Maxine Peake: Onward and upward

Maxine Peake, star of the winning entry in Channel 4's 'The Play's the Thing', tells Alice Jones why she's not afraid of the unknown

Tonight, Maxine Peake, best known as the lairy, no-nonsense neighbour Veronica in Shameless, will take to the stage in the winning play of Channel 4's latest addition to the reality-television canon, The Play's the Thing. She is, in a way, the ideal choice to star in the final product of this X Factor for playwrights, which plucks an amateur writer from obscurity and launches them into the West End spotlight. It is almost exactly 10 years since the trials and tribulations of the unknown wannabe actress from Bolton were made the subject of a South Bank Show.

"At first, my heart went, 'Whooah, a reality show...'," shudders Peake, with characteristic candour, when we meet, during a break in rehearsals. "I'm not a huge fan of reality TV. It's like watching a car crash."

The successful play, chosen from 2,000 applications by the judges - the literary agent Mel Kenyon, actor Neil Pearson, and producer Sonia Friedman - is On the Third Day by Kate Betts, a 51-year-old employee of Chichester University and mother of three, whose unlikely vision involves transforming the theatre into a planetarium. Peake plays Claire, a woman who meets an enigmatic stranger (Paul Hilton), in a pub. "As she's reached 30, she's realised her life isn't going how she wanted it to. She's decided to take control, but everything from her past comes toppling down on her," says Peake.

A week before the first preview, Peake admits that "the script isn't down pat yet", and a last-minute change of director (Stephen Pimlott was taken ill and has been replaced by Robert Delamere) is challenging. "It's brought it down to the grassroots of developing a piece."

Since making her West End debut in 2000, in Thelma Holt's and Bill Kenwright's production of Miss Julie, Peake has appeared in Trevor Nunn's productions of The Cherry Orchard and The Relapse, and as Ophelia to Christopher Ecclestone's Hamlet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, among other stage roles. Working with a newcomer for the first time has its advantages, though. "We'll say, 'I don't like this dialogue'. We probably wouldn't dare with other playwrights. We're slightly taking advantage of her because she's new," laughs Peake, sheepishly.

The "theatrical event" is another risky move in a decade-long career that has already seen Peake take on a lifetime of controversial roles. The straightforward Northern lass, whose attitude towards her chosen profession is down-to-earth, doesn't see it this way, of course. She hopes the project might go some way towards demystifying and democratising the theatre, which she initially thought was élitist. But it might have the opposite effect," she guffaws. "People might say, 'I'm never going to the theatre now', having watched us lot get paid for running around and being daft!"

Born in Bolton in 1974 to Brian, a lorry driver, and Glenys, a care-worker, Peake's first experiences of "running around and being daft" came with performances at her local church and in school pantomimes. She enjoyed acting, but making a career of it "seemed a million miles away". On leaving Westhoughton High School aged 16, she "didn't want to get a job", so, partly lured by the heady "Madchester" scene, she enrolled on a two-year performing-arts course at Salford University, Alma Mater of Peter Kay and Sarah Lancashire. "I didn't get into drama school until I was 21. I didn't just fall into it."

Eventually, Peake decided to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) "for a laugh". The joke paid off. Having gained a place, Peake spent the summer of 1995 sending off 600 letters in search of sponsorship, to no avail. Her salvation came in the form of a Patricia Rothermere scholarship, which enabled her to take up the place. Her story was immortalised in a South Bank Show, which now "seems a bit spoofy": "It's hysterical", she says, cringing. "I was a chubby 21-year-old who didn't have clue what I was doing. I thought I was really 'street', but I wasn't. I'd lived in Bolton all my life. I came to London and got the shock of my life."

Before she graduated, Peake took a call from Victoria Wood, who had watched The South Bank Show and wanted her to audition for her new sitcom, Dinnerladies. Peake landed the role of Twinkle, the youngest of the catering operatives. Wood apparently warned her protégée that her size - at the time, Peake weighed 15 stone - could limit her career. Peake duly joined WeightWatchers and, by the second series, weighed five stone less, admitting at the time that weight loss became "quite an addiction". "It hit home after Dinnerladies that these were the kind of parts I was always going to get."

Today, dressed in a chic red blazer, jeans and red loafers, Peake is tall and slim. With her elfin features framed by a trendy auburn bob, she looks younger than her 31 years, and more fragile than her various on-screen alter-egos. But while her appearance has changed dramatically, her Northern roots and broad accent have been consistently mined in TV roles. Not least as Myra Hindley in See No Evil, Granada's dramatic treatment of the Moors Murders. Many actors balked at the controversial role but Peake put her name forward. "It was a bit naive of me, but you get a gut instinct," she says. "I just thought it was a story that needed to be told."

Does she never long for the quiet life, professionally speaking? "Acting is risky, it's all about gambling. I'd rather push for things I want to be part of, than just do it for the sake of doing it," she says. "Whether I pull it off or not is another thing, but it's a great learning curve."

'On the Third Day', New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6627); tonight to 2 September

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions