
The show is recommended for audiences aged over 16 only. To book call Box Office on 01772 80 44 44 or visit www.prestonguildhall.com