By Jasper Rees

ON talent shows we hear much about that elusive performer, the triple threat. Debra Stephenson, who reached the final of Opportunity Knocks when she was 14, is a quadruple threat. She has acted in Bad Girls and Coronation Street, sung in Stars in Their Eyes and danced on Let's Dance for Sport Relief.

The fourth string to her bow is impressions: she is among Britain’s most brilliant mimics. One of the voices on the popular Radio 4 show Dead Ringers and ITV’s Newzoids, she does a delicious Sandi Toksvig, a devastating Diane Abbott and a wicked Alex Jones.

That talent won’t be in evidence in Son of a Preacher Man. There’s not much call for impressions in the new musical featuring the hit songs of Dusty Springfield, written by Warner Brown and directed by Craig Revel Horwood. When she heard about the show, which is her first ever musical, she initially hoped she’d be asked to play Dusty Springfield herself. Instead the plot is a multi-generational fantasy in which a mysterious figure in Soho helps solve romantic agonies.

“I like the way it’s a bit surreal and ethereal. To be part of something that you can help to create is really exciting. When I was at drama school I had a silly ambition to have my name in front of the playbook. I’ve always wanted to be the original cast member of something.”

Stephenson plays Alison, one of a trio of heartbroken characters who seek counsel from a love guru in Soho.

“She’s a very decent person but very vulnerable. She’s trying to move on but instead of dealing with the grief of being widowed she has become besotted with a student. The person she’s hankering after really is her husband.”

The Dusty songbook has plenty of lyrics that can be mapped onto a story of heartbreak. Stephenson’s solo number is “All I See Is You” – “which I’d not heard before” – while she joins in on eight more songs. “She sang very emotive songs with all her heart. She put her soul into it and that’s what makes her music special. Everyone has their own pain that allows them to relate to the songs.”

She is best known for ITV’s prison drama Bad Girls and a two-year stretch in Corrie as the wife of Bradley Walsh’s character Danny Baldwin. But her first love was for mimickry. “If it is a gift it’s a door that’s opened. When you’re a child you’re a sponge. I was always listening. My dad did impressions. Similarly people who’ve moved around a lot as children very often are good at accents.” She also lived in her head a lot. “I was a shy teenager, an only child and at times a lonely child.”

She learned to do Kate Bush at six and was still doing her as an adult on Stars in Their Eyes. In 2005, after appearing in Comic Relief Does Fame Academy in 2005 she landed a deal to make an album of cover versions. She doesn’t see much difference between impersonating and acting. “It’s still being characters. I’m not just doing a voice, I’m being that character. Her ideal would be to star in a biopic that marries the two skills.

The logical result of that mix of music and mimicry is a cabaret show Stephenson has developed called Night of a Thousand Voices. Technically it’s more like 47 voices, plus her own. Surprisingly, Dusty Springfield isn’t among them, or not yet. “You’d think perhaps that is one I should have done. I’ve always found it more difficult to do those smokey voices. I am determined that at the end of this tour I will put Dusty in the One Hundred Voices. It’s cooking. I’m working on it.”

Son of a Preacher Man’ is at Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion from Tuesday January 16 - Saturday January 20, 2018.

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