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Ruth Jones: ‘I think live theatre is so valuable, so special – especially something like Sister Act’

The writer and actor – cocreator and star of Gavin & Stacey – is joining the sisterhood as she makes her Sister Act stage debut in Dublin

One weekend back in the naughties, when he was making the ITV drama Fat Friends, the actor James Corden was at a wedding reception in Barry, the seaside town on the south coast of Wales, when he overheard two middle-aged men comparing themselves to cars. “I’m not a Porsche,” one of them said. “Of course, I’d love to be an Audi, but I’m not. I’m a Mondeo, and that’s fine.”

Corden burst into laughter. Later that night, watching the two families – one Welsh, the other English – it struck him that weddings bring together not just two people but two different worlds, as well.

Back on the Fat Friends set, in Leeds, he told Ruth Jones, his Welsh costar, about his weekend. They laughed and began talking about their own families – the false-tanning aunt, the secretly gay uncle – and decided to pitch the idea of an hour-long TV comedy. A BBC executive suggested making it a series instead, so they turned it into one: Gavin & Stacey, the comedic love story between a boy from Essex and a girl from Barry, began on BBC Three in May 2007 and ran for three series.

Jones and Corden knew they wouldn’t be playing the leads; Joanna Page and Gavin Horne took those roles. Instead, the pair appeared as Gavin and Stacey’s best friends, Smithy and Nessa, whose flirting led to their own, simultaneously charming, raunchy and slapstick relationship.


The final programme, a Christmas special in 2019, was watched by 17 million people, nearly a quarter of the UK population. It was filmed in the middle of summer and entirely in secret. “I don’t quite know how we did it,” Jones says with a smile. “The fact that we managed to keep it a secret was quite incredible. I remember we had to get electricians’ vans to park all around us to shield away the paparazzi. And because we were filming in summer, so many of the scenes had to be filmed in the middle of the night, because we needed Christmastime darkness. The final scene was about two in the morning, I think.”

That final scene, in which Nessa proposes to Smithy, ends on a cliffhanger. Such is its place in television history that Jones is still asked about it. “I don’t know how many times I have to say that we’re not making another one,” she says. “That said, James and I’ve always felt that the characters actually exist and that Nessa is still in Barry or whatever. And I think, you know, there’s a lot to be said for that cliffhanger, leaving it where it is, because people can imagine that their lives are carrying on somehow. The world has changed a lot since that episode – and some things should really just be left as they are.”

Jones, who is 57, is that rare thing: a stop-in-your-tracks celebrity who’s also the kind of person who’d offer you her umbrella in pouring rain. In person, when we meet at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, where she is about to appear in Sister Act: The Musical, she is tall and pretty, with sloe eyes and pronounced cheekbones. She smiles a lot and has a sweet laugh – which is slightly disarming in someone with such an acerbic sense of humour. S

he is also friendly and generous, happy to teach you some Welsh phrases – she is a “second-time learner”, she says, gladly – and offering anecdotes to help you get a sense of where she comes from. (“It’s in my family tree that an ancestor of mine, named Talog, wrote the Welsh rugby anthem Yma o Hyd,” she says, “but I recently met another woman whose grandad claims he did, instead.”)

Even though she says she’d never call herself a comic, that jokes come quickly to her may help explain why Jones was one of the few women who managed to break into the UK’s notoriously male-dominated comedy scene in the 2000s. For the four years before Gavin & Stacey she played Myfanwy, the lesbian barmaid on Little Britain, Matt Lucas and David Walliams’s would-never-be-made-now sketch show, serving Bacardi and Cokes to her mate Daffyd, Lucas’s “only gay in the village”. She also appeared in the BBC’s exquisite black comedy Nighty Night, playing Linda, the moronic personal assistant to Julia Davis’s narcissistic sociopath Jill, all the while working on Gavin & Stacey with Corden.

As a child, Jones wanted to be a journalist. Indeed, writing always took precedence. “I remember I wrote a poem when I was little,” she says. “I can still remember it: ‘There once was a hill, which stood very still, not high, not low, where no one would go. Except for a princess who nobody knows, who sat on that hill, that stood very still, and sang all day, so sweet, so gay. So that was a happy hill that stood very still.’” She bursts into laughter. “That is embedded into my head.”

Jones’s first novel, Never Greener, about a love affair that breaks up two marriages, was published in 2018. Some reviewers were unimpressed. Two years later, her second novel, Us Three, appeared. Following three female friends over four decades, through addiction, infidelity, grief and betrayal, it earned a rake of five-star reviews and became a Sunday Times bestseller.

The Guardian called her third book, Love Untold, from 2022, compassionate and life-affirming; it tells the story of a conflict between four generations of Welsh women. So perhaps Jones is at her best when telling the stories of those around her – or perhaps her writing is only getting better with age.

“I think I write things instinctively,” she says. “When I’m writing I never have a plan. I just sort of let it find its own way. I think I’m good at dialogue and characters but terrible at structure. That tends to come after.” She hopes her next book will come out this year – “but novel writing is a long endeavour”.

Jones sees herself as a comfort delivery system. Unlike more nihilistic contemporaries in British comedy – Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan, Jimmy Carr – she believes that entertainers have a responsibility to combat cynicism and spread joy. Which is partly why she has joined the cast of Sister Act: The Musical. She’ll be making her West End debut as Mother Superior in March. Before that, she’s appearing in the role at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, in Dublin.

“I must admit, it wasn’t something that I had thought I would do,” Jones says, smiling. “But from the first rehearsal I did, for the Royal Variety [Performance], I heard them sing Raise Your Voice and got goosebumps. I think that live theatre at the moment is so valuable, and so special, and gives people that sense of connection – especially something like Sister Act, which is so full of joy, so magical…

“I think we need more of that – and I would like to be part of that, I find, with my novel writing, too. I find it very hard to write anything that’s dark. There are plenty of better writers than me that can write about that. But, for me, I don’t want to write about it, because there’s enough horribleness going on in the world. I think this opportunity I’ve been given has actually made me pledge to do more theatre, because it really is such a gift.”

As Jones tidies away a chicken salad, I ask what she wants people to get from her work. “All I want to do is give people something to uplift them. And if I can continue to do that, I will be a very happy woman.”

Sister Act: The Musical is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, Febuary 13th, until Saturday, February 24th