NIKI Evans will be returning to the Grand Opera House as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers from Tuesday, but there is one place nearby in York that she will be avoiding.
“One time I was in York, they took me to the York Dungeon on my own and I’ve never screamed so loud,” she recalls. “I don’t know how I managed to do the show that night, I screamed so much. I won’t be going back to the Dungeon but York is a beautiful city.”
2007 X Factor semi-finalist Niki last played Mrs Johnstone in Willy Russell’s Liverpudlian musical in 2012, having first done so in 2008, visiting York in May 2011. “Returning to it was scary at first,” she says. “The first time I did it, I’d never done a musical or been a part of the theatre world so when [producer] Bill Kenwright called me I think I turned it down four times.
“I was like ‘No, you’re OK!’ but he persuaded me to audition, and my audition was terrible. But he saw something in me and within a week I was on stage in the Phoenix Theatre [in London]. It was such a whirlwind. Since then, I’ve done lots of other roles, mainly funny ones, so to come back to such a dramatic role is very scary but it’s like a dream come true. They’d asked me to come back before but I had to be ready, and now I am.”
Blood Brothers revolves around Mickey and Edward, twins separated at birth by their mother Mrs Johnstone, who then grow up on the opposite sides of the tracks, only to meet again with tragic consequences.
What makes Mrs J such an iconic musical theatre role, Niki? “It’s because of her strength and the emotions you have to go through when you’re on stage,” she says. “She starts as a young girl in her 20s, then within 20 minutes she’s got seven kids and has to give one away. It’s a big part and it’s a big part for a woman, which is rare at my age [Niki is 49].
“My window is tiny to get a part where you’re on for more than ten minutes. She’s a strong female lead and she’s so real. Every mother in this country can relate to her on some level because of how real she is.
“Every mother must see something in Mrs Johnstone that they’ve also gone through. I know I can. I’ve got two sons, so her Mickey and Eddie are my Morgan and Jonah. My kids have had troubles, I’ve had troubles, and the way I look at it is: I don’t have to play her, I just have to be her.”
Niki is still discovering new things about Mrs Johnstone in her latest interpretation of the role, ten years on. “She’s not such a feisty tiger as I thought when I first did the show. They used to call me ‘the Feisty Tiger Mrs Johnstone’. I come from a family of four; we grew up on a council estate; we had no money; I used to go to school in jelly shoes, even in November, and my mum was a tough cookie,” she says.
“You didn’t mess with her and that’s how I thought Mrs J was, or at least that she was how I was, like, ‘Don’t mess with my kids or I’ll come at you with a baseball bat’. But now I’m older, I’ve mellowed. I’ll be 50 this year and I’m not so bouncy as I was ten years ago, so my take on her is much more grounded. She’s stronger without being quite so feisty.”
Blood Brothers is such an emotional rollercoaster for Niki and audience alike. “There are a couple of parts in the show, without giving spoilers, where it rips me to shreds,” she reveals. “I do it as though someone is about to take one of my children and I can’t hold back. I have to feel it every time I do it.”
Aside from Blood Brothers, Niki has appeared in musicals in the West End and on tour, such as Kinky Boots and Shout. “There’s been loads and I’ve loved every character I’ve played, but if I had to pick one it would be Paulette in Legally Blonde,” she says.
“To go from playing Mrs Johnstone to Paulette in just two weeks was brilliant because it was such a contrast. I’ve never laughed and smiled so much as I have when doing the bend and snap. It was the first time I realised I could make people laugh as well as cry.”
Busy, busy, busy, but when Covid lockdowns left theatres closed, Niki took a job outside that familiar world. “I worked in a factory packing boxes for Amazon because I didn’t want to lose my house. I’m a working mum and I have to pay bills,” she says.
Post-lockdown, she appeared in Girls Just Wanna Have Funon tour and played Mimi the Magical Mermaid in Peter Pan, the Wycombe Swan Theatre’s pantomime, before going straight into Blood Brothers after only two days off.
“The first time I got back on stage, I was petrified because I hadn’t done it for two years and had to open myself up again to people watching me. All your insecurities come back and you’re like, ‘Am I good enough? Can I still do this?’, but the feedback from the audience, the love and the warmth – I can’t tell you what it means and how it feels.”
The return of live theatre felt “just amazing” to Niki. “People told me, ‘This is just what we needed’ and recently I was talking with a bunch of students in a theatre cafe who saw Blood Brothers and loved it. That enthusiasm is something you can’t buy.
“To have young people go, ‘You were so real, we were so engrossed’ is priceless. To know that you’re not just reaching older people, but young kids as well makes me so emotional. “What’s also interesting to me is how men in the audience react to Blood Brothers.
“When I look out into the auditorium, it’s the men who have their heads down because they can’t watch. It’s always the men who say, ‘I don’t like musicals, she’s dragged me along, but oh my God, I’m coming back to see this again’.”
Singing was Niki’s passion as soon as she could open her mouth, going on to finish in the top four in the 2007 series of The X Factor and to perform at Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations at Windsor Castle.
“Singing is like breathing to me, it’s so natural for me to do, but the actual performing scares the pants off me,” she says. “I was always happy as a backing singer or in the studio where nobody is looking at me. I know that sounds really weird, but when I’m out there I have to forget there’s people watching because it’s terrifying.”
The X Factor changed Niki’s life “completely. “It’s given me a career I didn’t think I was capable of, although it did eventually break up my marriage because I was never there,” she says.
“My life since X Factor couldn’t be more different. My kids didn’t even know I sang because I’d given it up. So much has happened in the past 15 years career-wise and I’ve got a partner and I’m getting married soon, which is very exciting!”
Blood Brothers returns to Grand Opera House, York, from April 5 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.