Coronation Street scriptwriter Carmel Morgan tells Terry Grimley how her first stage play came to involve Dawn French, Alison Moyet and Kathy Burke...
Carmel Morgan's first play for the theatre has been a long time coming, but it has some high-profile names attached to it.
Called Smaller, it teams Dawn French and singer Alison Moyet and is directed by actress and long-time Harry Enfield collaborator Kathy Burke.
French plays the stay-at-home daughter saddled with caring for a housebound mother (Jean Watson) while Moyet plays her gadabout sister, who is pursuing a singing career in Spanish resorts.
According to Carmel, the project came about through a series of coincidences after she had taken a break from her role as part of the Coronation Street scriptwriting team to start work on a stage play.
"I always wanted to write a play about a disabled mother and a carer," she explains.
"I actually started it - I wasn't commissioned or anything. It's quite hard when you're on a soap - it's the world's most wonderful treadmill.
"I went to Skye, which was just gorgeous. I was writing it as a twohander, and I'd done about 16 pages. Then I had a message from my agent saying Dawn French would like to meet me to talk about a project with Alison Moyet. Dawn was raving about Alison's voice - she was in Chicago recently - and said they would like to do something together but didn't know what, and wanted to sound out a writer.
"Kathy Burke had recommended me because, I found out later, she liked my Coronation Street episodes. I'm a big fan of Kathy Burke and it's funny to think of her watching Coronation Street.
"So Dawn and I had a long chat and I told her I had started a play and it was a two-hander. I was immediately thinking it would be good if she and Alison were sisters. Then I came back to the play I was doing and thought it would be much richer if there were two siblings, where one sings and the other stays at home 'doing her duty'. We chatted more and then I did a treatment."
When Kathy Burke was taken on as director, the project came full circle. The tour opened in Bath in mid-February and has a slot booked in the West End.
Despite that stint in Chicago, it's a surprise to see Alison Moyet in a straight acting role, though as it happens she does get to sing.
"She's written three new songs for the play, and they're gorgeous. They really enhance the play, and from day one it was meant to be a play with music. I think the way Kathy Butrke has directed it, it really works."
For Carmel, it's another mile stone in a writing career which took a long time to get going after ten years working as a television publicist.
"It was something I wanted to do for years and years, but didn't really know how to go about it," she says.
"Then I started doing a screen-writing course in Liverpool. It was two nights a week and I found it very hard getting there from Manchester after a day at work. After a year I found that was impossible, but the good thing was that it kick-started me."
The big break came, though, when Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash invited her to contribute to The Royle Family in 1999.
"They very kindly took me on as a kind of apprenticeship on the second series," she explains.
"They insisted on splitting the fees three ways, even though I didn't contribute very much. Henry Normal was going off to do a film with Steve Coogan, and Caroline said 'Craig and I were wondering if you might like to come and join us - but you would have to give your job up', as if I would have said no.
"It was going from nothing to the premier league. But all I did was write it down - Caroline and Craig would sit in chairs and spout this wonderful dialogue. Once in a blue moon I would contribute something, and every time Caroline would say 'We'll break for lunch now...'"
"Then I had a trial for Brookside and was taken on, and I left Caroline and Craig then. I needed to do something on my own, and Brookside came very easily to me because I had been a fan for years. It was wonderfully kind of Caroline and Craig and it meant I could leave the press office and write."
As well as Smaller, Carmel has a TV series currently being filmed for BBC3. The working title is Teenage Supermodel, and it's about a 15 year-old girl who is plucked from obscurity for a high profile career in modelling, though the focus is less on modelling than the impact of celebrity on the girl and her family.
At the moment, though, she has no plans for another stage play.
"I will only do one if inspiration strikes, because I do think it's very hard. I never thought it would be easy, but it's very different to TV. You feel more exposed, really, though not necessarily in a bad way.
"I did find with Smaller that there were things I'd like to change, and people tell me that even if you had it back for a month to rewrite it, you would still want it back. If I had a fantastic story to write I would love to do another one, but I think you would need to be very fired-up to write a play."
* Smaller is at the Alexandra Theatre from March 20 to 25 (Box office: 0870 607 7533). ..SUPL: