When Melissa Johns was eight years old she decided she’d like to be in the annual Ledbury panto put on by Ledbury Amateur Dramatic Society.

That was the year, it turned out, that everyone else had the same idea and, after the principal roles had been cast, Melissa’s name, with others who had auditioned, went into a hat.

“They couldn’t say ‘yes’ to everyone,” she recalls.

Happily she won a ‘golden ticket’ and after her first taste of performing on stage, there was no going back.

“That was when this life of being in front of people and entertaining them began,” says Melissa, who has appeared in Coronation Street (no audition, but more of that later) and, most recently, was seen on our screens in the BBC’s prime time drama Life, alongside Alison Steadman, Adrian Lester and Victoria Hamilton.

“I carried on doing every panto at LADS until I was 15 or 16, and one of the biggest things when I was there was being cast in a play called Through the Dark Clouds Shining by Barbara Jones.”

The theatre was not something that was in her family’s blood, she reveals. “I am from a working class family, and my dad’s a Romany gypsy – we didn’t go to the theatre, we didn’t have books and I think that’s quite reflective of a small town working class family. The arts aren’t necessarily on our agenda, but Barbara Jones auditioned me and I got the part of Carol, an evacuee. I went to her house to audition with a few other children and then she called my mum and said she’d love to give me a part.

“I remember there was a review in the Ledbury reporter that said ‘Melissa Johns is a name to watch out for in the future’. I couldn’t believe someone had said that about me.

“Barbara continued, throughout the years, to take me to Malvern, The Courtyard, The Market Theatre to see every type of live show. She took me to dramatic shows, movement shows, physical theatre shows.

“Without her, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had. It was a mix of my name being drawn out of the hat and wonderful Barbara Jones. She opened my eyes to the world of performing arts.”

“I can’t ever remember making the decision that I was going to drama school. I can’t even remember anyone asking me what I was going to do. I was just going to go to drama school. In my head, I didn’t see any barrier. I didn’t see my disability, didn’t see my gender, didn’t see my working class roots. It was probably my naivete that got me to where I wanted to go. I got into drama school, East 15 Acting School, the first year I auditioned, which doesn’t happen too often.

“I had the best three years,” she says, “and then continued to live in London for the next seven years.” But, she explains, it dawned on her that London was where she was because that’s “where the world tells you you should be, and I was giving the city everything I had – blood, sweat, tears and energy – but getting nothing back.

“I had a few tv jobs but nothing that was going to progress my career. I realised that my life was never going to change if I didn’t do something about it.”

She admits that it was scary, making the decision to move from a city where she was comfortable “How was I going to make new friends and a new life in a new city?’ and I was afraid that people would think I’d failed by leaving London.”

Melissa had been to both Liverpool and Manchester, got down to the last two for a part in Hollyoaks and done some workshops with Coronation Street. Manchester won out and, says Melissa, “I love it up here and there’s something that feels a bit more like Herefordshire – I felt a bit closer to home.”

“There were dark times when I thought ‘this isn’t going to be easy’ and have I done the right thing?

“But, as quickly as that thought came in, just as quickly my life changed. I got more established in some of the theatres by having meetings with people.”

Then came a call from Corrie.

“I’d come up to Coronation Street a couple of time as one of 10 disabled actors (Melissa was born without her right forearm and hand) to be part of a workshop for directors to meet new disabled talent, so I’d let them know I was moving to Manchester.

“I was in LA with my little brother Jason, and it was three in the morning when my agent called, having forgotten I was in LA. “I’ve got some news for you. You’ve been cast in Coronation Street.”

“But I haven’t even auditioned,” I said. “They didn’t want you to audition for it, they just want to give you the role (Melissa played Imogen Pascoe for two years).”

For Melissa it was a brilliant opportunity in more ways than one. “It was a wonderful experience and it was also enough to elevate me and my voice and give me a platform to say what I wanted to say in terms of the arts and disability.

Above all, what she wants “is for it (disability) to be part of life and for us not to be there to make someone else feel better.

“Quite a lot of the time I talk about representation. Now I talk about truthful representation, but nothing I ever do – Melissa is the co-founder of Triple C, a collective of disabled and non-disabled creatives, focused on changing access to the arts for everyone with a disability and working towards better representation of artists/performers with disabilities in the industry – is lecturing. “It’s about us having a really positive conversation, saying that there is now an opportunity to elevate the voices of disabled people. Disability is huge – but you only have to have a willingness to learn.

“As far as Life goes, Mike Bartlett did it perfectly. He put me in a position where I could work with him on certain aspects of Hannah’s storyline.”

When we first meet Hannah she is pregnant following a one-night stand and introducing her fiancé to ‘the father of our baby’ – it’s complicated!

“She was a joy to play,” says Melissa.

And, as a ‘very, very big Gavin and Stacey fan’, working with Alison Steadman was one of the highlights of last year’s shoot. “I think she’s phenomenal. There were times when I was doing things with her and I couldn’t quite believe I was on a set starring beside Alison Steadman. I couldn’t quite think how this had happened to a girl from Ledbury. It was an incredible cast and I am one very thankful girl.”

When we speak at the beginning of October, Melissa has been working on her autobiographical one-woman show Snatched, created in collaboration with The Lowry in Manchester, and can’t quite believe that in the old normal world, she would have been on the brink of opening.

“Things were going a bit crazy, but we were sure the show would go on. I popped out for some dinner and my mum rang and asked if I’d seen that they were closing all the theatres.

“They were able to stay open for people to finish things off, so we did the show for an audience of eight staff members before the doors finally closed.”

The show, “a real 90s throwback”, delves into what life was like growing up with a disability, about the strain of hiding it to ‘protect’ others – “if I didn’t want anyone to know, they didn’t. I was a master of manipulation” – and about the body dysmorphia that resulted and - ‘the cherry on the cake’ she says ironically - what happened when her iCloud was hacked and intimate photographs made her public property.

Snatched is her vehicle for taking control, and it’s clear talking to Melissa that she’s in the driving seat of her own life.

As she says, the world has had an opinion about her body for a long time, the world has taken her story and told it, so “it’s my right to take it back”.