PATROLLING the corridors of HM Prison Gartree, a Category B men’s prison, Sam Bailey never dreamed she would one day be doing the same job... on stage in one of the West End’s best loved musicals.
Yet that is just what the 38-year-old singer, who won X Factor in 2013 (and achieved a Christmas No 1 with Skyscraper), will be doing when she plays Mamma Morton in Chicago at the Playhouse next week.
However, being a prison warden in real life is nothing like the depictions in shows like Bad Girls or Porridge, or even Chicago, she insists.
“Even when they have prison officers in the likes of EastEnders, they’re always big and stocky, really stern looking. Not all prison officers are like that. You get female officers who are barely five foot tall.
“It’s not about being strong. It’s about being inwardly strong, with several thick layers of skin.
“There’s so much more involved. Where I worked, there was a very big team of psychologists, so there is a caring aspect as well, although you always have to have your wits about you.”
Murder, greed, corruption, exploitation, adultery and treachery all lie at the heart of Chicago, which co-stars John Partridge and Corrie’s Hayley Tamaddon.
Based on real life events in the roaring 1920s, the musical tells the story of nightclub singer Roxie Hart, who shoots her lover.
Along with cell block rival, double-murderess Velma Kelly, she fights to keep off death row with the help of smooth talking lawyer Billy Flynn. All under the watchful gaze of Mamma Morton... as old school a warder as they come.
“She is very clever and calculating and knows how to get the girls right where she wants them,” says Bailey.
“She’s well respected, no one messes with her, and she has a crafty, naughty side to her, but she never lets her guard down, which is the one thing I took into the role from my own time as a prison officer.
“It’s the only thing really, because the rest of what she does is so far fetched from what prison life is now - I definitely didn’t do favours for money when I was in prison as she does.”
“Never in a million years” did Bailey expect art to imitate life back then.
“Apparently, the night I won The X Factor, all the prisoners in the jail were banging on the cell doors when they heard,” she laughs, revealing that she keeps in touch with her former place of work.
“I’ve been back a couple of times, seen my old colleagues and done a talk for the prisoners. I was trying to show them that one decision can change your life.
“They made one decision and it was the wrong one, that’s why they are there.
“It’s a similar situation to mine, I made one decision, to go on X Factor, and look what happened.
“They too have a decision, they can either sit back and do their time and sadly just re offend and re offend, or make the decision to work hard and become a better person. Learn from their experience.”
Chicago, Playhouse, Greenside Place, next Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm (matinees 2.30pm), £15-£51.50, 0844-871 3014