CONSIDERING she is taking on one of the most complex and powerful roles in theatre, Julie Hesmondhalgh is remarkably relaxed when we meet meet during a break in rehearsals at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Mug of tea in hand she seems oblivious to the many stares she’s receiving and couples nudging each other as she perches on a bar stool in the main concourse of this impressive building.

She’s a real livewire talking ten to the dozen, and her enthusiasm for her latest challenge shines through.

Julie is starring in Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, arguably the strongest anti-war play ever written.

“This tends to be my slot at the Exchange, after the fun musical over Christmas. They let me bring things down - so far I’ve done infanticide, cancer, mental health and now war,” she laughed

She admits that initially an evening of Brecht may not be everyone’s first choice for a night at the theatre but believes that this new production will change a lot of people’s minds.

“It’s a very heightened theatrical experience,” said the former Coronation Street and Broadchurch star.

“What most excites me about this version is that I think it will really appeal to young people. I think if you were studying at A level this and came along, it would blow your socks off. It is such an exciting version of it.

“It is a very sexy production in terms of the design and the concept. I have to keep reminding them who they are working with. I keep telling them ‘you’ve got this slightly gone to seed middle aged woman from Accrington at the heart of this – you haven’t got Rhianna so work with me guys’. But it really is going to be a feast for the eyes.”

The new production, directed by Amy Jordan, is set in the future with Europe in turmoil and divided into grids and two sides - the reds and blues - at war.

Brecht wrote the play in 1939 as a powerful condemnation of the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

“In these incredibly divisive times that we are living in I think it has got really important things to say about war and conflict,” said Julie. “If people are preoccupied by division, which we’re seeing now a lot of at the moment, then the real issues get buried.”

Mother Courage is a woman who will do anything to protect her family in the midst of all the conflict but is she a heroine or victim?

“Honestly, I think she’s both,” said Julie. “I’m playing her as though she’s one of those tough Lancashire mums who loves her kids more than life itself but never really shows it. With her it’s tough love all the way.

“But as the play progresses you begin to change your opinions about her as she becomes so unbelievably disengaged from the carnage and pain around her. If Brecht is telling us anything he’s saying there is no place for humanity in war.”

It’s a busy time for Julie who has also just published A Working Diary covering a 12-month period in her life from November 2016.

“It has been an amazing thing to do” she said. “I have always written things down in notebooks but never for public consumption.

“When my dad died six years ago I found all these diaries and notebooks. I saved them until I finished Corrie and I went away to the Lakes with my dog and read through them all. They were written in the same way that I wrote, putting down his thoughts and explaining what he was feeling.”

Julie was so touched by the notebooks that she wrote based on her dad which she’s hoping to take to the Edinburgh Festival this summer.

But for the diary she was much more disciplined.

“They took a real gamble when they asked me as they didn’t really know if I could write,” said Julie.

Part factual record, part memoir and part reference work, A Working Diary covers everything from projects Julie was working on to events which occurred during the period.

She writes movingly about the Manchester Arena bombing - her husband Ian and daughter Martha were at the Ariana Grande concert.

“It was a pretty incredible thing to be here in this city to have that personal connection to what happened, but also to see how Manchester rose to it culturally,” she said. “It is a diary about art and culture and my life as somebody in the arts

“I also knew that if I did it properly it could be used as a resource by young people who wanted to go into the industry. I didn’t want it to be read like ‘look at me and my wonderful life’.

“I wanted to be honest and to celebrate the bonkersness of it all.”

Mother Courage, and Her Children, Royal Exchange Theatre, until Saturday, March 2. Details from 0161 833 9833 or