RESIDENTS in a Barnsley suburb are rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Love-lorn cobbles crimper Natasha Bateman was in their Birdwell living rooms thrice nightly for three years – and now the Corrie poppet has popped up just across the road.
Her oh-so familiar face is becoming a regular sight. And next week, they will all be clamouring for a seat at their tiny local theatre to see the soap star take to the stage.
A stone’s throw from cosy terraces not unlike the ones of Weatherfield, tucked away in a former frozen food store just off junction 36 of the M1, the 180-seat Academy Theatre is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a former Coronation Street leading lady and Laurence Olivier nominee.
But here she is, Rachel Leskovac, Natasha’s alter ego, preparing to act her heart out alongside tap-dancing local schoolchildren and earnest amateur thespians.
Rachel is about to star in the resident theatre company’s production of the American musical comedy Little Shop Of Horrors.
She will play Audrey, the shy colleague of nerdy florist Seymour, who finds his chance for success with the help of a giant man-eating plant.
It’s a huge contrast to how fans last saw her, exiting the world’s most famous street having given her ex, Nick Tilsley, a piece of her mind and getting his mother Gail the sack from her job at the doctor’s surgery. Doe-eyed, sweet-natured blonde Natasha, always so unlucky in love, had recovered from her suicide attempt after yet another heartbreak.
Though the all singing and dancing comedy role is a piece of cake for Rachel.
As dancing class feet tippety-tap in thunderous unison in the room next door, the 36-year-old actress recalls with a beaming smile the days when she became a ‘ballet, tap and modern’ hopeful at the age of five in Bradford.
Memories of her mum doing ‘competitive outfit-sewing’ for her parts in the dancing school annual show come flooding back. And her chest still visibly puffs with pride as she pictures the day she landed the role of an orphan in The Alhambra’s production of Annie at the age of 10.
Rachel only ever thought showbusiness would be an amateur hobby, but went on to be one of the first ever graduates of Paul McCartney’s School of Performing Arts in Liverpool.
Her big break came just a few years later, at the age of 23. She received huge critical acclaim for her performance as the young pools winner Viv Nicholson in the musical Spend, Spend, Spend. Singer Barbara Dickson played Viv in her later life, the show was nominated for Best Musical in the Laurence Olivier Awards and both actresses were nominated for the Olivier for best stage actress. Rachel felt so honoured she didn’t mind a bit when she lost out to Barbara.
Undoubtedly, she could have forged a hugely successful stage career on the back of her nomination, but she chose a small screen career and was soon landing roles in a host of top-rating series.
In 2003, she played Ciara Pickering in At Home With The Braithwaites and a few months later she played serial killer nurse Kelly Yorke in Holby City.
“When I got the job I had no idea she was going to end up killing off her patients,” says Rachel, huge brown eyes wide. “They deliberately didn’t tell me how she was going to evolve. It turned out to be a brilliant part to play; loads of Holby fans must have hated me.”
She won them back, though, in 2008 when she first stepped into Audrey Roberts’ hair salon as the temporary replacement for Maria, who had just suffered a miscarriage.
Audiences immediately warmed to the ditsy, pretty blonde and what had initially been a contract for four episodes ended up running for almost three years.
She left in 2010 and has rarely watched Coronation Street since. “Not for any bad reason; I didn’t really watch it before I appeared in it, either,” says the actress who remains close friends with Sue Nicholls, her former boss Audrey.
This year Rachel went back to type to play a beauty therapist in an episode of the Jimmy McGovern drama series The Accused.
She was playing opposite Sheffield’s most famous actor Sean Bean, who was in a very different role to those of swashbuckling Sharpe and Bond bad guy Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye.
He was transvestite Tracy, and because of him, Rachel’s wholly innocent character got stabbed to death by her husband,
Now, she’s about to get eaten by a plant in Birdwell.
Having a soap star on the cast list, a huge coup for a tiny company like LS Theatre Productions, is down to its founder Lee Semley, a Barnsley- born-and-bred professional actor who has appeared in numerous stage and TV productions.
He became close friends with Rachel when the pair starred together in the two-part TV series A Passionate Woman in 2009.
In the highly-rated drama, written by Bradford’s Kay Mellor about her mother’s life, Rachel was Margaret, flighty sister of the character played by actress Billie Piper.
Lee, who works under the stage name Sebastian Shaw, was Margaret’s husband Eric.
“I had an affair with Terry The Teaman and Eric found out,” she says, as if we’re gossiping over a garden wall. “Lee and I clicked straight away and we’ve been friends ever since.
“He lives near me in Sale now; he’s always popping round for a cup of tea.
“One day he mentioned his theatre company was planning to perform Little Shop of Horrors and I told him it was something I’d always wanted to do. He played it down; said something like: “Well, if you’re free, we could find you a part...”
“I’m sure his producer head was inwardly telling him that having a Coronation Street actress on board would help sell a few seats...”
It was a long way from the West End, and would pay just a fraction of the salary she could command in a TV series, but she gladly accepted the part. “For two reasons; my daughter Macy Blossom is five and I try to take short jobs that fit around her and my duties as a mum,” she says.
“And it feels really good to be helping a friend running a theatre company in a close-knit Northern community. I’m a West Yorkshire girl and I’m really enamoured with the work Lee puts into his company. I’ve been coming to Birdwell for rehearsals twice a week for the last three weeks and the standard of acting is really high here.”
Says Lee, who is director, producer, set designer and lead actor in the show, says the rest of the 30-strong cast are in awe of Rachel.
“How often does an am-dram enthusiast from Barnsley get the chance to act in their local theatre with a Corrie leading lady, who also happens to be Olivier nominated, too? Rachel was in their living rooms every week; now they are on stage with her and learning so much from her.
“Our youngest cast member, Casey Fisher, is just six. She will always remember this show.”
Little Shop Of Horrors marks a premier moment for Rachel, too; she has bagged seats for her family – and daughter Macy will be in the audience on the last night. It will be the first time Rachel has performed on stage with her in the audience.
“ She will be singing along. I rehearse at home so she knows all the words; the Dentist Song is her absolute favourite,” says Rachel.
“But I’ve had to prepare her for the scene where her mummy gets eaten by the giant plant. To be on the safe side, I think I’ll introduce her to it before curtain-up.”
- Little Shop of Horrors runs from October 23-27 at the Academy Theatre, Sheffield Road, Birdwell. Tickets are £12 and £10 for concessions. Call the box office on 01226 744442.