Denise Nolan was the third Nolan Sister to star in Willy Russell's incredible musical 'Blood Brothers'. Her sister, Bernie, had been touring the UK with the show for more than a year. Bernie had covered in the West End while the regular cast took a holiday. The producer of the show, Bill Kenwright, wanted Bernie to headline at the Pheonix Theatre in London's West End when the company was due to change cast.
Whilst Bernie was on tour, the show arrived at Liverpool for the Christmas period, where it would play for three weeks. It was during this run that the producers of the hit Channel Four soap 'Brookside' attended a performance. Incidentally, Brookside was set in Liverpool. The Brookside team were so impressed with Bernie that they hurried back to work and urged Channel Four to audition Bernie.
Bill Kenwright was selfless in his reaction, giving Bernie the chance to leave Blood Brothers without penalty.
In the meanantime, Kenwright had auditioned Linda Nolan and offered her the role on the UK tour. Bernie's departure meant that there would be a vacancy at the Phoenix Theatre in London. Kenwright asked if he thought there was a suitable Nolan Sister who could take on the demanding role. A hasilty arranged courier took a CD to Kenwright, who was suitably impressed. But would Denise have the live vocal for the show?
An auditio was arranged for the following day. The part was immediately offered to Denise. But there was to be no time for Denise to rest. She would open in the theatre in nine days time!
"I was terrified... Even in Panto, when you have perhaps two solos songs and some production numbers, you have two weeks! Mrs. Johnstone has eight solo songs and a duet. She also has lots of scenes throughout the piece. There was very little time she is actually off the stage. The regular cast came in to rehearse with me, and that included some from the tour. I had the script in my hand practically all day, learning my lines. I put little notes next to my lines so I would know how to act and react. I had also learned a 'Scouse' accent (With a LOT of effort) When Bill came to the tech rehearsal, I used the Scouse accent, but he said to me that I had a lovely speaking voice and that he would like to see me play the part as an Irish woman, it wouldn't be out of place as there is a big Irish community in Liverpool. To say that on my opening night that I was scared is a massive understatement. I had been told that Bill Kenwright never comes to watch the show - As I prepared on opening night I was told that he was in the audience! Without being graphic, I spent a lot of time in the loo!!"
Critics heaped praise on Denise and her portrayal of Mrs. Johnstone. She was the first Nolan to take on a full time role in the West End production. The job was not without issues, says Denise;
"I loved the show, of course, but I am a huge fan of Britain's countryside. Being in the West End has a certain prestige, but when you are doing eight shows a week with only a Sunday off, you find yourself stuck in one city all the time. I really did miss seeing the country. Touring gives you the chance to visit attractions everywhere and to see the beauty of the UK. The theatre itself in a lovely venue, and the musical has such fun and drama. The cast were all amazing. Bill said to me that he throught my finale was the best finale he had ever seen in Blood Brothers, which was such a compliment. I did find that some of the overseas audiences didn't quite get some of the jokes, or the accents and I thought that was disappointing. The stage at the Pheonix was also troublesome for me. Most stages have a slope on them, this is called a 'rake' and it's to help audiences further back see, and to give perspective on stage. But the rake at the Phoemix was really steep. I began to get aching legs and shin splints. After eight months at the Pheonix I was ready for a change. I knew that Linda would be much more suited to the West End and so it was agreed that we would swap places. I then spent four more years on the tour of the show. Audiences were amazing wherever we went. They would rise to their feet at the end every night. That is so gratifying as a singer. I was nominated for an award when the show reached Blackpool which was a great honour. The best thing was in my spare time, I was able to explore. Down time is important when you are in a major musical. Some of the cast shared my enthusiasm for sight seeing and came along with me when I went to museum or to a beauty spot. We had some lovely accomodation that my partner, Tom, arranged. The show runs for between six and eight months and then had a break before resuming. That all suited me fine. It was during one performance that I was hit with something that I had never experienced - Just as I was going on to sing a number that I had sung eight times a week for years I suddenly thought 'I don't know the words' It was the most terrifying feeling. I went on stage and everything was fine, but when I came off stage I was so frightened. Tom told me that all singers experience stage fright, but I had been singing professionally for forty years by then, and had never felt like that. That night I couldn't sleep, I felt the same all day. That night I felt physically sick. I read my script again and again in my dressing room before each scene. There never was a time when I stood on stage and froze. My fellow cast said they hadn't noticed a single thing that was different. For several weeks I felt debilitated. To be so frightened when you are doing something that you love and have done all your life is the worst thing for a performer. I was able to reach the end of the run and looked forward to a holiday. To be honest, the feeling was on the back of my mind all the time that I was on the break. I did a few gigs with my act, and aside from usual nerves I was fine. Bill Kenwright don't normally renew contracts well in advance, and I was not really in a hurry to see if he wanted to renew mine. When he did, just two weeks before the show opened, I was hit once more with stage fright - and I hadn't even got to the theatre! When I did get on stage there was nothing that the audience or the cast saw, but the feeling inside would not go away. When I left the show, it came as a great relief. There had been issues with management and I think they were looking to get me out. I had voiced complaints and was unhappy, that and the stage fright only made me more determined to leave as soon as I could. I was given the chance to get out of the role mid contract and I wasn't shocked or upset. I had three days notice and I was gone, without any fanfare or goodbye party! Linda came straight out of the West End and replaced me. I went straight into panto and although the nerves were there, I was able to put them to one side, and get on with the job. I noticed that there had also been a change in my voice that I wasn't happy with. The show had done that to me. It took a long time to put it right. Going back to being Denise Nolan was a something I relished. Meanwhile, Maureen then went on to become the fourth of us to take on the role. A year or so later Linda became ill for the first time with cancer. She was due to appear at Glasgow and then Edinburgh. Tom took a phone call and I heard him talking on the phone and could guess what he was saying. He came to me and said that Kewright Ltd wanted me to appear in the show for the month. I had left the show with bad feeling and I swore that I would never go back. It had shook my confidence to have felt unsupported as I had been. The fact that after all this time, I was asked to go back was an endorsement that I was good enough for the part. That was all I wanted to know, that they had asked me back. My initial respose to to Tom was to reject the offer. Adam, who runs my website, was also keen to see me return and so I agreed. I was even in a position to release the details on my website. Then came the punch in the stomach....I had recieved the call on Thursday, agreed to rejoin the show on Friday. I was expected to open on Monday. There was to be no rehearsal! The best I could hope for was a run through the script with the cast on Monday morning. Everyone said 'Oh you can do it Den.' But there was no way I could. I might have remembered it, then again, I might not. It had been two years. I was not willing to risk looking like a fool and getting it wrong in front of a live audience. Perhaps the younger me might have gone for it. The very nerves that had made life so miserable at the end of my time in Blood Brothers had now resurfaced. The feeling was exactly the same. I felt sick at the thought of doing the show. So I finally rejected the offer. The main thing was that I was vindicated. I had been asked back. Looking back at my time in the show now, several years later, I have reasessed things and can say that my time on the show was a happy one. The musical is one of the best shows around. I worked with some fantastic, talented people who became lifelong friends. The audience reactions were some of the best that a performer could have. It gave me the chance to see the whole of the country and appear in some of the finest theatres in the UK. There is nothing bad to say about Blood Brothers. Hopefully you will find lots more about the show and my time in it on this part of the website."