MOST actors don’t go the distance. Life becomes about failed auditions, an agent’s reluctance to take their calls. And even those who enjoy an early rocket to success often fizzle out unspectacularly, like a cheap firework.

Yet some, such as Louise McCarthy, defy the odds. McCarthy’s career crashed and burned after she enjoyed early success with Mamma Mia! in the West End, but she’s taken off again quite spectacularly. Right now, in a quiet corner of an Edinburgh bar, she is talking about her upcoming role in theatre musical comedy Bingo!, set in the eyes-down look-in working-class world of housey-housey.

And in the past two years, the Maryhill-born actress has joined BBC Scotland’s Scot Squad, enjoyed sell-out theatre success with double act The Dolls (she and Dolls partner Gayle Telfer-Stevens have also been nominated for Best UK Panto Double Act) and has attracted great crit for performances in the likes of John Byrne’s Cuttin’ A Rug.

McCarthy’s talent, for drama and comedy – and singing – suggests she’s the natural successor to female comedy greats Elaine C Smith and Dorothy Paul. But conversation reveals success isn’t all about talent. It’s about keeping on keeping on. The 33-year-old tells the definitive tale which highlights what separates the women from the girls.

Flash back a decade or so and McCarthy is living in London, having graduated from drama college there, been on the West End stage as Lisa in Mamma Mia! – and then, zilch. Seven years on, McCarthy admits she thought of walking away, deciding to join the police force. “I thought I’d like the drama of the job,” she says, with a wry grin. “But I’m too soft to be a cop. I’m totally gullible and I’d let people off with a wee warning.”

However, acting wasn’t keeping her alive. Like a character in a Human League song she found herself working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. But one night in Chiswick changed her career path. And her life.

“I was serving this crowd of guys who were having very expensive cocktails. As the night wore on they ran up a bill of over £200. And as I turned around to serve another customer, I clocked these guys running out of the bar. I panicked. I thought,‘Oh, sh**!’, because if the float was short we had to pay up out of our own wages. And I was skint as it was.

“I don’t know what came over me, but I ran after the bill dodgers. I didn’t have time to think and before I knew it I was sprinting down Chiswick High Street like a maddy in the direction of Turnham Green train station. The guys ran into the station and so did I. I leapt over turnstiles, the lot, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. These guys then got on a train and I actually jumped on behind them. Now, looking back I know this was a crazy thing to do; they could have been carrying knives, or just battered me. But at this point I didn’t know what to do.”

What McCarthy did in fact was turn into pure evil; think Rab C Nesbitt’s Ella Cotter, Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the Hulk’s wee sister, with a Maryhill accent. But angrier. “I screamed at the ringleader in the loudest, most threatening Glesga voice you have ever heard. And he must have thought I was pure mental, so he shoved his hands into his pockets and came out with a wad of money and just threw it at me. I picked it up and realised there was more than enough to settle the bill.”

This was a massive success story in itself; the money she’d rescued was more than a week’s wages. But the spin-off story was more important. “I was on the phone to my agent the next day, the usual enquiry to see if there was anything happening and told him about the great chase. Meanwhile, unknown to me, my agent had been trying to land me a part in the upcoming 2011 Citizens’ Theatre production of Men Should Weep – but the director, Graham McLaren, didn’t really fancy me [for the part of Jenny]. He had told my agent I wasn’t gritty enough for the role.” She adds, grinning: “But my agent then told Graham about the mad chase and said – ‘Is that gritty enough for you?’”

And it was. McCarthy’s true-life tale landed her the role in the tenement-of-despair drama. As a result, the cocktail bar was exited and the actress came back to Scotland to live, and give a riveting performance in Ena Lamont Stewart’s grim story. “This gave me the confidence to keep going,” she recalls.

The return to Scotland created another career-shifting moment. McCarthy appeared in a one-night theatre cabaret at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow and on the bill was a fellow struggling actress, Gayle Telfer-Stevens. The pair recognised each other’s singing talent. “We thought we were two Ethel Mermans.”) And they shared a real working-class humour. “When Gayle told a story about a lassie going out on the mad wine, getting aff wi’ a bloke and then waking up next to his pal I thought, ‘Ah pure know you.’”

There was a real connection but for the moment the pair were on separate career paths. McCarthy, her determination biting, bought a microphone, a CD compilation of backing tracks and the one-time West End star toured the Glasgow bars singing Sweet Caroline and Patsy Cline’s Crazy. And when she later met up again with Telfer-Stevens the pair decided to pool their talents and become a singing double act, working the bowling clubs and pubs.

Comedy was added when they realised this upped their fee by a couple of hundred a night and The Dolls – two cleaners Agnes and Sadie who loved to talk about sex and men – were born, going on to become a massive theatre and panto success.

But the new partners shared more than comedic values. They were as tough as the clubs they played. “We played these dingy clubs where we had to change in the kitchen,” says McCarthy with a shudder of recall. “We couldn’t even use the toilets in most of these gigs, they were so bad. We had to pee into paper cups.”

