Debra Stephenson makes a big impression on life

    The talented mimic and actress is bringing her one-woman impressionist show Night of 100 Voices to the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells on June 17. Ahead of her performance, where she’ll impersonate everyone from Billie Holiday to Britney Spears, she talks to Eileen Leahy about how these legendary women have influenced her career…

    TALKING HEADS Debra Stephenson revived her impressions while working on Coronation Street

    Please tell us a little bit about your new show, Night of a 100 Voices?

    Well, strictly it’s not really a new show. I have been doing it for about a year now. We only did a small tour last year to see how it would go and it was really well received. It’s such a fabulous night and very fast-paced, with about 50 songs interspersed with comedy. It’s a lifetime’s work, really. I’ve been doing impressions since I was a little girl and have taken everything I’ve ever done and put it into this show.

    How did you first get into doing impressions?

    I started when I was little doing ones of Margaret Thatcher and I also listened to my granny’s record collection a lot, which included artists such as Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, Lulu and Barbra Streisand. We didn’t have iPads to play on in those days as kids, so this is all I had to do! My dad did impressions so I got that knack from him, and my mum would make my costumes.
    I entered ITV’s Opportunity Knocks when I was 14 and did impressions of Marilyn Monroe and Kate Bush, so they’re in this show as well.

    How did the idea for doing 100 impressions come about?

    I went to drama school and then straight into acting in dramas such as Bad Girls, Playing the Field and Coronation Street. During my time on the latter I had the opportunity to do a show in Blackpool every week with the late Bernie Nolan called Soap Queens, and that was the first time I’d resurrected a live act of impressions since my youth. Then a couple of years later I was offered work on a cruise ship, and I had to provide two acts of at least 45 minutes of content. By this time I realised I had a lot of material I could use. Although the cruise was fun, I didn’t want to be away all the time, so I thought the ideal thing would be to put my show into theatres… and here we are.

    Can you talk us through the content of the show?

    The first act goes through each musical decade. We start with the heady days of jazz with Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington and go right up to the present day with Paloma Faith and Lily Allen. Along the way, I’ll also do Cher, Kate Bush and Lisa Stansfield. I have a six-piece band on stage with me so it really lifts the atmosphere. People in the audience do feel like they can sing along, and I like them to interact. In between is a lot of comedy, so it’s very fast moving and utterly exhausting and a bit like a marathon, but I love it. And then, of course, we have act two!

    Goodness, there’s more?

    Oh yes, and in this second section the thrust is more about film and TV, so I’ll do people like Tess and Claudia from Strictly and The Great British Bake Off’s Mel and Sue as well as some of my favourite comediennes, who include Sandi Toksvig and Sarah Millican. Then there’s a few film scenes with the likes of Dolly Parton, Marilyn Monroe, Julie Andrews, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. I also do Adele and Shirley Bassey doing a Bond medley!

    Do you change costumes during the show?

    There’s no time, I’m afraid! I don’t bother with wigs or glasses, and audiences say it’s lovely to see it all stripped back and me morphing into various characters. When they see it like that it’s more magical. It’s all about embodying that character.

    Do you prefer straight acting or comedy?

    The older I get the more I want to lighten up. I have the energy for high octane drama, but it’s emotionally draining. I suffered burnout after doing Coronation Street, there was nothing left to give, and when you’ve got a family that’s not good. So at the moment I’m very happy to just keep my hand in doing the odd thing. With comedy it’s a different thing: It’s lighter and fun but you can still get your point across and make a contribution to the world, especially if you’re doing satire.

    Where do you get your energy from?

    I don’t know! I think it’s the adrenaline, but the next day I am exhausted and my voice is tired as it’s vocal gymnastics. But this show has a bit of something for everyone: There’s contemporary stuff, nostalgia, and it’s a bit like a career biography for me. I don’t talk about myself, but everything I’ve done is all in there. I promise you’ll enjoy yourself if you come along…

    Night of 100 Voices is on at the Assembly Hall on Saturday at 7.30pm. To book tickets, which cost from £20, visit www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk