Soap star Emma Barton has ditched her ditzy on-screen alter image - taking to the stage as sexy moll Roxie in the musical Chicago.
The 31-year-old actress played nice-but-dim Honey for three years in EastEnders, tackling some of the most controversial storylines the BBC soap has ever produced.
Marrying Billy Mitchell in the long-running show, the couple were devastated when their first child Janet was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. An attack in the Queen Vic and being evicted from their home at Christmas didn’t help the Mitchells’ plight, and Emma’s character left the Square late last year.
But Honey’s departure has meant Emma can now swap her mumsy cardies for some fishnets and sexy high heels to have some fun as flirty Roxie.
Emma said: "After three years working in TV studios, it’s great being back on stage. This is the biggest theatre character I’ve played and my first leading lady and I’m having a ball. Roxie is a sexy part to play and the show itself is very classy.
"And after three years of being very lazy, it’s about time that I toned up. The dance routines are great and I’m getting so toned through doing them. The free fitness that comes with the part is great, but I’m already dreading the hot summer because I know it’s going to be a killer.
"I didn’t miss theatre while I was in EastEnders because I was so dedicated in my role as Honey. But it’s funny because when I found out I was leaving, it was the first thing I wanted to go back to rather than do other television parts. TV is great though and there are good things happening out there, but at this point in time this is what I want to do."
Already a star of more than 16 stage productions, Emma is no stranger to treading the boards. But nothing could have prepared her for the challenging EastEnders scripts involving her on-screen Down’s syndrome child, Janet.
Emma said: "I trained in musical theatre and when I left drama school I worked on a lot of productions like Greece and The Secret Garden before landing the part in EastEnders.
It was a real break from what I was doing and I learned another side to the acting industry.
"I learned from the best people in soap because it’s so fast and involves multiple camera work. You don’t get any rehearsal time - you just learn your script and then you’re off and running.
"Playing the scenes with little Janet was very emotional and difficult to do, but when you’re tackling any sort of topic like that where there’s a reason for doing it, then you have to embrace it.
"It was really rewarding raising awareness about Down’s syndrome. Before I played Honey I didn’t know a lot about the condition myself and I’ve learnt a lot.
"Before we acted out the scenes, we met real parents who had been through similar situations to Honey and Billy and it really helped us. Doing research is worthwhile if you want to pull out a good performance on something and relay it to the audience in a realistic way."
Talking through their scenes with parents of Down’s Syndrome children, Emma and co-star Perry Fenwick wanted to make sure their scenes were as realistic as possible.
When Honey found out that her daughter had the syndrome, the pair were inundated with letters from viewers who had been touched by Honey and Billy’s plight.
Despite not having any children herself, Emma’s emotions were taken for a roller-coaster ride all the way through the dramatic story line.
She said: "Honey had a really hard time of it - not wanting to bond with the baby and wanting her put up for adoption - but eventually she did manage to form a great relationship with Janet.
"It was hard at the time because I’d think, ’I wouldn’t have done that,’ but then you really don’t know until you’re in that situation yourself.
"Reading all those letters made me realise just how many people were affected by the scenes of Honey and Billy coping with the news of Janet’s condition. We got such a fantastic response to the story line and I’m sure a lot of that is down the to work we did with the Down’s Syndrome Association at the time.
"I’m patron of the Association and help them out as much as I can."
Now on the road with Chicago until November, Emma is due to perform at the Edinburgh Playhouse next month alongside singing legend Jimmy Osmond, who plays corrupt lawyer Billy Flynn.
More than 17 million people all over the world have watched the stage show of Chicago, which is the longest-running Broadway musical to play in London’s West End.
And Emma is loving every minute of her dance adventure. She said: "I don’t mind living out of a suitcase because I’m getting to see bits of the country I’ve never seen before. If pop stars can get through it then I’m sure I can too.
" Jimmy is the nicest man I’ve ever met and a proper superstar. I’ve made myself his surrogate little sister on this tour and and so he’s going to look after me. I’ve been joking that I can now officially say I’m part of the Osmond family.
"It’s a breath of fresh air going back to my musical routes - I’m just hoping I’m not going to be on my last legs when we finish dancing away at the end of the year."
But Emma still hasn’t ruled out a return to Britain’s grittiest soap as gullible but loveable Honey.
She said: "There’s no immediate plans for me to return to EastEnders and I’m off doing my own thing. But who knows? Honey could have walked from the Square for good or she could be back on screen two years down the line.
"I’d love to do something totally different on TV like a period drama, but if I did go back to soap acting, then it would have to be with EastEnders. I just couldn’t go anywhere else."