A girls' night out with ex-EastEnder Nat

LUCY Speed, the actress who made her name in EastEnders as the ill-fated Natalie, has gone AWOL. The appointed hour for our chat comes and goes. Fifteen minutes later she's tracked down to her Darlington guest house.

LUCY Speed, the actress who made her name in EastEnders as the ill-fated Natalie, has gone AWOL. The appointed hour for our chat comes and goes. Fifteen minutes later she's tracked down to her Darlington guest house.

All fulsome apologies, she explains she's been having a lie-down and getting mentally prepared for the teatime matinee, which will be followed in quick succession by the evening show. She lost track of time. “The sun and the heat has just knocked me out.”

It's only just over an hour to curtain-up, but in real trooper fashion she declines the offer to reschedule the chat for another day. The Civic Theatre is only five minutes up the road, she assures.

Girls' Night, an upbeat play with plenty of musical interlaced with bittersweet moments of reflection, follows a handful of female friends, now in their 40s, as they relive the past during a night out at a karaoke club. It co-stars Gwyneth Strong - well-known as Rodney's long-suffering wife Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses.

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Lucy's involvement breaks new ground for her. She did ballet and tap as a child, but singing onstage is something of a novelty. She sings along with the girls, but is happy not to have any solo karaoke spots.

“My forte is more on the dance side,” she laughs. “I also don't sing on my own because I'm an angel and I'm dead! I narrate the whole thing. I'm their friend who died at 17 and they're all about to deliberate my daughter, who's now 22 and engaged.

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“I'm always with them, watching them, and I've been looking forward to this night out as well, but obviously none of them can see me. So I talk with audience and give the backstory of everybody.

“The audience participate because they all get up and sing and dance. It's a strange mix, I suppose, but it works. It's the first time I've really broken that fourth wall and done a play with music in it. I've only ever done straight plays.

“I do dance like a mad thing and support the girls with vigour. It's important that my character pushes that bit along for the audience - a bit of a cheerleader, I suppose. Nobody else is going to get up if I'm not completely uninhibited.”

Girls Night is by Louise Roche. One night, four years ago, the young mum went to a Shane Richie musical. She saw the audience was mostly women and thought “I could write a show that lots of women will enjoy watching.”

She created the comedy musical and staged it with some of her friends at the community theatre in Milton Keynes. Her mum sorted out the costumes. The run was a sell-out.

Buoyed by its success, she used her £10,000 life savings to present a one-off Girls Night show at Milton Keynes Theatre. All 1,400 seats were sold and she made a £10,000 profit. Since 2003, Girls Night has enjoyed two successful national tours.

This tour started at its spiritual home in Milton Keynes at the beginning of May and is skipping across England, as well as visiting Glasgow and Derry.

Lucy says it's been incredible to witness 1,500 people on their feet, singing away at the top of their voices and waving their hands in the air. Audiences have been mainly female, “but men who are brave enough to come to something with that title just adore it and have a great time.

“In fact, we prefer it when there are men in the audience because it makes it a slightly tamer show; because when it is all-women and they're not being watched by any men they're wild!”

Does the story give men a bad time?

“No, I don't think so. There aren't any jokes that you wouldn't make with your partner yourself or that men haven't heard. There's nothing insulting; no deeply-excluding jokes.

“Although it deals with 'women's issues', by the time we get to a certain age it's not a case of separate men's and women's issues, it's just issues of getting older. It's all about life. There are these poignant moments, because that's what happens in life.”

Lucy, 30 in two months, laughs about playing a teenager, “which is a bit ambitious, but hopefully you can get away with it in the theatre.

“She's a bit of an acerbic, witty angel. I suppose she's got the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that brings, but I'm still trying to play her as a slightly stroppy 17-year-old. She's not generally sentimental.

“It's quite a funny contrast: she's still 17 and they're in their 40s, but they're not any different. You don't really grow up; you feel and think the same - though life has happened; you've had kids and things like that. It's only that you look different that makes it appear things are different, I suppose.”

The three-month tour involves moving from town to town for a five- or six-day stay. There are a couple of free weeks in the schedule, but often it's a case of finishing in one theatre on a Saturday night and opening somewhere new on Monday.

“You get a bit homesick, but the girls are great fun and we're all in the same boat. It's one of those shows where it doesn't matter how tired you are or how homesick you are, once you get into it you forget. I think if we were doing King Lear or something, it would be different!”

Lucy lives in the Surrey countryside, where she has to leave behind her two dogs, a parrot and a horse.

Do they miss her?

“Oh, gosh, that's the thing. My horse, Twix, is a completely soppy mare. She's waiting at the gate for me at half-past four every day, when she's out in the field. We've got a whole group of carers that play that role.

“With my dogs, the boy, Barthez, is fine. He just gets on with it. But his sister Daisy (a Jack Russell cross) is just obsessed with me and gets really jumpy and upset. She's stuck to my thigh all the time, so when I'm not there she misses me. She does love cuddles.”

