Viv Hardwick talks to Gateshead TV star Jill Halfpenny about her decision to turn down all other projects in favour of a Tyneside-based drama.

THANKS to victory in TV's Strictly Come Dancing, Gateshead actress Jill Halfpenny had the world of stage and screen at her feet. But tonight the 29-year-old returns to her Tyneside roots to play an adulteress and murderer in the tiny confines of Newcastle's Live Theatre.

She admits it will have surprised many people that, after landing six months as Roxy Hart in West End show Chicago, her next two contracts would be an adaptation of Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin, re-set on Newcastle's Quayside under the title The Bodies, and Fairy Godmother in Cinderella this Christmas at the city's Theatre Royal.

Although Halfpenny doesn't see herself as a "girl next-door" type, having played a variety of roles, she admits that Strictly Come Dancing has forged a family friendly reputation with her name.

"I'm about to change all that with this play," she jokes, although the actress is surprised over her dramatic publicity picture being seen as a little racey.

"I'm supposed to be dead in the picture so if I can look sexy when I'm dead, I suppose I'm dead sexy," Halfpenny says with a laugh.

She does accept that turbulent scenes of adultery and murder, particularly when the husband and victim is played by her boyfriend Craig Conway, is going to be demanding in the confined space of Newcastle Quayside's Live Theatre.

But the prospect of having no footlights between her and the audience leads her to add: "This is about creating a character who is real when they are just two feet from you. The lovely thing about Live Theatre is that it's so intimate that your acting has to be all in the face and the eyes, it's got to be real."

On the central role of Therese Raquin, who decides to murder her husband with her lover (played by Ben Porter) she says: "This is great for me, a big role and very demanding and I must admit I'm really enjoying this. You have a lot of different opportunities in your career and one comes along and you think 'right that's going to be difficult and I'm frightened of it, so that's the reason I'm going to do it'.

"It's emotional and physically demanding, like a real rollercoaster in acting. I think essentially people shouldn't be put off if they've never heard of Emile Zola and never heard of Therese Raquin because we're not doing the book, playwright Peter Flannery has put his own interpretation on this story. It's about human nature and desire and greed and murder and all the things we love to watch on television, the sort of things that soaps are made of."

The clinching argument for her was hearing that Our Friends In The North creator Peter Flannery had written the script and Newcastle Playhouse colleague Maggie Norris, director, specifically wanted Halfpenny as Therese.

She says: " I felt I just couldn't turn this down. The past nine months has been very hectic for me and very full on. Chicago was incredible but this wasn't necessarily the next step that people expected from me."

Later will come Cinderella in December. "Panto is going to be really hard work and good fun and I've always been to see the Theatre Royal pantomimes and I knew I'd love to do one if they ever asked," says Halfpenny, who started performing in North-East pantos from the age of nine.

"I can remember seeing the Krankies, Les Dennis and Anita Dobson at Newcastle over so many years. It's going to be a fantastic job being home for Christmas and I'll be dead proud."

The run of The Bodies will take the actress up to end of July, but she's already discussing another TV project. She says: "I haven't got anything lined up but I'm hopeful one TV project will come off. But I don't plan things so that it's 'now I'm going to take two weeks off' if a job came off the back of this one I'd do it and take time off after that. But me and Craig are looking forward to getting away this year.

"Strictly Come Dancing, Chicago and EastEnders certainly did things for me because my name now comes up when they are casting for a certain type of actress."

As one of the few who have appeared in both Coronation Street and EastEnders does she have any inside knowledge about why the ITV soap is now out-performing its BBC rival?

She replies: "You know what, next year if I was talking to you you'd be saying 'so what's happened to Coronation Street?' because it has to be one or the other. I don't know if EastEnders has gone wrong or if people has just decided that The Street is the better one to watch. I can't remember the time when the tabloids didn't pitch one against the other. I think both are great but EastEnders was better for me because I could live in my flat in London while for Coronation Street I had to commute. "

In the long term, Halfpenny has her eyes on film work, hopefully with a director like Mike Leigh, and a period drama. In the meantime, there's always her regular return trips to the North-East.

"I feel the buzz every time I come back to Tyneside and I see something new has been built. It's gorgeous up here at the moment. But it would take so much in train fares to be based here for auditions, but in an ideal world I'd love to have a place here and in London and spend my time between the two."

* The Bodies runs from tonight until July 30 at Newcastle's Live Theatre. Box Office: 0191-232 1232.

Published: 16/6/2005