IT was Sister Veronica, his primary school headmistress, who first spotted Michael Starke’s ability to make people laugh. “When I was at St Anne’s infant school, the headmistress was a nun called Sister Veronica, and she told my mum, ‘If he’s not a comedian when he grows up I’ll eat my hat’,” recalls the actor, who first came to public attention as the loveable rogue Sinbad in Channel 4’s long-running soap Brookside.
He adds, “So, while I don’t remember doing anything particularly funny in front of her, I guess she must have had eyes in the back of her head.”
Starke finds himself in the company of nuns again next week, when Sister Act The Musical, sweeps into the Edinburgh Playhouse for a two-week run, and Starke can’t wait. Having played Liverpool’s favourite window cleaner for 16 years, he further cemented his popularity with TV audiences in the likes of Heartbeat, The Royal and Coronation Street, however, it was musical theatre that first attracted him to the stage, he reveals.
“The first job I ever did was a musical. I got into the business because I always wanted to do musical theatre.”
His inspiration was the Hollywood blockbusters of the 1940s.
“As a kid, my mum was a bit of a film buff and, if on a Saturday, you hadn’t gone to the football, then you stayed in and watched Saturday cinema - it was always a musical.
“My favourite as a boy was Jimmy Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandy and all that kind of thing. I loved the idea of this tough guy who could sing and dance.
“However, after doing that first musical, whether for good, bad, fortuitous or not, my career took a totally different turn, and for many years I was at Brookside, which was great because I had a great time there with great people, but I always wanted to do live theatre.”
Starke’s musical theatre break came in 2006 when he was cast in Anything Goes, which toured to the Capital, the Evening News review noting that: ‘Of the name stars, however, it is Brookside and Heartbeat star Michael Starke who really deserves his plaudits. As second-string gangster Moonface Martin, his timing is spot on’.
Reminded of the crit he is modest. “I am such a Cole Porter fan that I just couldn’t resist Anything Goes. I loved doing that show. It was amazing. Again I worked with some great people but you know, Moonface is a killer part to play. Unless you do leave an impression, you shouldn’t be in the role.”
The lead in Hairspray - yes, he played Edna Turnblad - led to Starke being asked to originate the role of Monsignor O’Hara in the first UK tour of Sister Act The Musical. It’s a role that has similarities with old Moonface.
“The similarities are that they are both Americans and they are both dressed as priests,” he laughs. “I may well have cornered the market in American priests, you never know, but Sister Act is great fun too.
“I did Hairspray for the same company last year and then they offered me this and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s a tremendous show.”
For those familiar with the film and West End versions of Sister Act, Starke points out that at the Playhouse it will be the acclaimed Broadway production presented by Whoopi Goldberg and Stage Entertainment to which audiences are treated.
“I knew the film. I was familiar with it, but this is very different to the film in that we have all original music by Alan Menken, one of the greatest soundtrack composers of our time.
“There are some great songs that will just send a shiver down your spine and others that will simply lift you off your feet. The music, while in the same spirit as the film, enhances the musical and gives it an identity of its own.”
While the songs may differ from the movie and staging from the West End versions, the story remains the same.
When disco diva Deloris Van Cartier witnesses a murder, she is put in protective custody in the one place the cops are sure she won’t be found - a convent.
Disguised as a nun she quickly finds fans among her fellow ‘sisters’ but makes the wrong impression on the convent’s strict Mother Superior.
When she turns her attention to the convent’s off-key choir, helping the nuns to find their true voices and breathing new life into the rundown neighbourhood, her cover could be blown for good.
With the gang giving chase, is time running out for Deloris or have they underestimated the power of her new found Sisterhood?
Starring alongside Starke as Mother Superior is Coronation Street’s Denise Black, with rising new star Cynthia Erivo as nun on the run, Deloris Van Cartier. Starke can’t sing Erivo’s praises highly enough.
“From the moment you hear Cynthia Erivo singing her first song, and it is right at the beginning, you’re off your seat because this kid is going to be a superstar.
“She is absolutely amazing and her voice is unbelievable. Her first song just hits you and gets people going. We know from the reaction to that first song that we are going to have another great show. From then on every song is pertinent to its point in the show and some of them are very, very funny as well as being powerful.”
The only drawback for Starke is that the Monsignor only gets to sing one line in the whole show.
Resigned to the fact, he offers, “I am a trained singer but it’s just the way it is. This is the Broadway version of the show, which is slightly different again from the West End version.
“In that production, the Monsignor didn’t have as much to do. This one has been adapted, which I think is good because I would have got very bored doing a long tour with only a little, tiny bit to do. So what I do get now is to steal a few scenes and let all the kids do the hard work.”
As Sister Veronica predicted, he is making people laugh, but the Monsignor has a serious side too.
“The Mother Superior and the Monsignor start off very staid, they are the stabilising roles as the convent is under threat. They take that threat very seriously and have obviously both been there for years. They really care about the place.
“So at the start we see that very ecclesiastical side to them and then their fun side is revealed.”
To discover just how that fun side manifests itself, however, you’ll need to head to the Playhouse.
Sister Act, Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, Tuesday-November 12, £18.50-£43.50, 0844-871 3014