LIZ McClarnon is surrounded by Christmas trees, lights twinkling like a night-time sky full of stars, writes JOHN ANSON. Brightly wrapped boxes and sticks of candy cane form small piles at her feet.

We are in the unlikely setting of the back room of Hamley’s toy shop in Manchester’s Trafford Centre. In a few minutes Liz will change into costume and delight hundreds of youngsters who have gathered to see her and co-star Ben Forster bring a little festive magic.

For seven weeks she is playing Jovie the girlfriend of Buddy the Elf, in Elf the Musical at The Lowry, one of the most eagerly-anticipated Christmas shows for years.

And to say she is in her element is an understatement.

“Oh, it just doesn’t get any better for me,” she said, her eye shining. “I’m obsessed by Christmas. I think I’m the Buddy of my family!”

The new musical which enjoyed a record-breaking run in London’s West End is based on the hit movie starring Will Ferrell. Buddy is a human baby who grows up with the elves working with Santa who returns to New York to find his real father. There he spreads his own Christmas cheer and finds love in the unlikely form of Jovie, a sarcastic, disillusioned shop worker.

Liz, 36, who now lives in the south of France, returns to the north west for the duration of the show.

“I’ve always dreamed of living in France but if I’m not with my family at Christmas my world shatters,” said Liverpool girl Liz. “So this is just amazing for me.

“It’s such a huge, high end, big budget show. To be part of that would be amazing anyway but to do it so close to home is wonderful.

“I know ticket sales have been exceptional for this – I suspect most of them are my family,” she laughed.

Although best known for her pop career with Atomic Kitten, Liz has also starred in stage musicals, including a major tour of Legally Blonde.

But she had to audition for the role of Jovie.

“With such high profile shows, they always hold auditions because they have to get it right.” she said. “When you go for an audition you should always try to be a little dispassionate but I so wanted this part.

“What was good for me was that when I got the song they wanted me to sing at the audition, it just fitted with my voice. Sometimes when you get a song you need to have a few lessons to adjust your voice to the song but this one was just right for me.

“I wanted the part so much. I just belted out the song, I really went for it. I did a few scenes and played Jovie quite sarcastically and added a few bits and the producers loved that. Three hours later I got a phone call telling me I’d got the part. That’s never happened before so quickly.”

Ben Forster, who plays Buddy, also played the role in the West End and recently finished as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera.

“I’ve known Ben for some time,” said Liz. “I went to see him in Phantom. He said when they told him I’d got the part he said ‘of course, she’s perfect. Why didn’t we all think about her from the beginning?’ which was a really nice thing to say.”

Although based on the storyline of the movie, Elf the Musical is a totally different show.

“Obviously there are things you can do on film which you can’t do on stage,” said Liz, “but I think the producers have done more with the musical.

“You get to know and to like the characters more. Also what’s more Christmassy than people singing and dancing together?”

Liz’s character Jovie has a much bigger role to play in the show, something she’s delighted about.

“Of course the show’s all about Buddy, Ben’s on stage virtually all the time. But Jovie is in it more than the film.

“I like the fact that she’s not someone you warm to at the beginning. She’s sarcastic. Christmas is just another time of the year when she’s not got much money and is a bit lonely. She’s one of those people who wants to be in love but it’s just not happening because she falls for all these losers.

“She’s got these deadpan, funny lines which I’m so excited about. I’ve done comedy roles before but they’ve tended to be wacky, slapstick roles. Jovie’s just different and allows me to showcase what I can do.”

After playing what is, for her, a dream role Liz is also looking forward to an exciting 2018.

“I’m off to Nashville in the New Year to write and record an album,” she said. “It will be a modern, UK country album which I’m so excited about. I just want to get some of that Nashville magic and then hopefully tour next year.”

Elf the Musical runs at The Lowry, Salford Quays, until Sunday, January 14.

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