Leslie Ash exudes an air of vulnerability as she sits in a corner of a rehearsal room getting ready to start the next stage in her life.
She pores over her lines so she’s word-perfect for her performance in comedy play All The Single Ladies, which is at the Leeds City Varieties tonight. She openly admits feeling “nervous”, which is hardly surprising because there’s a lot riding on this tour for the actress, who found fame in the TV series, Men Behaving Badly. Ash wants it to herald a new beginning which will allow her to move on from the well-documented traumas of the past. In 2004, two years after enduring public ridicule for what was dubbed her “trout pout” after a cosmetic procedure on her lips went disastrously wrong, her whole life was turned upside down when she contracted a variant of hospital superbug MRSA which left her partially paralysed.
She’s had to learn how to walk again, still has a limp, and just as crucially she’s had to rebuild her shattered confidence and career.
“It’s been hard, very hard rebuilding my life. While I don’t think I’ll ever come to terms with what happened and the fact that I’m disabled – I don’t think that’s possible – you learn to adapt and just get on with it,” she says stoically.
“What I say to everyone now is I don’t want to go back on everything that’s happened to me, everyone’s heard it all, and that’s past now. This is me starting again basically.”
All The Single Ladies is her first major appearance since 2010, when she appeared as disabled hospital executive Vanessa Lytton in BBC One medical drama Holby City.
“Holby showed me that I could get back into the business, and without it I would probably still be moping around at home and just going to the gym occasionally,” she says.
But she says accepting a role on a demanding tour and going back to theatre after a gap of 17 years was something she had to take time to consider. “In the past, it would have been a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but nowadays I have to consider whether I can cope physically as well as other considerations,” she explains.
“In the end I thought, if I chicken out of this challenge I might as well give up. I thought I had to do it because I wanted so much to play to a live audience and prove to people that disability won’t get in my way.”
On-stage furniture has been carefully arranged so that she doesn’t need a stick and her limp is barely discernable.
“I describe myself as fine but wonky still because of the paralysis,” she says. “In the early days of my recovery walking was like a check list, going through all the motions needed to move forward, now it’s much more unconscious and when you’re absorbed and distracted it takes your mind away from pain.”
There’s no doubting her determination to once again make her mark professionally rather than gaining headlines for her turbulent life. Her hospitalisation at London’s Chelsea & Westminster hospital occurred reportedly because of an energetic sex session with her husband, former Leeds United footballer, Lee Chapman, when she suffered a punctured lung and two broken ribs. The couple’s relationship was reportedly tempestuous in the past but she’s full of praise for the man she describes as “wonderful, and although we were always close, we’re even closer now”.
Their two sons, Joe, 23 and Max, 19, have left home and she says: “Our boys have turned out wonderfully and now they’re away from home it’s lovely because we’re just a couple again and have so much time for each other.
“I’ve had the best carer in the world through all these difficult times in Lee. It’s actually strengthened our relationship going through this, and we’ve been married 26 years and never been happier.” Arguably there’s no need for her to work as she received a record £5m compensation payment, but clearly that would be unthinkable for Ash, who first appeared on TV at the age of four in a Fairy Liquid ad.
“My life has changed and for a while I thought my career had finished completely, and I’d been written off,” she admits. “I value my life, my husband and family so much and I can see how lucky and blessed I’ve been to have the chance to realise it. I just want to be seen as the new Leslie, who’s fighting back.”
All the single ladies in Leeds
Leslie Ash is appearing with Brooke Kinsella and Tara Flynn in All The Single Ladies, which is touring the country until April 20.
In it she plays a woman who’s been married seven times but, undeterred, is still seeking love.
“She’s a really lovely, interesting character and a fantastic part to play,” says Ash.
“She’s quite batty, a bit of a man-eater I suppose, who likes meeting a man and the initial passion and then she gets bored of them.
“It’s very funny and I’m loving it.”
For more information about the tour visit www.allthesingleladies.eu