WHEN nightclub singer Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her gangster boyfriend shoot someone, the police hide her in the one place where no-one would ever think of looking for her. A convent.

Under witness protection, Deloris is disguised as a nun and struggles to adjust to life at St Katherine’s Parish convent, in a run-down neighbourhood in San Francisco, under the watchful eye of the stern Mother Superior. But soon the disco diva is helping her fellow sisters find their voices, in the convent choir, as she unexpectedly rediscovers her own.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Landi Oshinowo as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act Landi Oshinowo as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act (Image: Mark Senior)

Based on the much-loved 1992 movie, starring Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris, Sister Act the musical is a sparkling tribute to the power of friendship, sisterhood and music. The show heads for Bradford’s Alhambra theatre this month, starring Landi Oshinowo as Deloris Van Cartier and Lesley Joseph as Mother Superior.

“Mother Superior runs the convent and suddenly into her world comes this woman who is a singer, who wears short skirts, who’s full of bling and very over the top,” says Lesley. “It’s about how these two worlds combine and ultimately rub off on each other.

“Mother Superior provides the juxtaposition of strict religious beliefs against this entirely over the top being, which is Deloris Van Cartier. You need the two extremes to rub up against one another, and sparks fly.”

Lesley is best known for playing Dorien Green in popular sitcom Birds of a Feather, alongside Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson as prisoners’ wives in Essex. They recorded more than 100 episodes over nine years, then returned to TV in Birds of a Feather in 2013.

Lesley’s other TV credits include Night and Day, Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity MasterChef. On stage she has appeared in Annie, playing Miss Hannigan, in London’s West End, Calendar Girls, Hot Flush, panto and she landed an Olivier Award nomination for her performance as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.

As a veteran of stage and screen, what does Lesley see as key differences between the two disciplines, and does she have a preference? “If you asked me why I came into the business, it would be because I love theatre,” she says. “I went to drama school in the 1960s, and it was a very different world then. I grew up doing theatre and first started when I was seven.

“Then gradually television took over. Birds of a Feather came along in 1989 and has never been off since!

“I love television, I love the opportunities television brings, but if I had to choose it would be theatre because I love the connection with the audience. With television can always do it again, whereas with theatre it’s a question of doing it that night and that’s your one chance.

“I think theatre is where my heart is. I love the atmosphere and the family you build. I love to stand in the wings and watch other people work. I also love what theatre can do to an audience. Live theatre can change people’s lives.”

What drew you to the role of Mother Superior?

“I saw Craig Revel Horwood’s Sister Act revival with Alexandra Burke, so I was very aware of the show before I joined. The musical doesn’t have the music from the film, but it’s Alan Menken’s music - who is a genius. He’s been to see our show twice and loved it!

“I think people love the production because of the great music, and it’s very much an audience show. You leave feeling so uplifted. We were playing in London to 3,000 people per night, with every show packed full of people waving their arms in the air at the end and just having a fantastic time.”

In 2019 Lesley, who is Jewish, appeared on the BBC’s Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome and met the Pope. Were there any elements of that experience that you’ve drawn on when playing Mother Superior?

“Funnily enough, whenever I’m in the show I do always think of this moment. I had half an hour with the Pope and I blessed him and made him laugh, and he gave me a medal to celebrate his six years in the Papacy.

“I’ve always had a spirituality about me. I love going in churches. Whenever I go into a church I will always light a candle for both of my parents and Linda Robson’s mum, and say a quiet prayer. That’s a spiritual thing more than an actual religious thing. I find churches very healing in a way. It’s a place to sit, contemplate and meditate, and you can come out feeling a slightly better person.”

Sister Act’s fabulous score is by multi award-winning Alan Menken, who wrote the music for movies including Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors and Enchanted. Do you have a favourite number?

“The soundtrack is amazing. I must say, audience responses have made me feel like we’re doing a pop concert. My favourite song is one that Mother Superior has called Here Within These Walls where she describes what life is like in the convent, and how the outside world is full of sin, but inside you find God and you find yourself. It’s a beautiful number, but probably the most serious number in the show.

“The other number I love is when Deloris first takes over the choir and teaches them to sing and brings out their voices. It’s called Raise Your Voice. The audience go wild. Up until then you’ve only heard the nuns sing very badly. It stops the show!”

What do you hope audiences take away from this new production? “A reinvigorated love for live theatre. It’s a production that says something about community, and that’s one thing that lockdown showed us was important - caring about your neighbours, your friends, helping those in need.

“It’s an absolutely joyous musical! To see the audiences at the end, where they stand, waving their arms and singing along, they rediscover the joy of theatre.”

Is there any advice you’ve had that you’d pass on to anyone seeking a career in acting?

“I don’t know if you remember a man called Quentin Crisp, he was very flamboyant and wonderful, and way before his time. He was avant garde. He used to call me Miss Joseph. His advice was: ‘Miss Joseph, believe in fate, but lean forward where fate can see you’. I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I could give to anybody.”

* Sister Act is at the Alhambra from November 20-25. Call (01274) 432000 or visit bradford-theatres.co.uk