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Natalie Imbruglia reflects on her stage debut in Things We Do For Love

Singer and actress Natalie Imbruglia is bound for Newcastle's Theatre Royal in an Alan Ayckbourn black comedy

Natalie Imbruglia as Nikki in Things We Do For Love
Natalie Imbruglia as Nikki in Things We Do For Love

You might remember her from Neighbours (as Beth Brennan in the Aussie soap) and you might be acquainted with the songs (the single Torn was an international chart-topper) and I’m thinking, just my luck to be interviewing the “sixth most naturally beautiful woman of all time” (according to a dodgy poll in 2004) on the telephone.

But Natalie Imbruglia is not out to promote any of the above and certainly not the latter.

No, we are to talk about Alan Ayckbourn, the prolific English playwright who is reputed to be the second most frequently staged of all time.

This might be a dodgy poll too but few would dispute the assertion that Shakespeare sits at the top.

(And you want to know who topped the other one, don’t you? Just for the record, and according to Wikipedia, it was Audrey Hepburn.)

Natalie is one of a cast of four in the Ayckbourn play Things We Do For Love which is coming to the Theatre Royal next week.

She plays Nikki who, with her fiancé Hamish, moves in to the London home of an old schoolfriend, Barbara, who is prim and extremely neat. The fourth character is the lodger, Gilbert, who lives downstairs.

Mostly good reviews have followed the play on tour since it opened at Bath Theatre Royal at Easter, which is perhaps why Natalie has agreed to do her first interviews.

“It has been such a great experience,” she tells me.

“It is such a well-written play and I think Laurence (Boswell) has done a fantastic job directing it. We’ve just had incredible feedback. People are laughing all the way through... and crying.”

People always think of comedy when they think of Ayckbourn which is one reason his plays are regularly performed by amateur companies.

But this play, first performed in 1997, has been described by the respected national critic Charles Spencer as “painfully funny, technically ingenious and viciously physical”. He reckons it’s Ayckbourn’s finest play.

Natalie is candid enough to admit that Ayckbourn had been a bit of a closed book to her.

“I didn’t know much about him and I haven’t seen many of his plays, to be honest. So I did my research and found that he’s an extraordinary man.

“It was an honour to have him come to the matinee in Richmond. That was just fantastic. He has produced so much material – over 70 plays.”

Natalie also confirms that in this play she is making her stage debut, even though she has performed on television and in films (she appeared alongside Rowan Atkinson in Bond spoof Johnny English).

It’s another string to her bow that she’s been determined to acquire.

“I’ve been studying with Ivana Chubbuck in Los Angeles. She wrote a book called The Power of the Actor and has worked with a lot of actors (including Brad Pitt, Halle Berry and Jessica Biel).

“I went to see some plays that I had to learn with other actors and then we had to perform them.

“It was incredible training and probably gave me the confidence to do this. The audition came up and I felt drawn to the play. I loved the character and I loved the story.

“But I didn’t expect to get the job. I thought the audition would be good experience. When I was offered it I thought: Oh my God, I’ve got it!

“That gave me the confidence to feel I was ready to do it and that the training in LA had been worthwhile.”

She tells me a bit about Nikki, saying: “She has been in a destructive relationship in the past but got out of it. Now she has a new fiancé and they are renting a flat owned by Barbara, an old friend from university who she looks up to.

“This new guy of hers is the dream deal... or so she thinks. So it’s all about love and the things it can do.”

It isn’t giving too much away to say that Nikki’s faith in those she loves and trusts is sorely challenged in the play. Lust, with all its destructive properties, plays as big a part as love. I wonder if Nikki isn’t, in fact, the victim of the piece.

“I don’t play her as a victim,” says Natalie, a little indignantly. “I don’t see her in that way at all, although I don’t want to give the plot away.

“I think she’s an optimist. I looked for the things I could relate to in her. I think she believes in love and she’s a dreamer. She sees the best in people, I think.”

Earlier I spoke to Edward Bennett, the actor who plays Hamish, and he said of Natalie: “She’s been confident enough to ask questions all the way along. She has toured with her music but this is a very different kind of thing.

“She has been nothing short of fantastic really because this is a big undertaking. It is amazing that she has chosen this kind of play but she has been very honest with everyone and she has worked hard and done extremely well.

“She’s a gritty, hard-nosed Aussie who just gets on with it.

“I suppose the equivalent for me would be going on the road with a load of songs and then having to stand in a football stadium and sing them in front of 30-40,000 people. Imagine the terror of that!”

Squaring the sixth most naturally beautiful woman of all time with Ed’s description of his co-star as a gritty, hard-nosed Aussie gives me some idea why Natalie Imbruglia was given the part by Laurence Boswell in this Ayckbourn revival.

She’s a potential box office banker who’s not likely to let anybody down.

Natalie, for her part, confesses that she was “terrified” before the opening night.

“I remember when we were doing the technical rehearsal before the premiere in Bath saying to Ed, ‘I can’t imagine getting to the end of this day and being at the end of the show’.”

Telling herself it was a challenge, she found herself buoyed by the laughter and the applause.

She says she drew on her experiences as a young dancer. “I danced from the ages of five to 16.”

It taught her about the discipline necessary to perform and about the repetition involved in many types of physical expression.

She says she has come to love the medium of theatre. “There’s the chance to make a powerful statement. Some people might say it means you’re commited to doing the same thing over and over again but I would say that’s how you hone your skill.

“Physically, of course, it can be exhausting. Half way through this tour I feel as if my body is still trying to catch up.”

I wonder what she plans to do next, after this tour. She replies: “I like to live in the moment. I’m a current person. I like expressing myself through music and acting and they are probably my two great passions. If I’m doing one of those two things, I’m happy.

“I feel very grateful to be working. I know there can always be times when there isn’t work.

“I have a temporary base in Los Angeles and if a job came up there with a character that I liked, I’d go back for that. I’m a bit of a Gypsy in that sense.

“But I’m living in London now. I love England.”

Except next week she will be in Newcastle. Things We Do For Love is at the Theatre Royal from June 16-21. Tickets from the box office on 08448 112121 or online via www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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