Viv Hardwick talks to quick-witted actress Josie Lawrence about her success with improvisation and why Newcastle means so much to her. The TV and stage star is also off to Kilimanjaro soon o another charity trek.

'YOU shout it out and they'll act it out!' is the invitation facing audiences at Newcastle's Tyne Theatre tonight from the quick-thinking queen of improvisation Josie Lawrence. The well-known star arrives in the North-East fresh from the uproarious romp that was Acorn Antiques The Musical in the West End and a chance to watch her own acting heroine Julie Walters in action.

She says: "I've never ever been in such a successful show. It was jam-packed and they were selling tickets for £400 on the internet. I used to watch Julie Walters every night from the sidelines and even her ankles are funny. We're both from the same area in the Midlands and we talk really broadly when we're together."

Lawrence reveals that she chose Newcastle specially for her guest star slot in The Improvisers With Stephen Frost because it was the city which inspired her TV stardom.

She explains: "I was appearing in a play at the Playhouse in the 1980s called Passionaria and it starred Denise Black and the musical director was Paul Sands, who was Denise's husband. Denise and Paul went around singing songs that she'd written and we started to harmonise while we were up in Newcastle and that's how Denise Black And The Kray Sisters was created and that's how I discovered the Comedy Circuit and improv. So if it wasn't for that time in Newcastle I would never have really got there."

Her move into instant comedy came as a result of starring in a Donmar Warehouse play called Songs For Stray Cats and hearing the audience invited to supply lines and ideas for improvisers appearing in after-show cabaret.

"I played a manic depressive Glaswegian in the play and I'd seen Jim (Sweeney) on the circuit when I was a singer with Denise Black and The Kray Sisters. So I stayed behind and watched one night and then, because I knew Jim, I said could I try it because it looked brilliant and it was one of those things I found I could do. You suddenly find your little baby. After that I joined the Comedy Story players and then this TV show called Whose Line Is It Anyway? came along."

She throws her hands up in horror at any suggestion that stooges are planted in the audience to spice up each night's show.

People did ask the team for Who's Line whether they knew anything at all before filming sequences and she admits that only once in eight years did Dan Patterson, the producer, put his head around the door and say 'It's the world's worst tonight... it might be the world's person to be stuck in the library with.' She says: "And we couldn't do it that night and we said 'Dan, never let that slip again because it throws you more than not knowing'."

She recalls meeting Mike McShane at 1.30pm one day and by 6.30pm they were starring in an improvisation sketch on television. "that's how quick the turnover might be," she says.

THE trouble with improv is that you tend to forget it once you've done it. There are certain classics but the stock thing is that people think it's funny if what they shout out is funny. It doesn't work like that, sometimes the most mundane ideas like 'Antiques Shop' or 'Olde World Public House' or 'A moor in the middle of nowhere' is better than 'Michael Howard's bedroom'. You get a laugh, but you can't do anything with it.

"I'll never forget in Liverpool when I asked for song styles and got 'a strobe-lit goldfish' which I thought was brilliant and another shouted out 'a 1920s flapper song' and that was great. Then there was 'dodecahedron' which I quite liked."

Lawrence sees herself as an actress with comic ability and feels that Comedy Store work in the 1980s avoided her having to be a waitress between acting contracts.

"When Who's Line came along then people were asking 'can Josie come along and do her stand-up?' and I'd never done stand-up in my life. That's why I took the 18 months out to do the Royal Shakespeare Company and worked at the National and the Royal Exchange because if I could chose to do anything constantly if would he Shakespeare, that's what I love to do the most. I do comedy one minute and a straight play the next and I call myself a performer because that's what you are supposed to do."

Lawrence is turning down work at the moment because she's tackling a charity trek up Kilimanjaro. This is her second epic journey having spent seven months walking with groups of Breast Cancer fund-raisers in China two years ago. In six months she journeyed from the Gobi Desert to the Yellow Sea.

"At first we were knocking back the anti-inflammatories every night but soon we became like little Indiana Joneses.

"I really got the bug, so 30 of us are going up Killi but this time it's for an autistic school that I'm patron of and I'm being sponsored by a fish and chip shop and I'm taking some pretend chips to eat at the top."

Lawrence is aware that many hours of her best work has never been recorded "although my mum has got tapes of things like Whose Line, Fat Friends and Outside Edge".

"It's only recently that I've started to write and I'm in the middle of a project that I can't say anything about, but it's a wonderful idea because people said 'you've done 20 years of improv so you must have loads of ideas in your head'."

So Newcastle may well be another starting point for the multi-talented actress.

* The Improvisers With Stephen Frost. Tyne Theatre, Newcastle, Box Office: 0870 145 1200.

Published: 16/6/2005