Sheridan Smith looks unrecognisable in the first image from The Moorside Project, a drama about kidnapped schoolgirl Shannon Matthews.

She stars as Julie Bushby, who was a friend of Shannon’s mother Karen and one of the women in the local community who led the search when the nine-year-old disappeared in 2008.

Sheridan Smith

Sheridan Smith stars in The Moorside Project (Steve Brown/ITV/BBC)

The BBC said the drama will  focus on the ”spirit and determination of the women at the forefront of the campaign to find Shannon” and the impact on the community when it was discovered that she had been held by her own uncle and mother.

Speaking about her role, Sheridan said: “The story is a fascinating mixture of what I thought I knew and a whole lot more that I had no idea about.

“The themes of faith and trust in human nature, and the way the whole community came together really inspired me.”

Julie Bushby

Sheridan plays Karen Matthew’s friend Julie Bushby, pictured centre outside Leeds Crown Court ( John Giles/PA)

Shannon disappeared from her home in Dewsbury Moor, West Yorkshire, in February 2008, sparking a massive police investigation.

She was discovered 24 days later at the home of her stepfather’s uncle, Michael Donovan, less than a mile away, where she had been imprisoned and drugged as part of a plan he and Karen hatched to claim a £50,000 reward offered by a national newspaper.

Both adults were jailed for eight years but were released after serving half their sentence, while her seven children were taken into care.

Karen Matthews

Karen Matthews was sentenced to eight years in prison (Anna Gowthorpe/PA)

Sheridan will be joined by Downton Abbey’s Siobhan Finneran as family liason officer Christine Freeman, while Sian Brooke, who most recently starred as the Ophelia to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, will take the role of friend and neighbour Natalie.

Game of Thrones actress Gemma Whelan will play Karen Matthews.

The Moorside Project comes from writer Neil McKay and producer Jeff Pope, the team behind ITV hit Appropriate Adult which looked at the story of serial killer Fred West from the point of view of trainee social worker Janet Leach.

Sheridan has reunited with Mrs Biggs and Cilla director Paul Whittington.