Telly star Hilary is home on the stage where it all began

Actress Hilary MacLean at The King's Theatre
Actress Hilary MacLean at The King's Theatre
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EDINBURGH actress Hilary Maclean was just 14 when she first stepped onto the stage of The King’s. Nearly four decades on, she’s back, playing Jean, the mum, in Sunshine On Leith.

With the opening performance just finished, we meet at the post show reception where the 53-year-old beams, “It was beautiful tonight, emotional, and exciting.”

Portraits of Actress Hilary MacLean at The King's Theatre

Portraits of Actress Hilary MacLean at The King's Theatre

It’s fitting that Hilary’s latest homecoming should be in Stephen Greenhorn’s musical built around the songs of The Proclaimers, as it’s a piece that explores the meaning of home and belonging.

“It’s amazing to be home,” she says, “I arrived and just gave a big sigh, back in Edinburgh, staying with my dad in the house I grew up in.”

Brought up in the west of the city where she attended Corstorphine Primary and Craigmount High, Hilary has become a familiar face on TV over the years with credits that include Doctors, Coronation Street, Lip Service and Holby City.

She was also Doctor Who Peter Capaldi’s wife in Torchwood and what she calls Nigel Havers’ “squeeze” in the final series of Dangerfield.

“Torchwood was a joy,” she recalls, “but I can’t believe they didn’t bring me back as a Mrs Who when Peter became the Doctor.

“I thought that was an opportunity missed by the writers,” she laughs, “but whatever, Peter was lovely to work with and Nigel was absolutely charming.”

It’s an impressive CV that all started with that early Leven Street appearance.

“The last time I was on The King’s stage was actually in 1996, doing Bondagers, but the very first time was when I was 14 and in Gang Show.

“I can’t remember what the number was but I know I definitely wore some red crimplene trousers, the opening number was always red crimplene trousers,” she laughs.

However, it was while at Craigmount High that Hilary first discovered her love of performing.

“We had the most fantastic drama teacher, that is where it all started really. Nick Hayes was just one of those people with a real passion for teaching and a love of theatre.

“I joined the drama club and the dance club at Craigmount, it was such a great privilege to be part of something like that.

“If you have that behind you, whether you go on to do what I’m doing now, or whether you go on to do something else, having someone like Nick, who just gives you the confidence to stand up and be yourself, is so important.”

She adds, “That’s what Edinburgh Youth Theatre ultimately did for so many of our era too.”

Run by David Clayton, who also produced and directed the Gang Show at the time, EYT as it was affectionately known nurtured a generation of young Edinburgh talent.

It proved a starting point for many well known names such as Doctor Who’s Madame Vastra Neve Macintosh, Hollywood actress Rebecca Pidgeon, Royal Lyceum artistic director David Greig, and Garbage front woman Shirley Manson.

Shirley actually started her rock career alongside Hilary in local band Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, the actress reveals.

“Martin Metcalfe joined Youth Theatre and asked Shirley and I to do backing vocals, so for a year or two I was in Goodbye Mr Mackenzie,” she remembers.

“We even released a single, Death of a Salesman, but I auditioned for drama school as the band were about to be signed to a record deal... I went off to drama school and they carried on as a band.

“The rest is history for my dear friend Shirley, but I could never have done what Shirley has done.

“It’s a very tough life being a musician, it’s not a piece of cake being an actor either, but the touring the Mackenzie’s did... it’s a very difficult life, I absolutely did the right thing.”

It was also while with EYT that Hilary played her first leads, including the title role in the World Stage premier of Gregory’s Girl.

“We had a heck of a bunch of people in my era of Youth Theatre, I look back and think ‘My God, we didn’t have a clue where we would go, we were just having an absolute blast.’

“I remember I did my first Fringe in 1981 with them, a show called Maurice The Minotaur. It won a Fringe First, a phenomenal thing for a youth theatre to do.

“Looking back, I suppose Youth Theatre is the root of who I am. Not everyone there went on to be actors or singers, but they used the confidence it gave them to stand up in front of people and be themselves.

“That was down to Dave Clayton, but it was also down to Gerard Lohan, to Bruce Henderson, to all the people there who invested in us. These people are invaluable.

Married for the past 15 years to actor Roger May, with whom she has two actress daughters, Amy, 15, and Tash, 12, Hilary has no qualms about letting her girls join the family business.

“Tash is the voice of Sarah in Cbeebies Sarah And Duck, and Amy has just finished her first TV role,” says the proud mum who, despite having a family steeped in all things ‘show business’, once considered a very different career option herself - Town and Country Planning.

“I got the bug to act but my family were all scientists, my dad Archie was a lecturer in electrical engineering at Napier, mum worked in a cytology lab, and my sister and brother are scientists.

“My parents wanted me to have something to fall back on, as I was quite good at chemistry and geography, I decided to do Town and Country Planning at Heriot Watt, which I did... for a term.

“When I told my parents, I was going to bow out of the course they went, ‘Okay, you’ve tried what we hoped you’d have as a back up and we’re behind you all the way.”

As her parents did before, however, Hilary finds herself insisting Amy and Tash have a second string to their bow.

“When I was younger, it was easier, now you need that extra string to your bow.

“I’ve never had a Plan B, I worked as a receptionist, made curtains, did what I had to do to make ends meet, that’s why I’m saying to my girls stick in at school.”

Sage advice like that is probably why the Sunshine On Leith cast have also adopted Hilary as the mother of the company, “Whenever I say something they look at me and say, ‘Aye, alright maw’,” she laughs, “Cheeky gits.”