Eddy Queens: "I’m so grateful that I put down the crack pipe."

The Typical Girls star on life, motherhood and Whitney Houston. And why she's convinced the 1970s punk band The Slits are an inspiring role model for now.

Actress Eddy Queens is not dead and has never been in prison. This is a miracle.

She acknowledges as much herself when she says: “I believe things happen for a reason.”

It’s not an original sentiment but, in her case, it’s justified. Her backstory goes like this:

Born 56 years ago to Nigerian parents in London, she found early success in the 1987 musical hit Black Heroes In The Hall Of Fame. There were backing vocals for Mica Paris; she recorded her own album. A trajectory of success seemed assured.

But she was dropped by her record label and in the aftermath of that shattering blow she took crack cocaine. Her downward spiral over the next few years into what she calls “living on the streets” is documented with unflinching honesty in her conversation with DJ Fat Tony for The Recovery podcast on YouTube.

But we are not here to focus on that. We are here to celebrate what she is now, what – with support – she has turned herself into, which is an actress-musican playing a character called ‘Precious’ in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Typical Girls at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.

I ask her to tell me more about the show.

“It’s about women in a prison, a mental unit, and they form a band. Some of them haven’t played before -- like my character has never played before -- so there’s scenes of them learning … and then they actually get some songs together.

“That’s the synopsis of the show. But what I think it’s about, is putting mental illness out there.”

As she observes, thanks to lockdown, many of us have had a brush with something akin to mental illness in the past 18 months. I ask her to tell me about her character.

“Precious has two kids. And she misses her kids. I think she’s trying to justify that she’s a good mother. But she’s got a lot of guilt.”

In desperation, Precious turns to learning an instrument. She wants to make something of herself and to block out the intrusive thoughts that assail her when she’s alone in her cell. Eddy says she identifies with what is going on in her character’s head.

“When I was using on the streets, I abandoned my son. I didn’t see my son for years and years. So when I read for the audition, this monologue just jumped out at me. And when I read it, I was so emotional I cried.

“For me personally, I was able to rectify my relationship with my son. But reading the monologue, it brought out so many things.”

She thinks there will be women in the audience who will find it harrowing.

“Who wants a bad mother? Mothers out there will know someone that has been struggling with their kids. ‘Cos I find many, many women do. They’re with a guy and he pisses off and they’ve got to struggle, these single mums, as best they can. Some have theirs adopted; some maybe are fostering. So, I know that there’s going to be more than one or two women in the audience that can relate to Precious.”

In that respect, Eddy was fortunate. She came from a strong family and her child’s father stepped in to take up his responsibilities when things got rough. But having said that…

“He gave me licence to really go out there and really tear the arse out of the drug life, you know?

“I can say it because I’m not ashamed. There was a time when I was ashamed to say ‘Oh, I am a drug addict.’ I am a proud recovering addict.”

There were a couple of false starts, but she eventually turned up on the doorstep of a detox centre on the recommendation of a young Scotswoman she met in a crack house. By that time, she was ready to stop and so the detox centre passed her on to a day centre. When the counsellor at the day centre heard her life story, she recommended to Eddy that she join a theatre company called Clean Break, whose members consist of (and as a condition of the interview they told me I must be careful to get this right):

  • women with lived experience of the criminal justice system, and

  • women like Eddy in such vulnerable circumstances that lived experience of the criminal justice system is difficult for them to avoid.

The aim is to avoid trapping people in labels so that they can’t move on.

She says she didn’t want to go at first:

“At the time I was thinking ‘Oh I’m not sure, I don’t know.’ When I found out that it was all women, I didn’t really… my trust in women had gone. Punters out there… you know we were tearing each other’s wigs off, we were tearing each other’s hair out on the streets. I didn’t really trust women so much.

“But Jacqueline who interviewed me was so, so calming, so lovely and she said to me ‘Go away, think about it and then we’ll have another interview.’ I went away and I thought ‘You know what, I need this.’”

Having assumed her singing days were over, she began to get her mojo back.

“This place, they offered you drama, they offered you self-development, there was so much they offered you. And, slowly but surely, I began to feel like Eddy again. I began to think ‘You know what, it’s not over yet. I’m not over the hill yet.’”

It’s still not plain sailing. Like many women whose lives have taken them down a hard road, she comes across as having an external toughness, an appraising street smarts, that isn’t always matched by her insides.

“Róisín [McBrinn, the show’s director and also Joint Artistic Director at Clean Break] makes people feel so comfortable. I just love her style. I really love her style of directing. She’s just very soft and if you’re not getting it, she says ‘It’s okay, you’ll be okay.’

“Even with this production I was panicking, and she said ‘Eddy, calm down, you’re going to get it.’

“And she was absolutely right. I can’t big up Clean Break enough. The women are so understanding.”

Life is still a challenge:

“I have to use the programme every day. Now doing this show, I haven’t had time to do meetings, but I’m still plugged in with my sponsor, I’m plugged in with the other addicts. Their conversation calms me because things can trigger you.”

She is dutiful in her praise of The Slits, the female punk band whose songs form the ribcage of Typical Girls.

“The Slits are fantastic. Fantastic. People were against them, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer and that’s what I love. That to me is a fantastic strong message.”

She had never heard of them before she joined the show. Learning their music, and learning to play the bass guitar has been a journey of discovery in later life that she wasn’t expecting.

“I learnt guitar when I was about nine-10 and I put it down. The only instrument I’ve used is my voice and that was it. I’m 56 now and I’m thinking ‘Oh I’m too old to do…’ Well it’s taught me you’re never too old. There are a few things in this production that have taught me… given me a few lessons. You’re never too old, you push yourself and you’ve got to believe in yourself as well. And The Slits. The Slits were strong, they were really great role models.”

Still, she visibly relaxes when I observe that punk (mostly) was a music of the white, lower middle class, and then counters slightly with the comment that The Slits were influenced by reggae.

And they were. At a time in the late 1970s when ‘black’ and ‘white’ music-based youth cultures were sharply delineated, they were early adopters and laid a path towards Two Tone with its visceral message of racial harmony.

No doubt she is sincere in praise of The Slits’ genuinely groundbreaking musical qualities, but it is when Witney Houston comes up in the conversation that she really blossoms.

“Many singers are hooked on drugs. Why I bring her up is that it could so easily have been me. And that’s what scared me. Every time when I think of Witney Houston I think ‘Wow. You know what, I’m so grateful. I’m so grateful that I put down the crack pipe.

“Because for some people it’s so hard and obviously for Whitney Houston it was very, very hard. And Gregory Isaacs. People who died through drugs. And honestly, I have to be so humble and thank my higher power that He’s given me a chance.

“And that’s one of the reasons why I do things like this. Because there are so many people out there that have shi… I mean, they’ve had really hard lives and they find it hard to talk about it because they think people are going to judge them.

“But I always say that it’s how you judge yourself. And I don’t judge myself anymore. I don’t beat myself up anymore.

“So, what I try to do is tell my story, and I’m hoping that somebody out there will think ‘Oh, okay, well she’s done it. So let me, you know, make a couple of moves or maybe go to meetings.

“Because if she can do it then… you know. And if she’s not ashamed about it then I’m not going to be ashamed of it.

“And that’s why I shout it from the rooftops.”

You can see Typical Girls at Sheffield Crucible Theatre until Oct 16 (£15-£29). Livestream Oct 6, £15. Socially distanced and access performances: Oct 7, 13 & 14