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
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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that "the script isn't down pat yet", and a last-minute change of director (Stephen Pimlott was taken ill and has been replaced by Robert Delamere) is challenging.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