Natalie Imbruglia is interviewed by James Rampton about her upcoming UK theatre tour...
Natalie Imbruglia has already had hugely successful careers as a pop star, and a film and TV actress. As if that wasn’t enough, she is now showing the world she has yet another string to her bow. She is making her British stage debut in a touring production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do For Love, which comes to The Churchill Theatre in Bromley from Monday 9th to Saturday 14th June - and she couldn’t be more excited about the prospect.
After a long day of rehearsals, Natalie meets me for supper in a private members’ club near her West London home. But the arduousness of her day does not show. A woman who is even more beautiful in person than in photographs, she looks fresh and flawless. She has a gamine charm all of her own - it is no surprise to learn that she was ranked number six in a 2004 poll of the 100 most naturally beautiful women ever.
Wispy hair frames her gorgeous features, which burst into life when she starts to discuss how thrilled she is to be starring opposite Claire Price, Edward Bennett and Simon Gregor in Things We Do For Love. “I have to keep pinching myself,” Natalie exclaims to me over her plate of sea bream and green beans. “How did I end up here? I can’t tell you how excited I am about it!”
In Things We Do For Love, Natalie plays Nikki, a trusting, slightly naive, but unremittingly positive woman who comes with her fiance Hamish to live in the flat above her old school friend Barbara. Hamish and Barbara are polar opposites and really do not hit it off. But their relationship soon develops in the most unexpected way ...
The play shows the U.K.’s greatest living playwright at the peak of his art. Ayckbourn employs his trademark dazzling sense of humour and intellectual ingenuity to underline the often unexpected things we do for love.
The critics have been united in acclaiming the work. The Mail on Sunday called it,
“Gloriously entertaining.” The Sunday Times commented that, “This is Alan Ayckbourn’s 52nd full-length play and one of his best… Uproariously funny.” The News of the World said that the play, “Will jar both your funny bone and your heart.” Meanwhile, The Times observed that, “It is sharp and it is gorgeously funny.”
The actress landed the role in the play, which opens at the Theatre Royal in Bath on 16 April before touring the country, in a decidedly unconventional manner. Natalie had been intensively studying acting for two and a half years in Los Angeles when she got the call to audition for the role of Nikki.
The 39-year-old Australian, who first made her name in this country as a teenage star in Neighbours, takes up the story. “I was in LA, so it had to do the audition by Skype – very modern! When Laurence [Boswell, the director] offered me the role, I was like, ‘Really? How amazing! You actually want me to do it – I wasn’t expecting that!’”
This is all new to Natalie. All the same, the exceptionally versatile and gifted performer, who had a global hit single with Torn, has been relishing the rehearsal process. “Wow, I’m just loving the rehearsals. It’s been so fulfilling to learn about acting. There’s so much I didn’t know about it. But it’s brought me great joy.”
With admirable modesty, Natalie adds that, “I’m definitely the rookie in this company. I’m sure the other actors were wondering how it was going to be to have a singer join them. I’m sure they had certain preconceived ideas about how I could be. So it’s really nice that we are getting on so well. They can see that I’m a team player. They’re all brilliant – they’re such professionals. It’s great to work with very experienced actors who really know what they’re doing. In the rehearsal room, I’m like a sponge.”
An artist with a nice line in self-deprecation, Natalie continues that, “I think the other actors are relieved that I haven’t turned up with a massive entourage. I don’t like a fanfare. There’s no need for that. I’ve never had an entourage. I’ve never needed that kind of craziness.”
Natalie has particular enjoyed working with Laurence, who has been the Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio since 2011 and whose West End credits include Ben Elton’s Popcorn, Madonna in Up for Grabs, Eddie Izzard in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, which received a Tony Award nomination for Best Director following at Broadway transfer and Matt Damon and Jake Gyllenhaal in This Is Our Youth.
“I can’t say enough great things about Laurence,” declares Natalie, whose album, Left of the Middle, sold more than 6 million copies worldwide and won her three Grammy nominations and two Brit Awards,. “He’s been brilliant. He’s incredibly thorough. His ability to break down a text and give you so much food for thought to take home is such a blessing. He is a fantastic and generous director.”
Natalie, who co-starred in the 2003 film Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson and made her leading actress debut in the 2009 movie, Closed for Winter, has also revelled in the fact that Things We Do For Love is a comedy. “When people laugh in the rehearsal room, it feels great. Even though people say it’s more difficult to do humour, it’s nice that my first-ever play is a comedy.
