WENDI Peters may seem a surprise name to headline the much-awaited Wonderland, the new touring musical extravaganza with music by the legendary Frank Wildehorn.

Peters, after all, is best known to the world as Cilla Battersby, the Coronation Street scrounger and opportunist who brushed off life’s responsibilities as though they were light flakes of dandruff on the shoulder of her tasteless jacket.

Now however, the Bolton-born performer is set to play the pivotal role of Queen of Hearts in Wonderland, a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Does Peters have the vocal chops to win over the musical theatre audience when the show premiers in Edinburgh next week? There’s no doubt the lady has great comic timing, and solid dramatic delivery, as evidenced in four years of appearances in the television soap.

The producers of Wonderland clearly anticipated critics’ sceptical eyes and staged a special performance in Manchester recently, not only to showcase the New Yorker composer's talents (his other work includes Whitney Houston’s Where Do Broken Hearts Go and This Is The Moment, from Jekyll and Hyde) but to show what Wendi Peters is capable of.

It was a huge success. Not only did Wildehorn’s new Wonderland songs such as Off With Their Heads hit home, Peters proved she could more than hold a stage alongside musical theatre star Dave Willetts, who plays White Rabbit.

“It was a scary moment,” says Peters of the showcase night, in a refined accent that’s far removed from her original Bolton. “If someone had said to me at one stage I’d be singing on stage with a Broadway composer I’d have said ‘You’re kidding me on!’ But in recent years I have worked on quite a few musicals. And it’s where my roots are. I love musicals as much as I loved playing roles such as Cilla in Coronation Street.”

Peters has starred in Guys n’ Dolls and White Christmas over the years, but the powerful voice apart, she brings a character performance to each song, able to find the comedy in a line others wouldn’t notice.

It’s perhaps no surprise to learn Peters studied some of the legends of British film in a bid to develop her career. “I’d watch old films starring the likes of Peggy Mount, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Thora Hird and Dora Bryan,” she recalls. “These people all helped me understand how to hint at comedic undercurrent.”

Peters was determined to make it is a musical theatre star from an early age, but reveals her initial attempts to enter London drama college, as a 16 year-old, tested her resolve to the limit.

“I sang Everything’s Coming Up Roses from Gypsy at the audition and the audition panel told me I was fabulous. I thought ‘I’m in!’ But then I got called before the headmistress and she basically told me, in no polite terms, as she sat eating chocolate digestive biscuits, that I should come back the following year when I had lost a bit of weight.”

The teenager cried for two days, then pulled herself together and applied to the London Studio Centre. Her singing and acting talent was recognised but again Peters was hit with a serious note of concern. “I was told then I wouldn’t come into my own in the business until I was forty. They said I was different from the rest of the girls. I was slightly larger, more quirky. And I thought it was terrible thing to say to someone at that age.

“But in retrospect, the drama teacher was just about right. I went on to work in the business, I did lots of quirky teenage roles, but I didn’t get Corrie until I was thirty-five.”

Peters had played the likes of Jan in Grease and the lead in Red Riding Hood, but then came the point she was too old to play teenagers, yet too young to play the character mums. Her career was at a crossroad. Peters decided to stop taking the smaller theatre roles, believing she was doomed to play them forever.

“I made a conscious decision not to go up for them and as a result I probably put myself out of work for two or three years. But during that time I did all the other jobs in theatre: followspot, dressing, the whole thing, and you learn so much from doing that. I got to watch the likes of Imelda Staunton at work. That was amazing.”

She adds, in knowing voice: “You also come across the actors who have no respect for anyone else in theatre, and you learn never to behave like that.”

Peters who is married to actor Kenny Linden (their 16 year-old daughter Gracie is studying musical theatre), hung on for the character roles she craved and they began to appear, such as ITV drama Bad Girls, in 2003. “My daughter was about four months old when I filmed it and then there was two years of nothing. But I got to spend time with my daughter, and the week she went to nursery I landed Coronation Street.”

The actress, who recently appeared in in panto in Sheffield, playing an Ivana Trump-like character, was a huge success on the Street yet she knew when she had to move on. “I loved it, and the people there, but four years was enough. I had already been persuaded to stay on longer, and had had enough time to create a character.”

The character, all push-up bra and downtrodden expression, was an awful yet likeable woman. She may have conned and cheated but Peters made her Cilla human, always vulnerable. And she hopes her Queen of Hearts will feature something of the Cilla, in that she’s a monster, but one with whom we have some sympathy.

“She says in one line ‘Off with their heads!’ and then adds, ‘I’m never all quite there.’ So she’ll be funny, I hope. And just how ‘not all quite there’ she is we’ll find out.”

Now almost fifty, Peters believes good things come to those who wait, but during the waiting people should work their backsides off.

“Frank Wildehorn says he’s still a student of musical theatre and I agree with that notion. You have to keep on learning, but for me it’s not a chore because from the age of ten I knew this was the life for me. I was focused. I’d sit in my bedroom listening to musical theatre songs and dreaming.”

She adds, laughing: “I didn’t go out much as a child, but I’m making up for it now.”

•Wonderland is at Edinburgh Playhouse, January 20-28, His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen, May 16 -20 and King’s Theatre Glasgow, July 3-8.