Growing up in Dundee, Russell went on to attend the Sylvia Young Theatre School, one of the country’s leading performing arts schools for school-age children. Pursuing a career in the theatre, Russell went on to appear as Young Sally in Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1987 and Martin Guerre at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1988. She then joined the company of Les Miserables at the Palace Theatre, understudying the roles of Fantine and Eponine, before taking over the role of Fantine. In the 1990s, she also joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, starring in productions of The Beggar’s Opera and Wildest Dreams, both staged at the Barbican.
Her West End breakthrough came in 2005, when she received an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical as Sally Brown in Guys and Dolls. But, Russell won her first Olivier in 2007, taking the award for best actress in a musical for her performance as Dot in Sunday in the Park with George. She later reprised the role of Dot on Broadway in the musical’s limited four-month engagement, with Russell receiving a Tony Award nomination.
Russell’s considered to be one of the finest West End actresses working. Her theatre CV includes Amy's View alongside Felicity Kendal and two productions of Into the Woods, playing Cinderella at the Donmar and the Baker’s Wife at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. She’s also given an Olivier Award-nominated performance as Mary in Merrily We Roll Along, originally revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory and later transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre. In recent years, she’s starred in Fun Home at the Young Vic, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier and played Penelope Pennywise in Urinetown.
As well as a glittering theatrical career, Russell is no stranger to the small screen either. She’s perhaps best known for taking over the role of Michelle Fowler in BBC’s Eastenders from 2016 to 2018, but she’s also had a leading role in the BBC’s nineties comedy On the Up, a British farce written by Good Life writer Bob Larbey. In summer 2021, she played Edith Piaf in Piaf at Nottingham Playhouse.