From Albert Square to 42nd Street, the former Eastenders star continues her showbiz fairy-tale
by Gill Sherry
It’s perhaps no surprise that Samantha Womack (née Janus) became a successful actor. Her mother was a model/actor and her grandmother an actor/choreographer. What is surprising, though, is that it wasn’t acting that gave Samantha her first taste of stardom. Did you know that she represented the United Kingdom in the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest?
“Eurovision wasn’t my finest hour in terms of singing!”
She laughs at the memory of her 19-year-old self singing ‘A Message to your Heart’ in Rome.
“It was mad,” she recalls. “A real baptism of fire. I was naïve… I just went along with it. I hadn’t realised how big it was. Back in those days everyone was taking it so seriously. Now it feels like everyone loves to love it, but in a different way. Back then it was mad, it felt quite manic.”
This year, however, she was able to dispel those slightly uncomfortable Eurovision memories by performing at the launch of the 2023 contest in Liverpool.
“I went back and sang my song on stage. We did it for Ukraine so I thought it would be a good time to go back and do it. There were all these hardcore fans who still knew all the words to the song! There was one guy with ‘A Message to your Heart’ tattooed on his arm!”
Sam, as she prefers to be called, had been worried that no-one would remember the song and had invited three drag queens on stage with her to try and ‘dilute’ her anxieties. As it turned out, she needn’t have worried.
“It was amazing. I had the best time and it really changed the way I felt about that whole experience.”
Although her pop career may have been short-lived, her performances in musical theatre are going from strength to strength. Her next role is that of Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street which comes to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal in August.
The role of Dorothy was originally played by Ruthie Henshall but Sam took over on 13th July when the production moved from Sadler’s Wells in London to Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre.
“It’s a lovely cast,” says Sam. “It’s quite scary joining something that’s already up and running… kind of like catching a train and jumping on board. I always get quite anxious with that. I feel the responsibility of wanting to make that transition as easy as possible for everyone else as well. It’s a tricky situation because you want to fit in to everything they’ve done but at the same time you’re trying to make it your own.”
It sounds a little like the late arrivals turning up on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!
“It’s exactly like that!” she laughs. “You come in and you’re carefully trying to suss everyone out and at the same time, not step on anyone’s toes.”
For Sam, though, jumping on board is made easier by having those close to her along for the ride.
“I love having people with me that I know on tour. My partner’s with me, playing Pat Denning. Les Dennis is with us, and Faye Tozer who I know. Also, I know one of the stage managers really well as well. That immediately makes me feel happy.”
Her partner, for those who may not know, is former Hollyoaks star, Oliver Farnworth.
So, what can we expect from 42nd Street, and who is Dorothy Brock?
“She’s an old has-been!”
I’m getting used to Sam’s laughter, it’s a captivating sound.
First of all, 42nd Street is a big spectacle. It’s a big show with lots and lots of numbers and music that people will recognise, and that’s gorgeous. I think people are definitely interested in that kind of nostalgic music.
On the subject of Dorothy: “It can be played in lots of different way. She’s actually quite poignant, she could easily be played as a joke or a kind of villain. She’s a woman who’s got to the end of her reign. It’s the end of the depression, there’s not a lot of work around and she comes back to this one job. She’s probably a bit older than they wanted, probably not quite talented enough… and then is upstaged by this young, fresh faced ingénue who takes her place.”
Dorothy has my sympathy vote already.
“You’re looking at her in that transition,” Sam continues. “It’s debateable whether she’s got the talent or she’s just got presence. She’s a bit of an enigma. But there’s some real pain to her character.”
Sam continues: “It’s a show within a show. The thing that you’re seeing is people trying to put on a show at the end of the depression and the excitement that goes with that. You’re watching the casting, the making of the show. You see the numbers from the show but then you also see what’s going on with the characters.”
42nd Street is described as a timeless, inspiring, showbiz fairy-tale. Is that about right?
“Yes. It got such an amazing reaction at Saddler’s Wells on press night. It was electric… it looks really madly vivid. It feels like a departure into something really nostalgic and it’s a really lovely way to spend two hours. The audience were tapping their feet and leaning into the stage. Sitting watching it, I did suddenly feel quite coveted and cosy.”
