“It’s a good old night out with laughs, some heartfelt moments, a sense of community, a sense of family and a sense of love” – Jessica Ellis and Lee mead on the continuing relevance of Fat Friends the musical

What can audiences expect when they come to see Fat Friends The Musical?
Jessica: It’s a good old night out with laughs, some heartfelt moments, a sense of community, a sense of family and a sense of love.
Lee: It’s a lot of fun, with such vivid characters and a great, relatable storyline. I caught it on the last tour and loved it, so I’m really happy now I’m in it. It’s got real heart, it’s very funny and really moving.

Can you tell us a bit about who you play in the show?
Jessica: I play Kelly, whose mum goes to the local slimming club. Kelly’s not really interested in the club herself. She’s happy with the way she is but she’s about to get married to the love of her life Kevin and her dream dress doesn’t fit her. So she decides to lose weight and join the slimming club but it’s not all plain sailing from there.
Lee: I’m Kelly’s fiancée Kevin. He’s a regular guy who adores Kelly and loves his mates and his family. It’s funny because I was originally down to play the vicar Paul but he doesn’t have his own song and Kay [Mellor, the writer and director] and Joshua [Andrews, the producer] said ‘Singing is what you do’ so they’ve given me the bigger role.

Can you relate to your characters in any way?
Jessica: Definitely. I’m a bigger girl who’s confident but I’ve had times when I’ve not felt good enough. And sometimes it’s not that you don’t feel good enough yourself so much as other people’s opinions get put on you. I’d say the moral of the musical is ‘Be who you are. It doesn’t matter what you look like as long as you’re happy and healthy’.
Lee: Like Kevin I’m also from a working-class family myself and we’re very close. Family is the most important thing in my life alongside my career and it’s the same with Kevin. So there are a few things I can relate to, [laughs] just not the Northern accent!

It’s such a feel-good show. Are audiences craving that more than ever now?
Lee: We’ve all had a not-great couple of years so people need a show like this. You’ve got serious musicals like Les Misérables but Fat Friends is such fun, with great music and a positive message. It’s about community and family and being there for each other.
Jessica: Absolutely. This is the perfect show for people to come back to now theatres have reopened. I also feel it’s a musical for people who say they don’t like musicals, because the script is so strong in between all the songs. With Kay Mellor’s brilliant script it’s not just people bursting into song for no reason.

There are so many great numbers in it. Do you have a favourite?
Jessica: Be My Man introduces the audience to Kelly and Kevin, and it’s very wordy and very funny. Beautiful is very poignant because it’s about Kelly wanting to make her mum and dad proud and to be the perfect bride, for people to look at her and say ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’ She’s a funny and bolshy character but that song shows a different side to her.
Lee: My solo number is The Only Fool Is Me, which Kevin sings at a point in the show when they’ve had this huge spat and it’s been blown out of proportion. I get some big notes at the end, which is great for me as a performer.

What do you feel makes Kay Mellor unique amongst storytellers?
I’m pinching myself about getting to work with her. It’s such a tick-box moment for me because I grew up watching her stuff. She writes from the heart and there’s no judgement. With Fat Friends it’s like ‘Their lives might be different to yours but look at how much love there is’.
Lee: I’ve done a lot of great musicals but I’ve never done one like this before, where the book is written by such a renowned dramatist. As Jessica says, with a lot of musicals you get these tiny moments of dialogue just to feed into the next song and that’s fine but this is a proper script like you’d see on TV and there’s a lot of depth to the characters. So when you get to those moments when someone sings a song it means something, it doesn’t just come out of nowhere.

The TV show premiered more than 20 years ago. What makes the story still relevant today?
Jessica: Slimming clubs haven’t died out and diet culture is still massive. People also still like to meet up once a week and maybe it’s not necessarily about the slimming, it’s more about a sense of community and a little natter. Especially with what’s happened over the past couple of years, people seek solace in that.
Lee: I think it’s even more relevant now. Having an 11-year-old daughter myself, I’m very conscious of social media, being judged and the pressure that’s on girls even from an early age. We’ve had conversations about ‘Be proud of who you are and don’t compare yourself to any body else’.

How important would you say its messages of body-positivity and self-empowerment are to contemporary audiences?
Jessica: I’d hate to be a teenager right now. You can put up a picture and every Tom, Dick and Harry can say whatever they like. So I think it’s really important for people to feel empowered and to celebrate their differences. You look at the model campaigns now and there are different shapes and sizes, whereas when I was a teenager looking at adverts and in shop windows everyone was so thin. I think we’re changing but there’s a long way to go.
Lee: I think it’s sad, especially for girls – feeling they have to have lip surgery and face-work done. I’m not against that if it makes you feel better but when I was growing up the mindset wasn’t to compare yourself to other people so much. That goes right through to adulthood as well and why people feel insecure about their looks and their weight.

It’s also a very funny show, isn’t it?
Jessica: Absolutely. It’s really, really funny. For example, there’s a song that goes ‘Chocolate is my lover’ and [laughs] we’ve all been there.
Lee: The humour is really important in terms of getting the message across and the characters are funny in themselves. The lyrics and the dialogue are so real and often hilarious. It’s nice to talk the way a proper Northern lad would.

What are you most looking forward to about taking the show on the road?
Lee: Being able to perform in front of big audiences again. I’ve done a few dates with my band and that’s been lovely but doing eight shows a week to big crowds all around the country will be amazing. It’s been five years since I did a big tour. The last musical I did was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang because I then went into Casualty and Holby City. I can’t wait to sing again and do what I love.
Jessica: I’ve never done a tour before and I’ve never done a musical before, so it’s doubly exciting. Me and my partner’s weekend activity is to drive to a random town with the dogs and look around, so basically I’m getting paid to do that. And I haven’t performed on stage for about eight years because I’ve been doing TV and film, whereas before theatre was my bag. I’m going to be buzzing being back on stage.

Are there any stops on the tour that are dear to your heart?
Jessica: Liverpool is going to be a big one because it’s where I live and Manchester is where I’m from so I’m really excited about that as well. I love Wales because Liverpool is so close to North Wales and I go there all the time. My friend Nathan Sussex from Hollyoaks lives in Cardiff so I’m going to be staying with him. Leeds will be a special stop on the tour because it’s where Kay is from and where the story is set. And I’ve always wanted to go to Southend because I love a seaside town.
Lee: I think I’ve played pretty much all of them over the past 20 years. I lived in Cardiff when I filmed Casualty and I had a flat in Cardiff Bay, so I’m looking forward to going back. Leeds is going to be great because we’re doing two weeks there and it’s a great city as well as the home of Fat Friends. And Southend will be special because it’s where I’m from. When I was 15 I did work experience at the Mayflower Theatre, doing the follow-spot for acts like Joe Pasquale. Whenever I’m back there I still get that buzz of ‘Blimey, I used to work backstage, now I’m starring in a show’.