Jill Halfpenny on why she loves wandering around Leeds
- Credit: Richard Davenport / The Other Richard
Multi-talented Jill Halfpenny – starring in The Girl on the Train at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – tells Tony Greenway why variety is the spice of her life... and why it’s great to be back in Leeds.
In showbusiness circles, Jill Halfpenny is what is known as ‘a triple threat’. In other words, she sings, dances and acts. Some performers might be able to tick a couple of those boxes. Not many can do all three.
When I put this to her, Gateshead-born Halfpenny makes a noise somewhere between a snort and a chuckle. ‘Um,’ she says finally. ‘It always makes me laugh, that phrase. A bit like “West End Wendy”.’
(I had to Google that one. According to What’sOnStage it means ‘Performers who have performed in what feels like every show going and seem never to be out of work. Experienced, talented and fierce.’)
But I did mean it as a compliment because, scanning through Halfpenny’s CV, it’s plain that ‘variety’ is the name of her game. On TV she’s featured in kids’ series Byker Grove (where she kicked off her career), Coronation Street, EastEnders, Waterloo Road, Peak Practice and, most recently, Three Girls, Liar, Kay Mellor’s In the Club and the Channel 4 sci-fi drama, Humans. There was also the little matter of her appearing in – and winning – the second series of Strictly Come Dancing, in 2004.
In the West End she’s appeared in the musicals Chicago (as Roxie Hart), Calendar Girls, and Legally Blonde – for which she won an Olivier Award – and an acclaimed revival of Mike Leigh’s satire Abigail’s Party, playing Beverly, the cringeworthy hostess immortalised by Alison Steadman in the original 1977 production. Halfpenny has even done panto and guest-starred in the Catherine Tate Show and Death in Paradise.
So come on: it must be nice to be thought of as an all-rounder by casting directors and the paying public. No?
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Actually, it can be a hindrance in her business, she says. ‘What happens is that people think you won’t be able to do one particular thing as well as someone who specialises in it. It’s a bit weird.’ And anyway, Halfpenny never consciously set out to do lots of different roles. It just sort of happened. ‘I get bored very quickly, so if someone approaches me with a part that’s very different from one I’ve just done, I definitely gravitate towards it,’ she says. ‘And also I hate being pigeon-holed. I hate being though of an actress who can just do one type of role. It annoys me the way everyone is reduced so much.’
This month, she’s at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, starring in the world premiere of The Girl on the Train, an adaptation of the Paula Hawkins blockbuster that was turned into a till-ringing movie with Emily Blunt in 2016. Halfpenny plays the lead role of Rachel, an alcoholic devastated by the end of her marriage, who witnesses an event that she believes holds the clue to the fate of a missing woman. After the run at the WYP, the production will go out on tour; although – when we speak – Halfpenny can’t say if she will be involved in it.
Halfpenny admits that she was one of the few people in the world who hadn’t read Hawkins’ novel or seen the film, and only did so when the play thudded onto her doormat. Did she like them? ‘I really enjoyed the book,’ she says (so presumably not the film, then). ‘I raced through it and thought it was a page-turner. I thought: ‘I’m into this.’ But I was more intrigued by Rachel who was, at times, unlikeable, annoying and unreliable.’ That’s because female characters in these types of stories can be written in a very defined ‘black and white’ way. They’re either ‘this’ or ‘that’. Rachel is different, though, because her life is an intriguing grey area. She’s flawed and rather tragic.
Halfpenny has starred in numerous regional productions over the years. Early roles included Liesl in The Sound of Music at the Crucible in Sheffield; and Gordon Steel’s play Studs at Hull Truck. It’s taken her a while to make her debut at the West Yorkshire Playhouse but she’s delighted to be here finally. Leeds or London – she doesn’t mind where she is if the role is juicy enough. ‘I only ever follow the script,’ she says. ‘If it’s something that appeals to me – if it’s a great opportunity and a great part like this – then, yes, absolutely, why wouldn’t I go (to regional theatre) to do it? I don’t want to be London-centric because brilliant theatre exists all over the world. It’s important to spread that around.’ And Yorkshire has such a vibrant stage scene that she seems keen to be part of it. ‘It’s important to keep it alive and well and thriving,’ she insists.
Plus she enjoys Leeds, having filmed here plenty of times before. ‘I’ve worked in Leeds quite a lot,’ she says. ‘I made a film here last year – Walk Like a Panther – and I did a couple of series of In the Club with Kay Mellor. I like it because it reminds me a bit of Newcastle in terms of size. There’s enough going on, but it’s not huge. You don’t arrive here and think: ‘God, where am I? I’ve forgotten where everything is.’ It feels accessible to me. And I love city centres. It’s great to have a little wander around Leeds. You’ve got some fantastic food places and theatres here. It feels like home from home.’
Halfpenny seems so assured with every answer she gives, it’s almost a surprise when I stump her with a softball question that we tend to throw about quite a lot: what’s her favourite part of Yorkshire? ‘Oh...’ she says, and pauses for about 30 seconds. ‘I don’t know the answer to that. When I’m driven out to locations I often don’t know where I am.
‘ I think: “this is nice, this is green. You can breathe properly”. I’ve been based in London since I was 18, so I think: “the air is fresh! I can always taste the difference in the water; and it’s nice to get a fair amount of air into your lungs without coughing”.’ At least she’s honest.
It’s time for Halfpenny to go. But before she does, one thing occurs to me. The Girl on the Train was such a cultural phenomenon – a real water-cooler moment, a bit like Gone Girl (the book and the film) or TV’s Broadchurch – that it’s a guaranteed stage hit, surely? And, for an actress, that sort of dead-cert, sure thing can’t come around very often.
Halfpenny bats the suggestion away. She does variety – not complacency. ‘People will be interested,’ she agrees, ‘but it’s a myth to think it’ll be a sure-fire hit. We have to make sure that what we’re doing is interesting enough for people who have seen the film and read the book to want to come and see it. It’s always tricky with adaptations because people have a lot of love for the novel or the movie. We have to say we’re going to give you what you love; but we’re also going to give you our interpretation of the material – and hopefully something new, too.’
The Girl on the Train runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until June 9th, wyp.org.uk.