"Everyone else in the cast is so ridiculously funny that I’m already excited about hearing the audience laugh with them and being part of that. There’s nothing wrong with doing a very serious play, but I’m chuffed that my first play is a comedy. I love that audience interaction.”
The actress, who grew up in Australia and remains very close to her parents and three sisters, really understood her character. “I very much identify with Nikki. She’s an optimist and a dreamer – and there is an element of that in me. There are parts of me that have Nikki’s sensibility. It’s always useful to relate a character back to yourself.
“Nikki always sees the best in people. At the start of the play, she wants to go back to her roots and to stay with her school friend. She wants return to a place that is all warm and fuzzy. She is eager to start over and is very excited about introducing her new man to her best friend from school. She’s very sentimental. She believes in love.”
Natalie, who has an eagerly anticipated album of covers coming out in the autumn, carries on that, “This play is all about love and the mad places it takes you in your life. It shows that love doesn’t always come in the packages you expect and the thing that makes you happy may be completely different from the idea you originally had.
"Ayckbourn’s genius is that we all can relate to that. If we’re not going through it ourselves, we know someone who is. Audiences will really connect with these characters.”
The actress, who was a very popular judge on the Australian version of The X Factor, goes on to praise the writer routinely described as our finest living playwright. “In an Ayckbourn script, nothing is thrown away. Laurence is always pointing things out and saying, ‘There’s something in that. Let’s not discard that’.
“Ayckbourn’s observations about human behaviour make the play so relatable. He’s written so many great plays, it’s unbelievable – he is a phenomenon. I’m in awe of him. I’d love to meet him and thank him. That would mean a lot to me. But I don’t want to think about it – I’d be too scared!”
Despite being a globally renowned singer, Natalie admits that she still falls prey to butterflies before a show. “Nerves never go away. Part of being a performer is those insecurities. That’s true of even the most incredible talented people. I’ve read that before every job, Meryl Streep is terrified. If you don’t feel that, you become arrogant.
"The vulnerability of an artist drives them to better themselves and pushes them to work harder. I’ve set myself a big challenge here. But I like to do that. Why not? Dare to fail.”
Natalie’s particularly excited about the tour schedule for Things We Do For Love. “When I used to tour as a singer, I did the classic thing of going to my hotel room with a lemon tea and resting my vocal cords while the band went out to look around a new city. I never got to see anywhere. So I’m really excited have the opportunity to see all these places now. I’m especially looking forward to visiting Bromley as part of this tour."
In spite of her worldwide celebrity, Natalie remains appealingly down to earth. “Maybe some people have the idea that my life is very glamorous, but I love a night in watching a movie in my daggy old tracksuit. Yes, I can frock up and look glamorous if I have to.
“But that’s just one aspect of my work. People don’t have access to all of my life when all they see is photos of me. Some people have a glamorous life all the time, but not me. I’m an Aussie from a small town. You can take the girl out of Australia, but you can’t take Australia out of the girl. We don’t like pretention in Australia!”
She is equally unpretentious when it comes to making grand plans for the future. “I don’t have a set master plan,” Natalie reflects. “As the years go by, I’m more interested in the balance between work and life. I like the simple things in life – I’m not a driven as I was. I like to stay in the moment and take one thing at a time.
“It’s so wonderful not to care that much about the future. More and more for me, it’s about being in the present and not focusing on future events which take you out of enjoying the now. Follow your joy. At the moment for me, that joy is Alan Ayckbourn. I don’t want to put anything else in my head right now. I only have eyes for Things We Do For Love.”
Natalie proceeds to look back on her immensely successful career. “I’ve had a very blessed life. It’s humbling. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel as ambitious as I once was. Increasingly for me, it’s about being peaceful and not just getting on the hamster wheel and running for no reason. Then you never appreciate where you are now.”
She closes by reflecting on how grateful and how happy she is to be starring in Things We Do For Love. Ever self-effacing, Natalie concludes that, “I don’t quite know how I got this job, but I’m going to have a great time regardless. It’s wonderful to be in this company. I feel very privileged.
“I’m having an absolute ball in rehearsals, and I’m so looking forward to performing the play in front of an audience. I just can’t wait!"
And neither can we!
Click here to book tickets.