Of course, she’s no stranger to musical theatre. She has played Sandy in Grease, the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Morticia Adams in The Adams Family, to name just three. I ask which roles were her favourite.
“Guys and Dolls at the Piccadilly,” she says without hesitation. “That was directed by Michael Grandage who does really in depth work with musical theatre. He pushes it further than most people do in terms of making the characters very round and very full. I got to work with some amazing people in that. It felt like a great thing.”
I presume she’s talking about Patrick Swayze and Don Johnson, two huge stars.
“Also, South Pacific was a good one. I knew that musical really well from when I was a kid. My grandmother really loved it so that was special. There were sand dunes on stage… it was designed beautifully.”
Prior to these memorable stage performances, Sam had appeared in a number of TV series including the BBC Two sitcom, Game On, the BBC One drama, Pie in the Sky, and another popular sitcom, Babes in the Wood. She first came to my attention, however, as DC Isobel De Pauli in the 1998 police drama, Liverpool One.
“I think that’s one of the best things that I did in terms of writing. The script was written by a guy called Simon Burke and I knew immediately when I read it… the writing was phenomenal, the dialogue was really smart and sharp. It was political but it was also the first thing I’d read about Liverpool which wasn’t reducing it to a stereotype. I wanted that series to go on and on. I was gutted when it finished after the second one.”
To be honest, so was I. But Sam was to go on to bigger and better things, not least the role of Ronnie Mitchell in Eastenders. It was a role she describes as life-changing.
“I thought I was quite well known already because things like Game On had been on and I was used to people recognising me occasionally. But you don’t really understand how being in someone’s living room four times a week will change that. It’s a very different recognition. People feel very close to you because they’re growing up with you and you have to learn how to manage that. If you’ve done something like a soap for eight years, there’s pretty much no-one that hasn’t seen you at some point. That’s mad isn’t it?”
Did she struggle with that constant recognition?
“It changes the dynamic of how you live your life. It was pretty mad to go into such a famous institution. It was daunting. I grew up watching it when it first started so I remember on my first day feeling ridiculously nervous. I’d seen Dot and Peggy in my own living room and I suddenly found myself on the show… it’s a really trippy feeling.”
That said, she enjoyed her two stints as the rebellious Ronnie, the first from 2007 to 2011 and the second from 2013 to 2017.
“It was really enjoyable, a totally different way of working. I’d definitely say I got much better at acting with that experience. You’ve got nothing to rely on, you haven’t got time to rehearse… you get on your mark and you do your stuff. I did learn a lot doing that.”
Now, though, Sam is more than happy to be doing her stuff on stage.
“For me, theatre became more of an option after Eastenders because it’s the kind of vehicle where they often want a TV name to sell the show. So a lot more theatre came through. I wasn’t actively choosing it that way but now, I just love it. I so much prefer the way that you work because you work the story from start to finish. I get bored a lot of the time having to replay the same scene over and over again for TV and film. It’s like the magic goes out of it for me sometimes.”
She adds, “And also, truthfully, I like having control over my performance. I feel safe with that. You don’t have that as much in TV. You’ve got producers and directors that will alter it in the edit, so the editing becomes the performance in a way. On stage, the creatives have left you and you really get to do what you want to do. I like that control over my own stuff. It’s really nice to be given that space.”
No wonder she’s so excited about 42nd Street. With performances in 14 different theatres between July and October, she’ll have plenty of opportunity to experiment with Dorothy. And afterwards? No doubt she will continue her very own showbiz fairy-tale.
“I’m going to have about a month off,” she confirms. “My partner and I have bought a house in Valencia, in the hills just outside the city. We haven’t spent much time there so I’m going to spend as much time there as possible, and then think about the next job.”
It’s been a pleasure chatting with Sam. She is honest and funny and seems genuinely thankful for the wonderful opportunities that have come her way (yes, even Eurovision!). I, for one, am looking forward to seeing her portrayal of the enigma that is Dorothy Brock.
42nd Street is at Theatre Royal Glasgow from 21st to 26th August. Visit 42ndstreettour.com for tickets.