Michelle Collins: ‘An empty nest made me throw myself into Bear Gryllz’s Mission Survive’

Michelle Collins

Michelle Collins - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to actor Michelle Collins on typecasting, empty nest syndrome and survival

Michelle Collins and co-star in Kinderstransport. Picture: Daniel Beacock

Michelle Collins and co-star in Kinderstransport. Picture: Daniel Beacock - Credit: Archant

As she sends her daughter off to her second year at university, Michelle Collins’ strong sense of having an empty nest has parallels with her latest role.

The Muswell Hill actress says the recent separation in her own life echoes those in Diane Samuels’ Kindertransport where two mothers separate from their daughters under very different circumstances.

Collins plays Evelyn in a drama that switches between Hamburg 1938 as young Eva and her mother pack her bags to leave Nazi Germany, and Britain in the 90s as the now Anglicised Evelyn helps her daughter to move out.

“It’s her history unfolding in front of her daughter,” says Collins. “It’s about the Holocaust but it’s really about mother daughter relationships, and the trauma of separation from your mother at a very young age.

“This play is parallelling my life at the moment, I am like a Jewish mum trying to make sure my daughter has what she needs while she tells me not to fuss.”

Playing at Southgate’s Chicken Shed Theatre, Kindertransport deals with the cost of survival after emotional trauma.

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Suppressing deep feelings of abandonment, Evelyn has wiped her past and her Jewishness.

While researching the part, Collins met two of those saved by the British rescue of 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children from Nazi Europe.

“They told us their remarkable stories, they are real survivors. One brought along her passport with a picture of her as a child which really brought it home.

“They count themselves very lucky they got away but Evelyn has mixed feelings about being sent away. She feels abandoned and wonders if it would have been better to stay. But you also see the pain of a parent having to send a child away even though it’s the best thing for them.”

In the fractious relationship between Evelyn and Faith, Samuels’ shows the long legacy that war and trauma can have on families.

“It shows the effect of holding in something in all your life and repressing it,” says Collins.

“But after she opens up there is hope that her daughter will not be like her and they’ll be able to salvage their relationship.”

Collins sees similarities in the current refugee crisis with scores of unaccompanied children in Calais’ Jungle refugee camp.

“You think about the long term effect of trauma and war on children separated from their families. What will happen to them in the future? The problem is we have lost our ability to be shocked and feel we don’t’ know enough to do anything about it.

“These are humanitarian issues. Do we take that responsibility? I think we should.”

Even as a household name with long stints behind her in both Eastenders and Coronation Street, Collins struggles with typecasting.

Conflicted Evelyn she says is “something very different for me, a role I wouldn’t normally have been asked to do.”

She recently took matters into her own hands by commissioning and producing a play with a peachy part for herself.

A Dark Night in Dalston premieres at Collins’ local theatre The Park next March

The two-hander by Stewart Permutt is a contemporary drama set in the East End flat of Collins’ character Gina. When a young orthodox Jew is beaten up and falls onto her doorstep, she takes him in.

“You have to be proactive these days and I wanted something that could show off what I can do,” says Collins who grew up in Highbury attending Yerbury and Highbury Hill Grammar School before taking a two year drama course.

“It’s set over one night between these two lonely people from different backgrounds and religions.”

Her career has taken in major TV work in the likes of Sunburn but in recent years she’s returned to the stage, appearing at Hampstead Theatre and a recent tour of musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In March she even volunteered for Bear Grylls’ Mission Survive with seven other celebrities where she had to drink her own wee and endure rectal rehydration.

“It was empty nest that made me throw myself into a musical and do the show with Bear Grylls,” she says. “How on earth did I even do that? I had empty nest and didn’t know what I was thinking.”

She’s happier about making a sit com pilot The Mayoress with Jack Dee, Harry Hill and Romesh Ranganathan playing a “scheming conniving Iago” to Brenda Gilhooley’s small town Mayor. Turned down by terrestrial TV filming was funded by kickstarter and it will go out online

But for now she’s happy rehearsing with director and Chicken Shed artistic director Lou Stein who in a neat symmetry gave her her first break at the age of 17.

“Kindertransport’s one of those plays that gets to you as an actor. It has to get to you. People might find it upsetting but come away thinking about it. It’s such a challenge.”

Collins has long been a supporter of the inclusive theatre company which stages shows, courses and outreach projects for people of all ages, abilities and races.

“My daughter used to come here when she was little. I’ve always been a supporter. Chicken Shed is about young people and is inclusive in a sense that able bodied and non able bodied young people with autism all work together. It’s very multi-cultural and involves five year olds up to grandparents.”

Kindertransport runs at Chicken Shed until October 22. chickenshed.org.uk