Triumph on stage for former X factor star in Willy Russell smash
Few stage shows have received quite such acclaim as the multi-award-winning Blood Brothers by Willy Russell. Having experienced the bumpy ride that is X Factor, Niki Colwell-Evans embarked on the emotional rollercoaster of starring in Blood Brothers. She tells Steve Cain about the thrills and spills of life.
Niki Colwell-Evans is the first to admit that she has a lot in common with her on stage alter-ego, Mrs Johnstone.
Both of them are working-class mothers who hail from council estates, both have worked as cleaners to make financial ends meet and both of them have an indomitable strength of character.
“I don’t actually play Mrs Johnstone,” she said. “I am just being myself with a different accent.”
Niki has a great deal of sympathy and a great deal of understanding for the character that she has played in the West End, to great acclaim, and performed on and off in national tours since 2008.
“She’s a Catholic lady who got married when she was very young, in the late 1950s, and ends up having to bring up nine children as a single mother after her husband leaves her.
“Through a mixture of superstition and religion she is bamboozled into giving one of her new-born twins away, but she is a very down-to-earth, loving, strong woman.”
Before Niki auditioned for the role of Mrs Johnstone, she knew very little about it.
“Once I got the role I kind of researched it because I’d never seen a stage musical before and I didn’t know what Blood Brothers was all about,” she admitted.
“When I first saw Lyn Paul play the part I was just absolutely speechless, her performance broke my heart and tore me to shreds.
"She was absolutely brilliant.”
She has since seen another half-dozen actresses play Mrs Johnstone and is convinced that Blood Brothers is not only a fantastic piece of musical theatre, but a part of the cultural fabric of Britain.
“Willy Russell writes from his heart and from his own personal experience.
"It really does reflect real life,” said Niki.
During the past fifteen years, Niki has reprised the role of Mrs Johnstone many times, having taken breaks to appear in pantomime and other musicals including Legally Blonde, Shout, and Kinky Boots.
“The thing is you have to take breaks when you’re playing such a big, emotionally-draining role,” she explained.
“It’s not fair on the public if I’m just a robot saying lines and not feeling anything.
"I want the audience to go away feeling like I did when I saw Lyn Paul do it.
"If I can’t do that, I know I need a break.
“When I first played the part, back in 2008, I didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be to put that level of emotion in,” she admitted.
"I cry every night during the final scene, it just gets me to the point where I’m absolutely sobbing my heart out.”
However, that emotional release can sometimes have advantages, too.
“If I’m going through a hard time in the daytime with everything that you have to deal with in life, it’s a relief to be able to go into work and cry in front of everybody and release all those pent-up tears.”
Another aspect of the show that initially surprised Niki is the comedic element.
“I was expecting it to be really sad all the way through and was shocked by how funny it is.”
Niki achieved her major break as a contestant in the 2007 series of X Factor.
The competition, in which she took fourth place, was a bitter-sweet experience.
“There are some really good points about it and some really crappy bits.
"I didn’t realise how much they used the death of my dad as a story and I had some backlash from that but it was genuinely what had happened.
"He hadn’t been dead a year and they knew how to push my buttons, which was quite difficult to get over.”
But there were advantages to appearing in the talent show, too.
“The things that I’ve done since I left X Factor are just what dreams are made of,” she admitted.
“There’s no way on this earth that I would’ve ended up as a leading lady in the West End if it hadn’t been for X Factor.
“Simon Cowell, whether you love him or hate him, does give people that opportunity,” she acknowledged.
“There have only been two people in my career who have given me that kind of opportunity – one was Simon Cowell and the other is Bill Kenwright and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
Such is the dramatic power and cultural impact of Blood Brothers that Niki is just one in a long line of illustrious leading ladies who have relished the challenge of donning the care-worn smile and crossover pinny to play Mrs Johnstone.
These include Barbara Dickson (who originated the role), Kiki Dee, Stephanie Lawrence, Petula Clark, Carole King and four different Nolan sisters – Bernie, Linda, Denise and Maureen.
Many of them have also reprised the role several times over the years.
This comes as no surprise to Niki.
“Mrs Johnstone is such a fantastic, strong character.
"Once you’ve played her she never leaves you, she’s always with you.”
Playing one of the most memorable roles in musical theatre has fuelled Niki’s ambition to try her hand at some others.
“There are loads of roles that I’d love to have a go at,” she enthused.
“The Killer Queen in We Will Rock You, Donna in Mamma Mia! And The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot.”
Nevertheless, she harbours no desires to return to the bright lights of London and the West End.
“I don’t really like London and I’m not a West End Wendy. I’m not a diva, I’m a working-class mum – and proud of it as well.”
For the present time, though, Niki is completely committed to Blood Brothers, in which she is contracted until the end of April.
Her passion is being rewarded with rave reviews from the critics, too, who are praising her ‘standout performance’ and ‘exceptionally emotional vocal delivery that reaches even the farthest corners of the auditorium’.
Niki’s response was characteristically modest and matter-of-fact.
“Like I said, I want the audience to go away feeling like I did when I saw Lyn Paul do it.”