In 2009 Yorkshire actress Verity Rushworth left the role of Donna Windsor in ITV1’s Emmerdale for a career in musical theatre. But now she’s planning a return. Phil Penfold meets her.
In 2009, Verity Rushworth decided the time was right to say “farewell” to playing Emmerdale’s Donna Windsor-Dingle – the role she had playedsince she was 12.
“I can’t really explain it”, muses Verity today. “I wanted to do other things, and I thought that I was mature enough to tackle them.
“It was – everything is, in this business – a bit of a gamble, but then if you don’t take chances, life would be a bit boring, wouldn’t it?”
She swapped small screen for the stage and the Shaftesbury Theatre in London’s West End.
For more than a year she played the role of Penny Pingleton in the hit musical Hairspray! opposite Michael Ball. She admits that she “burst into tears” when she first saw her name on the vast illuminated billboard.
She went on tour playing Maria in The Sound of Music, and just recently finished a show-stopping run of Chicago – playing the outrageous Velma Kelly.
But now – to the delight of all her Emmerdale fans – she is returning to the Yorkshire soap as Marlon Dingle’s ex-wife Donna next week. And her return is bound to cause a stir, as Marlon is now engaged to Laurel and Donna has her own secret, a young daughter.
“Everything has gone wrong for Donna,” explains Verity. “She’s a single mum in Essex, struggling with a daughter who’s starting to ask questions about who Daddy is. She needs to go home and have her family support network, she needs to put it right and she needs to tell Marlon.
“She’s been burying her head in the sand and it’s time to come home and sort it out.”
However, Verity’s contract is for five months only, and she will reappear next Wednesday.
She is commuting weekly from her new home near Greenwich in South London up to Leeds. It can’t be that much fun for someone who only got married in March last year. Verity Charlotte Rushworth is now Mrs Dominic Michael Shaw.
“It was the most wonderful day,” she recalls with a huge smile. “Just perfect – we thought about it very carefully, and we had the ceremony at the Priory Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert at Bolton Abbey and then the reception across the way at the Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel.”
The culinary delights offered to their guests included a beautifully constructed pork pie wedding cake. Verity, 28, has a relaxed sense of humour, and she laughs and smiles a lot. There’s honesty and sincerity here. Born in Bradford, she was educated at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Menston, and from a very early age, she was passionate about entertaining.
“I really don’t remember a time when I wasn’t acting or performing”, she says. “Not, I hope, in a precocious way, but just because I loved entertaining.
“Mum and Dad have never taken any nonsense from me – they are very definitely not anything like the dreaded ‘stage parents’. They’ve always been there, always encouraged me, but never pushed me. They’ve kept my feet on the ground, and for that I shall always be grateful. They have been totally supportive, all the way, and they don’t know how really grateful I am for all of that”.
She started professionally when she was ten, with minor roles in series such as Heartbeat and even an extra in Emmerdale.
“I distinctly recall standing behind Sophie Jeffrey, the actress who, at that time, was playing Donna. And then she decided to leave the show, and a casting announcement to find a replacement for her went up in the studios, and I thought ‘Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained’, and I – and a lot of other 12 year olds, went up for up. They whittled the numbers down until there were just two of us. I am so pleased to say, I landed the role!”
After ten years she decided to leave in early 2009.
“I have a passion for musical theatre and it was a case of ‘now or never’. It was a huge wrench, leaving so many good friends in the cast and the crew, but it had to be done – it was a matter, I think, of ‘proving myself’. And, I think that I have.”
“It took a while to get used to looking up when I was on the Tube or the bus, and to see my face staring down at me, on ads promoting the shows. At first, you know, you really do squirm with embarrassment.”
She believes that the “timing is so right” for Donna to walk back into Emmerdale.
“I’ve been away ticking a lot of the boxes of what I wanted to do, and when the producers asked if I’d be interested in coming back for a while, it was just as Chicago was ending, and the timing was perfect. Mind you, it’s a totally different way of working – stage is going in two or three hours before the performance, doing warm-ups, and then performing the show to a new audience every night. Emmerdale is so intense, very fast, very quick, every day a fresh set of lines to say. My own method of learning them is to record all of the script, everyone’s lines as well as my own, and to run that tape over and over again until I have them by heart. I talk to myself all the time – which sounds a bit bonkers, but it works for me.”
Another bonus of being back in Emmerdale is that she is staying with her parents.
“I’m staying with my mum and dad during the week, and I have a lot of lovely meals with them,” she says. “Well, I don’t want to think about anything other than Emmerdale at the present, because whatever I do I give it 100 per cent commitment.”