“WAY to go, Paula!” They are words familiar to those of us who love An Officer and a Gentleman and its goosebump-inducing final scene.

Emma Williams, starring in the stage musical adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1982 movie, chuckles as she recalls a recent northern re-working of the famous line. “There was a moment in Leeds when suddenly this woman’s voice called out: ‘Go on lass!’ It was perfect,” says Emma. “You can’t beat a northern audience.”

The West End star, and four times Olivier award nominee, plays Paula Pokrifki, the factory girl who falls for trainee US Navy Pilot Zack Mayo. Rejected by his brutal father, Zack doesn’t know what love is until he meets Paula and discovers the value of friendship with his training buddies. Only then does he become both an officer and a gentleman.

Emma says Paula’s role has been updated since the movie, starring Richard Gere and Debra Winger. “It’s smalltown America in the 1980s, the women’s story didn’t get much airtime in the film. But in the show Paula is training to be a nurse, she has ambitions and they don’t involve a man. She grew up near a naval base, she doesn’t want to make the same mistakes as her mother,” says Emma. “She’s having a good time, embracing life, and I love that about her. She doesn’t set out to find true love - with her and Zack, there’s an element of who’s rescuing who? There’s a moment at the end when Jonny (Jonny Fines, who plays Zack) ad libs: ‘I’m sorry, I need you’.”

The show features a lively score of Eighties hits - Heart of Glass, Material Girl, Livin’ On a Prayer, Girls Just Want To Have Fun and the rousing movie theme Up Where We Belong among them - and Emma says they drive the story. “Pop music in the ‘80s was written with proper narrative lyrics, that’s why so much of it has longevity,” she says, “My favourite song from the show is Family Man. Originally we were all four (trainees Zack and Sid and local girls Paula and Lynette) meant to sing it, but we decided it was Sid’s song. It has so much anguish.”

Another show-stopping moment is Emma belting out Alone, like a rock star. “I’m a soprano so I have to find this big voice - while climbing stairs up scaffolding,” she smiles. “When I met Nikolai (director Nikolai Foster) for a catch-up over dinner, and he said he was holding auditions for An Officer and a Gentleman, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. It’s so different from what I’ve done before. The show is faithful to the film, but the music adds something new, without shying away from the brutality.”

Emma, who trained at Stage 84 in Idle and is now a patron, landed her first professional stage debut aged 18, playing Truly Scrumptious in the original West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Other theatre work includes Love Story, Mrs Henderson Presents and Half a Sixpence. On TV she’s appeared in dramas such as Heartbeat, Silent Witness and Bleak House and, while still a teenager, she was in Steve Coogan’s 2001 film The Parole Officer.

“I owe my career to Stage 84, I couldn’t have asked for a better grounding. My first shows at the Alhambra, The Sound of Music and The King and I, were with Stage 84,” says Emma, who recently found time, while touring, to get married to drummer James Newton. "He was at stage 84 too, but we were there at different times. We met while we were in White Christmas at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He's touring in Shrek the Musical, so we meet up when we can. We make it work."

She adds: “I haven't done much touring theatre, but I value it greatly. I grew up on regional theatre, going to the West End wasn’t an option. It’s incredibly important to bring touring productions to theatres like the Alhambra. When I was 12 I saw Hot Shoe Shuffle at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre and walked out feeling such joy.

"If one child gets inspired by a show I’m in, I’ve done my job well.”

* An Officer and a Gentleman runs at the Alhambra from September 3-8. Call (01274) 432000.