Actor Gill Jordan talks about her role in an ambitious new production of Romeo + Juliet at Stafford Castle - and explains why she’s taking a break from playing her most famous character: Black Country ‘lazy cow’ Doreen Tipton...

After two years of cancellations, the Stafford Festival Shakespeare returns this month with an ambitious showpiece production of Romeo + Juliet.

Up to 11,000 people are expected to attend performances of the Bard’s classic romantic tragedy, which will be presented against the magnificent backdrop of historic Stafford Castle. 

The spectacle is likely to be made even more special by the fact that the festival is this year celebrating its 30th anniversary.

No one is more excited about the show than Gill Jordan. The Staffordshire actress is best known as her comic creation, Lazy Cow Syndrome sufferer and Queen of the Black Country Doreen Tipton. Hapless benefits scrounger Doreen, who was co-created by Gill and comedy writer David Tristram, became an online sensation back in 2012, since which time she’s evolved into one of the UK’s best-loved comic characters. 

For the time being at least, Gill is stepping away from the role to play the Nurse in Romeo + Juliet. 
“I can’t wait to get started,” she gushes in her cheery Black Country twang. “I’m talking to you and my heart’s really going as I’m so excited about it.”

The role couldn’t have come at a better time for the actress, who made the decision last year to take a break from playing Doreen and return to mainstream acting.

“I got to a point with Doreen where I’d done almost 10 years. I was starting to think, where are we going with it, and I thought I’d like to get back to doing other stuff.

“When I was talking to my agent about where I want to go this year, I said I’d love to do some classical work, I’d love to do Shakespeare. And it was during the pantomime [Gill, as Doreen, starred alongside Jason Donovan in Goldilocks And The Three Bears at Birmingham Hippodrome] that Tim contacted my agent and asked if I’d play the Nurse. I was jumping for joy!”

Despite becoming synonymous with Doreen over the past decade, Gill’s keen for people to see her in other roles. After all, she’s been treading the boards for nearly 40 years! Having trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, she then toured the UK with a number of theatre companies and also set up her own company, Sundial, which focuses on historical first-person interpretative theatre. Her love for the latter sprang from doing immersive character work at an interactive brewing museum in Leeds, a job that led to her being cast as Charlotte Bronte during the Bronte Festival in Haworth.
Sundial went on to provide resident professional on-site interpreters at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust for nearly 20 years, with Gill and colleagues playing a range of characters at Blists Hill. They performed Victorian music hall and texts by Shakespeare and Dickens, amongst many other classical writers, but she has never done Romeo And Juliet.

“I’ve always brought history into my work, so to be able to immerse myself into this great period of British history - through the costume, the castle backdrop - is all part of the excitement for me.”
Gill also believes the character of the Nurse, who often lightens the mood, is ideal for her.
“It’s the perfect role for me as a character actress, and it’s one of the best roles in the play. Hopefully I’m going to portray her beautifully”, she says, bursting into laughter.

“That’s a perfect word for it really, because the character is so lovely, and she’s one that people can relate to - the down-to-earth one.”

Gill definitely won’t be tempted to slip in any Doreenisms, even though she admits that some elements of the Nurse are ‘quite pantomimey’.

“Oh no, she’ll be very different from Doreen. If someone said they wanted Doreen to play the Nurse, then Doreen could play the Nurse because you can do anything with any character, but I don’t want to bring Doreen into this.”

As much as Gill’s keen to labour the point that she needs a break from her alter-ego, she’s quick to acknowledge the character’s popularity and importance to her career.

“I do get it. People are interested in her, they’ve followed us for 10 years, so she’s part of their lives. And she’s part of my life, and she’ll never not be, but right now I want my life to be more about Gill Jordan the actor doing different things.”

One of those different things is upcoming Netflix fantasy drama The Sandman, which stars an array of big names including Jenna Coleman, David Thewlis, Stephen Fry and Tom Sturridge. Filming at the world-famous Shepperton film studios in Surrey was evidently quite an experience for the girl from the Black Country.

“Just going down to Shepperton was really exciting because I’d never been before, and it was wonderful. It was full-on special effects and incredible to watch it all taking place. 

“We were part of a small ensemble of about six actors with a much bigger group of extras all dressed like us, and we were the main disciples of Charles Dance’s character.”

The similarity in scale with the upcoming production at Stafford Castle isn’t lost on Gill, and she’s counting her blessings to have hit the post-Doreen ground running.

“Oh yeah. And to think it’s all going to be live theatre is amazing - the Sandman was all special effects and studio work. But to be doing these two different projects within a year is great. That’s why I love doing what I do - because I’m still excited at 54. I’m like a little kid! If you’re not excited, it’s time to move on, and I’ve never wanted to move on from acting. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Feature by Steve Adams

Romeo + Juliet shows at Stafford Castle from Fri 24 June to Sat 9 July