Jo relishes comedy with a darker side

Jo Hartley in Chicken Soup, Crucible Studio
Jo Hartley in Chicken Soup, Crucible Studio

On the same night Jo Hartley opened in Chicken Soup at the Crucible Studio, the sitcom Bliss in which she stars alongside Stephen Mangan and Hollywood’s Heather Graham started running on Sky Atlantic.

Mangan is a food writer who manages to juggle life with two wives with kids oblivious of each other.

“Set in Bristol, it is written and directed by David Cross from Arrested Development,” reports Hartley. “Although it’s a comedy, it’s a difficult subject and it’s quite sad at times. It’s time to get my teeth into something and challenge myself. I haven’t been on stage for five years.”

Chicken Soup is a new play by Ray Castleton and Kieran Knowles set over 30 years following four women from the South Yorkshire mining community from the time of the Battle of Orgreave to the European referendum.

Jo Hartley plays Helen whose husband has crossed the picket line, never to be forgiven by his sister, Chris. “The two women were best friends and it’s about regret and love, good memories and bad memories, and how a community has been torn apart,” explains the actor.

Helen and family were forced to move away and then in 2016 she makes a return visit which ignites the play’s most fraught and emotional scene.

“She’s been through the wringer and I have experience of regret and loss myself,” says Hartley. “It is funny and quite dark and so there are elements mirroring things like Bliss.”

She is a product of the Oldham Theatre Workshop and had a link to the acting world through her aunt who worked for Otto Preminger in New York for 20 years. “I was obsessed with film and watched three movies a day,” she recalls.

But instead of pursuing acting she did other jobs including working for British Aerospace and hanging out at the Hacienda in Manchester.

She says she was affected by the death of her father when she was 17 and decided to go travelling instead, first to Amsterdam and then she was an air steward for Japan Airlines for five years.

But the acting bug never really went away. During this time she attended acting classes and in her mid twenties she returned to London and decided to go for it and signed up for Questors, a community theatre in Ealing which runs training classes.

“After that I made a few short films and then I met Shane Meadows,” she says, and this proved crucial. He cast her in a TV commercial he was making and then gave her the role of Marie in Dead Man’s Shoes. “I learned on set with Shane.”

And Paddy Considine? “He was more interested in asking me about Rob Gretton who I used to hang out with in my Hacienda days and who he played in 24 Hour Party People.”

Shane Meadows then cast her as Cynthia, mother of the young boy played by Thomas Thurgoose.

“The film of This Is England was made in Nottingham and then the TV series was shot around Sheffield. It’s lovely to be back. We all still keep in touch, I saw Thomas only recently.

This is England was the turning point for her career, she acknowledges. That led to various TV roles including Channel 4’s The Mimic. “That was my first comedy and then after that I did Not Fit for Work and the films Eddie the Eagle and David Brent : Life on the Road. Being funny is hard work,” she declares.

Chicken Soup is at the Crucible Studio until Saturday.