Soap star Julie Hesmondhalgh supported niece with cancer to write comic play

An actress who battled cancer at the age of 23 said her aunt, soap star Julie Hesmondhalgh, supported her in writing an autobiographical play while she was in hospital.

Rosa Hesmondhalgh, who was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer last year, said the Coronation Street actress gave her a journal with a note inside advising her to “write the f*** out of it”.

Miss Hesmondhalgh found out she had a tumour in her ovary, which had spread to surrounding tissues, on February 1 2018 after going to A&E with painful bloating.

She had just graduated from London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda), and said her soap star aunt was an “amazing” support while she was battling the life-threatening illness.

Miss Hesmondhalgh wrote a comedic blog about her experiences of dating, going bald “like an egg” during chemotherapy, and facing her own mortality in her early 20s.

After more than a year of gruelling treatment, she received the all-clear on June 12 2019, and turned her blog into her debut play, Madame Ovary, with director and producer at WildChild Productions Adam Small.

Now 25, she will be performing the one-woman comic show, which she debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, on a UK tour in 2020.

In the play, the young actress portrays her journey through diagnosis and treatment to receiving the all-clear via dance, poetry, monologues and music.

Speaking with the PA news agency at the Pleasance Theatre in London, where she performed Madame Ovary in November, Miss Hesmondhalgh said: “When I got ill, as every family member was, (Julie) was straight to my bedside.

“And she was doing a play at the time, and she took time off to come and see me in hospital in London – the play was in Manchester.

“She has always been the most solid, supportive, loving woman, and she is to everyone, not just her family members.

“And she bought me a notebook when I was in hospital, along with other amazing little things to make me feel better.

“She’d written in the front of this notebook ‘Write the f*** out of it’.”

Miss Hesmondhalgh added: “In those first few weeks in hospital, one thing that I couldn’t get my head around was creating, because I was like, well, what if I die, and I can’t create.

“All the good things in life I pushed away for a bit, because I was scared that that was going to stop being a good thing for me.

“It took a while to pick up the pen, but when I did it felt amazing.”

A few weeks after Miss Hesmondhalgh received the all-clear, she and her aunt went on a march against austerity cuts, and in support of the NHS, in London.

Miss Hesmondhalgh, from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, said: “We always knew how important and amazing the NHS was, but it was like a fire was really ignited (after the diagnosis).

“We ended up being at the front of the march, and being there with her – someone who has supported me so endlessly throughout my career, and also my illness, tying those two things together was really amazing.

“One of the promises I made to myself upon getting the all-clear was that I would do everything I could to spread how important it is to keep our NHS funded and alive.

“I think about how different it would have been if I didn’t have the NHS when I had my treatment, and it was physically terrifying, it makes me really, really scared.”

The young actress has also performed with a Manchester-based political theatre company, Take Back, set up by Julie Hesmondhalgh alongside writer Becx Harrison and artist Grant Archer.

Miss Hesmondhalgh described Take Back productions as “amazing, urgent, script-in-hand pieces based on reactions to things that are happening politically at the moment”.

She said: “Pre-cancer, Julie and I have always been very politically involved, and involved in stuff together.

“She’s been amazing, you know, I would never hesitate to say that I’m incredibly fortunate to have had someone who is so involved in the industry that I wanted to go into.”

Julie Hesmondhalgh starred as the first transgender character in a soap when she played Hayley Cropper in ITV’s Coronation Street from 1998 to 2014.

In 2014, the 49-year-old, from Accrington in Lancashire, won trophies at the British Soap Awards and National Television Awards for the role.

Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards 2018 – London
Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards 2018 – London

Hesmondhalgh’s other TV appearances include portraying Trish Winterman in crime series Broadchurch, and Amanda in Channel 4’s Catastrophe with Rob Delaney and Sharon Hogan.

The actress will be appearing in a new ITV comedy drama, Glasshouses, with Dawn French next year.

Asked whether she would follow her aunt into the TV world, Miss Hesmondhalgh said she would “100% be up for doing a soap”.

She said: “I love soaps, and there are some absolutely incredible soap actors.

“It would have to be Corrie, wouldn’t it, I guess, I’ve got to say that out of loyalty. Or Emmerdale, for the Yorkshire blood in me … maybe I’d do both.”

– Miss Hesmondhalgh will be performing Madame Ovary at theatres across the UK, including the Royal Exchange in Manchester and the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, between January 24 and March 28 –