DRIVING into Newcastle earlier this week, actress Kate Graham was full of excitement and a bundle of nerves.
She had stopped off at her parents home on Teesside, had just passed Penshaw Monument and the Angel of the North, and now she was driving over the Tyne and her heart was in her mouth.
There it was, to her left, in huge lit-up letters for all to see: ‘Mamma Mia! at the Metro Radio Arena’ – and she has a pivotal role in it!
“As I came across the bridge I saw Mamma Mia! across the Metro Radio Arena and it brought it all home to me,” she tells me.
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry from fear. I still have family up here and when I told them I’d got the job, they had all bought tickets anyway.”
Kate, who grew up in Seaton Carew, has just joined the cast of the hit ABBA musical in the feisty role of Tanya, one of the Dynamos.
It means the actress will be spending Christmas back home with family for the first time in a decade. “Mum and dad are beside themselves,” she laughs.
Kate joins the international tour of Mamma Mia!, which opens a five-week run in Newcastle tonight, fresh from playing Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot in London’s West End.
“I was performing in Billy Elliot and rehearsing for Mamma Mia! during the day for one week.
“I am very excited and very scared. I've always been cast in comedy roles throughout my career, and it's always the same, you don't know if it is funny in front of an audience until you actually do it.
“You do it so many times in rehearsal and you wonder if it is fun at all as you have heard it a million times.
“There is always that fear that this time it isn’t going to be funny. It is a lot of responsibility.
“People come to see the show because they know it so well and love it so much and you don't want to let them down.
“ You want it to be as good as they want it to be when they come in.
“I saw the stage version in its first week of preview in London 10 years ago as I had a friend in it, but I haven't seen it since.
“I thought about going to see it in rehearsals but I was counselled against it. Quite rightly, I never normally go and see shows I am rehearsing.”
Kate was born and bred in Seaton Carew, attending the village’s CoE primary school, and joining the Holy Trinity Church choir at the age of seven, staying until she was 21.
She attended Dyke House Comprehensive in Hartlepool and Hartlepool sixth form college, of which her father Duncan was vice principal.
"Then I went to Durham University and studied history,” continues Kate. “I am from a very strong academic family and they wouldn't have tolerated me going straight to drama school.
“I had to do all my exams first, which was very wise. I did loads of musicals at school and university and then I went to the Royal Academy of Music and did post grad there in musical theatre. From then on I've been working.
“My parents were sceptical about this industry to begin with, because obviously they worry for you. But my dad is in the male voice choir at Hartlepool and he used to direct the productions at college, so he has always loved theatre and music.”
Graduating in 1997, her first job was with the Stephen Hill Singers on Radio 2.
On TV she appeared in Breeze Block, a dark comedy set on Tyneside, starring alongside Geordie actors Tim Healy and Dave Nellist, whom she also worked with in Billy Elliot.
“It was a strange one, Breeze Block,” she smiles. “I was standing at Byker Wall all day with a sheep on a lead and was going blue as it was freezing.
“I played a mad shepherdess who seduced Craig Heaney, and I loved it when Tim Healy thought he was a canary – in the drama you understand.”
Kate’s grandparents were from Lobley Hill in Gateshead and she still has family in the Whickham area.
Parents Duncan and Kathleen and other family members had booked tickets for Mamma Mia! before knowing Kate had won the part.
“They are so excited I can't begin to tell you. It's ridiculous. I have a sister, Victoria, as well in London and she is coming up for Christmas Day.
“To have the whole family together back at the house I grew up in for Christmas Day will be wonderful.”
Joining Mamma Mia! means Kate is back working with Jackie Clunes, who plays the lead role of Donna, whom she knew from her Billy Elliot days too.
Mamma Mia! is at the Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle, until January 17.