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Sheridan Smith: 'I covered myself in tattoos after mental health wobble'

Sheridan Smith is one of Britain's best known actresses, but her new role may be her most challenging yet.

She's starring in the musical Opening Night, about a star with mental health problems who is unravelling on stage.

It is a part Smith says is "close to the bone" after her own personal problems saw her temporarily pull out of Funny Girl in the West End in 2016.

But the star, 42, says after her "wobble" and "covering herself in tattoos", she has her confidence back.

Opening Night, which is based on the 1977 film of the same name, follows a theatre company preparing to stage a show on Broadway.

The music and lyrics are by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, while the show is directed by Olivier Award winner Ivo van Hove.

In the story, Myrtle, played by Smith, is having a nervous breakdown after the death of one of her fans.

Sheridan Smith
Smith says there are "so many parts" of the character she relates to

The Cilla and Gavin and Stacey star tells the BBC that Myrtle is "clinging to life by her fingernails" and the audience have no idea if she will make her own opening night.

The parallels with her past have been drawn by Smith herself. "I have been in my own mental crisis before, which was quite well publicised, so there are definitely parts of myself that I can bring to the character," she says.

It's eight years since Smith pulled out of the musical Funny Girl because of stress, exhaustion and dealing with her father's cancer diagnosis.

She later returned to the show, but the period deeply affected her.

"I had a wobble, covered myself in a tattoos. I lost a lot of confidence around that time, but it has come back thankfully, due to friends and supportive people."

Opening Night will also be the first time she has been able to show her tattoos at work. Usually they are covered with heavy make-up.

Part of Opening Night takes place outside the theatre, with Myrtle collapsing outside the stage door in a drunken state and the scene projected onto screens inside the auditorium.

Sheridan Smith
Smith's scenes outside the theatre have been attracting crowds

Word is now out about the scene, and Sheridan says people "have been crowding around" the West End theatre to watch.

"I would love people to get involved," she laughs, "because it adds to it all, makes it all so live and real, that is never done in the theatre."

'Public understood I was grieving'

Despite what she calls her "well publicised" troubles, Smith says she has always been able to rely on support from the public, especially after the death of her father in 2016.

"I am very grateful because the public always stood by me, even though whatever went on in the press," Smith tells the BBC. "They understood that when you are grieving, you can't really explain what you go through and people were stopping me and cuddling me on the street."

The actress says people from her home near Doncaster often make the trip to London to see her in shows, adding that the "whole village came to see the Legally Blonde musical wearing pink cowboy hats".

Sheridan Smith and her son
Sheridan says her son may already have the acting bug

One issue that is currently much discussed is whether the upper classes and people who went to private school are too dominant in the arts.

Smith describes herself as "proudly working class" and says "she has been one of the lucky ones", having worked consistently since she moved to London when she was 16.

She hopes "it is getting better for working-class kids being able to get into drama schools".

Smith became a mum in 2020 and says her son is "the reason I do it all".

He has visited her at the theatre and been to her dressing room, but Smith jokes that Opening Night is not a show for a three-year-old.

Her son did join her on stage in 2023 during the curtain call for another recent play, Shirley Valentine.

"He came on for the bows and was loving it, waving to the crowds," Smith says.

However, the actress is perhaps not as keen about her son following in her footsteps.

"I thought, oh no! There's something in him, he is loving it all!" she laughs.

Opening Night is at the Gielgud Theatre in London until 27 July.

5 Minutes On - Sheridan Smith: How I got my confidence back - BBC Sounds