Playing Mrs Lovett in the Lyric's Sweeney Todd is a dream role for Julie Mullins

As Sweeney Todd opens at the Lyric, actress Julie Mullins tells Gail Bell why she has always dreamt of playing the landlady with blood on her hands – and why she can no longer look at a meat pie in a supermarket

Former Neighbours actor Julie Mullins as Mrs Lovett with Steven Page, who plays Sweeney Todd, in the Lyric-NI Opera production
Former Neighbours actor Julie Mullins as Mrs Lovett with Steven Page, who plays Sweeney Todd, in the Lyric-NI Opera production

JULIE Mullins has gone over to the 'dark side', but enjoying every macabre moment making her cadaverous pies as Mrs Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

"It's definitely a meaty role," she laughs down the line during a break from rehearsals at the Lyric which, along with NI Opera, is staging the musical thriller, based on Hugh Wheeler's book, this month. "It's a dream role for me; a high water mark as an actor. I've always wanted to play Todd's sinister landlady ever since I was in my 20s – and now I'm old enough!"

Best known for her role as Julie Martin in long-running Australian soap Neighbours, Mullins is excited to be performing in Belfast for the first time, alongside key cast members Stephen Page (Sweeney Todd) and Mark O’Regan (Judge Turpin).

"I've been to Northern Ireland half-a-dozen times, either to see friends or productions," she says. "One time, I just went to museums and got to be a tourist, but not this time – it's been an intense few days of rehearsals and then we go into 'tech week' where all the technical things happen: costumes, lights, props, orchestra – it's all very exciting.

"Sweeney Todd is a big show and, with producing partner NI Opera, it brings strengths from both areas – musically and dramatically. Sondheim's music is far from simple to learn, but it's the depth of drama in both the story and also in the music, which is so appealing.

"The role of Mrs Lovett is definitely a challenge, musically, vocally and dramatically and that's what's so meaty about it – you've really got to get your teeth around it."

She is enjoying the pun, although has been unable to buy – or eat – meat pies since the beginning of rehearsals, the imagined contents seemingly too close to Mrs Lovett's gourmet 'meat' pies, packed full with human body parts.

"I did look in Tesco the other day, as I wanted a quick dinner," she muses, "but when I looked at the pies I went, 'No, no, I can't... and I walked straight past them."

Yet, even with her character's unhealthy alliance with Todd, who returns to London hell-bent on vengeance following his wrongful incarceration and the loss of his family, Mullins regards her stage persona with a degree of sympathy.

"The characters are all three-dimensional, so there's a lot going on," she explains. "While Mrs Lovett is down in the cellar a lot, doing dastardly things, she also has a true, warm side; a flirtatious side, a determined side.

"She wants to get out of the gutter and have this middle-class life and go live by the sea or somewhere but, in trying to hang on to this man, as if he's the last man she might ever love, she becomes corrupted herself. She's an interesting person to play because she didn't start out that way."

The story, based on the original Penny Dreadful melodramas of Victorian London, will also show its softer side in theatre, according to Mullins, who was born in London before moving with her parents to Sydney, Australia, at the age of one.

"The 2007 film, with Johnny Depp, made the story popular with non-theatre goers but in the stage production the horror is mostly in your imagination," she says. "The film was very bloody, as you have to be literal when you're working in film, but with the stage there's far more suggestion – more smoke and mirrors. That's the beauty and artistry of theatre."

In this new, "sophisticated" co-production, Mullins says the design is such that the audience is brought into the story, instead of sitting on the outside, "in judgment of these crazy people".

"The director, designer and lighting designer are making the statement that this is the macabre, black side of life when people take their revenge, their desires and ambitions too far and go to the dark side," she says. "It's not just bogeymen of the past – this is the dark side of what could be now, so, we're bringing them [the audience] directly into the story."

Despite her high-profile Neighbours role (1992-1995), theatre has always been the actress and singer's first love and, with her dad a talented tenor – as well as working general surgeon – the young Julie Mullins was surrounded by musicians and singers from an early age.

It all helped nudge her towards the theatre and a training course at the Q repertory theatre in Sydney where she made her professional debut as Teresa in Brendan Behan's The Hostage.

"My ancestors were convicts and free settlers from Ireland and I love Irish writing," Mullins enthuses in her warm Aussie tones. "I have an adopted aunt and uncle who live in Westport, Co Mayo, and that's why I go visit them all the time. You will usually find me sitting in the pub, drinking Guinness and enjoying a jam session."

But, back to the role that brought her face into thousands of homes in Northern Ireland during the 90s – the 'other' Julie (Martin) who, along with Mrs Lovett, also came to a sticky end in the soap opera that is Neighbours.

I wonder if she minds it being constantly cast up to her, being the busy-body of the fictional

Ramsay Street – but no, she has only warm, fuzzy memories of those days and was excited to find herself unexpectedly acting out a surreal scene with screen hubby, Philip (actor, Ian Rawlings) for an online 'webisode' recently.

"That was a lot of fun as I had been killed off in the TV series but they resurrected me for this webisode which soaps are now doing for uber-fans who just can't get enough," Mullins says. "With Sweeney Todd we are on the border between theatre and opera, so the medium is totally different and playing Mrs Lovett requires a lot of different skills I didn't have to use in Neighbours.

"But, what makes me laugh is that Julie Martin was also a very determined character and the audience did see Julie lose her marbles a bit too. I never dreamed I would be playing her again – it turned out she hadn't died at all; she was alive and living in London and talking to her ex-husband on the telephone!

"I've had many chapters in my life since Neighbours, including musicals, Shakespeare, working in arts management, writing books, but going back to do that 10-minute scene was unexpectedly emotional. Julie Martin is hard to shake off."

:: Sweeney Todd, Lyric Theatre, Belfast, February 2-23 (lyrictheatre.co.uk).