Telfer-Stevens meantime found television success with BBC Scotland’s River City. McCarthy stole the show in the the National Theatre of Scotland’s Yer Granny, working alongside Gregor Fisher. “I remember telling Gregor I did gigs at the weekends with my pal. He was taken aback but said: ‘You know, that is the best training you will get as an actress.’”

Fisher was on the money. As McCarthy’s experience grew, so too did her reputation. She found herself in Shakespeare (“I never imagined for a minute I’d be doing that”) and back at the Citz in John Byrne’s Cuttin’ A Rug, revealing a great gallusness.

Now, she’s set to star in the new Grid Iron and Stellar Quines co-production, Bingo!, playing Daniela McCann, a woman who works in a travel agents and goes to the bingo every Thursday with her mother and her friends.

“The story is her friends are saving up to go to Vegas for their pal Betty’s hen night. And Daniela is arranging the trip.” We learn Daniela has frittered the money away, but plans to win it back at the bingo. Will she land a full house – or will her life become an excavator-sized heap of rubble?

McCarthy knows the world of bingo all too well. “Yes, I’m a ‘dabber’,” she says, using a term that stems from the thick felt pens players use to cross off numbers. “My mum and gran go every Tuesday at 11am and when I’d come back from London on holidays from drama college, I’d go with them. It was a way to see the family and it was great to be part of this world, the bingo girls. For some people, it’s the only place they can interact. It’s a great shared experience.”

She adds; “They also do the Link Up, the [TV] system whereby you can see someone in Dundee win 20 grand – and it feeds the belief anything is possible. Some think bingo can be the answer to their financial problems, which of course is the theme of this play.”

The young Louise knew when her mum had had a win. “She’d give us a bung, and I’d be thinking to myself, ‘She’s totally won.’ And that’s the essence of the bingo community; you share what you have.”

Growing up, however, McCarthy and elder sister Jacqueline didn’t have to depend too often on dabbing spoils. “My dad was a mechanic and when I was about seven he was made redundant. There was a really difficult period before he landed a job on the rigs but since then it was steady. In fact, I had a really nice upbringing. I didn’t have the brain power of Jacqueline, who is now a doctor. I had to rely on other pursuits.”

At Notre Dame school, McCarthy “loved to wind up the teachers”. She was a daydreamer. “I talked a lot,” she grins. (And she still does.) She attended dance classes. She loved to perform. “I did a talent competition at high school and played the Little Mermaid. My mum made me a fish tail. It was brilliant. I wasn’t a natural singer but I watched Doris Day in Calamity Jane again and again and practised. And then I got to play her in a high school play. But I never thought I could do this for a living. Why would I?”

At 15, the teenager joined a drama club with friend Cathy. “To be honest, I hung around because there was a young guy there called Michael, who was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. He was playing Aladdin and my mission in life was to get aff wi’ Michael. I was pure daft about him.”

The relationship didn’t go anywhere, but her early (unrequited) love lasted long enough to commit McCarthy to the drama club, and instil the idea of going to drama college in London. “I didn’t think I was great at acting. But I wasn’t going to be defeated by the challenge of becoming good.”

Determination, it seems, is in her DNA. On leaving school with her Highers, McCarthy worked in a call centre to pay her drama college fees. “It was brutal,” she recalls with a wry smile. “People would swear at you and hang up. But we found laughs in the job, and it was a means to an end. And the thing is, I love to work. Whatever job I’m in I’ll do my best. And when I get an acting or singing job, I’ll win. I had to prove to myself I could do Shakespeare with Bard In the Botanics in Glasgow, in a demanding outdoor setting, battling against the elements. But it was great training and I made it.”

She reflects: “I don’t know if I’m ambitious but when I tick a box I’ve got to find something else to do. Is that drive? I do know I want to go to the next level. I’ve always got to prove myself.”

Is her personal life in such a positive place as the professional? “Oh, aye,” she says, with a beaming smile. “I got engaged on holiday last year (to musician Colin Cunningham) and after me and Gayle finish writing the script for the new Dolls show.” Staging this autumn, The Dolls Dragged Up will see them working in a drag bar, pretending to be men amidst lots of 1980s music. “I’ll be trying to arrange a wedding for next year,” she adds.

Before Bingo! rehearsals kicked off, the actors (including Barbara Rafferty, Jane McCarry, Wendy Seager, Darren Brownlie and Jo Freer) went along to a bingo hall research purposes. “I ended up playing 12 books at the one time. My eyes began to go blurry. It was nerve-wracking But I was determined to keep going.”

That sums up her character pretty neatly. “Oh, aye, never say can’t,” she says, grinning.

Bingo!, by Anita Vettesse and Johnny McKnight, previews at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh on March 6-7, opens at the same venue on March 8 then then tours Scotland until late April with dates in Stirling, Ayr, Musselburgh, Inverness and Glasgow. For venues, dates and ticket details visit