Barthez is named after the former Manchester United footballer. “He's all black with white paws, and looked like he had gloves on, like goalie gloves. And Fabien Barthez was the first goalkeeper that came to mind.”

Parrot Warren is apparently a bit of a misogynist “and really likes me, but gets cross with me and ignores me. It's a strange life. But sometimes touring's a bit of a break for me from being at home”.

The final week is in Cornwall. “That's going to be great - like a working holiday.”

She breaks off to say goodbye to her “lovely landlady, who seems to have looked after every actor who's ever come through Darlington” - including, coincidentally, Scarlett Johnson, who was Vicki Fowler in EastEnders from 2003-2004. There's a little note from her in the visitors' book.

“We've been staying in hotels, but you get to the point where you just think I want to go to someone's home, and just be 'at home'. You need that. It's like being a teenager again; she's ever so motherly. That's another career option. I'd love to do that: be a landlady to travelling players!”

This particular guest house is right by a town centre cattle market, “which I didn't realise; woke up on Thursday morning to the sound of mooing. It was like Jurassic Park!”

LUCY Speed took a deep breath a couple of years ago and left EastEnders for the second time - something most of us would term a brave decision.

But she has no regrets. Life has variety and she's picked up many roles, including parts in Holby City, The Bill, Celebrity Ready, Steady, Cook, and Celebrity Weakest Link.

She had made her EastEnders bow in 1994, at the age of 17. Her character, Natalie Price, was the best friend of fiery Bianca Jackson. Natalie had an affair with Bianca's boyfriend, the gormless Ricky Butcher, and was driven out of Walford when Bianca learned of the betrayal.

Lucy admits 17 was quite a tender age at which to jump into the mad world of the soaps, where every dramatic storyline is dissected in the media, and it took its toll.

“It wasn't really the tabloids, just everyday life. You're 18 and you want to go and have your first pint; there's no slipping into a club without your ID. You consider yourself still a child, really, but you're expected to be able to command a conversation. Everything was happening at once - your body and everything.

“Luckily, I'd been in the business for such a long time before then. I knew what the business was about; it wasn't about being famous. I left because of it. I just wanted to act; I didn't think being famous was really my bag.

“But I learned to appreciate it as I got older, really. I think those people who do do it - the huge stars; the young ones - are incredible.”

Lucy left Albert Square in 1995, finding considerable acting work. She played Nell Gwyn in the film England, My England, for instance. TV parts included Dangerfield, Men Behaving Badly and Casualty.

Then, in 1999, she returned to EastEnders.

“I'd been speaking to Ross Kemp (who plays Grant Mitchell) and he said 'Would you ever come back?' 'Yeah, probably.' And within about a week he'd spoken to somebody, they rang me, and I thought 'You know what? Why not?' I'd got my first flat and I really liked the idea. I went back and was really happy there; it wasn't like the first time at all.”

Four more years' life experience equipped her to handle the pressures.

“They maintained her as what I always wanted her to be: a normal person,” she says of Natalie. “She always was ordinary, and I liked that, though it's quite difficult being normal! You can't be too extreme. We aren't really too extreme in real life.”

Mind you, the storylines represented something of an emotional rollercoaster. Natalie fixed her broken friendship with Bianca and married the hapless Barry Evans. However, she still carried a torch for Ricky Butcher and her marriage collapsed.

Nat was then involved in the bringing to justice of the scheming Janine, who had killed Barry. But the realisation that her new love, the swindling Paul Trueman, was Janine's accomplice proved the final straw and Natalie decided to make a fresh start away from the square.

Leaving for the second time was again Lucy's decision, “and I think it was one they thought was a good idea. The storyline had played out; everybody my character was involved with had left or been killed off, and it was a time in my life when I thought 'I'm going to be 30 soon. You're going to be here forever if you don't make a move.'”

Was it frightening to go?

“Yes, it was scary, but I knew what was waiting for me. I had the experience. I knew what it was like to be a jobbing actress, and that's always what I've considered myself to be. So I was looking forward to going back to that: looking forward to having months of no work and the highs of getting some work. It was pretty much my last chance of doing that.”

I can't remember Natalie's farewell . . .

“I left in a very, very unimpressive way,” she chuckles. “I just went off in a car with my son, to about three streets away - where we moved to in Walford High Street. Where we still are!

“It was like 'Oh, you've got to have a cheery goodbye with Pat', but I said 'No I don't, because I only lived three streets away from Albert Square,' so it was just a 'See ya!' Which was perfect.”

So, potentially, the door is still open to a return?

“Yeah. I hope so. One day, definitely. I don't think it's something I could turn my back on; it's a huge part of your life. Your career is absolutely dependent on choices and avenues, and you never ever close one down, especially not a huge show with the BBC.”

Songs in the show include Candi Staton's Young Hearts Run Free, Chaka Khan's I'm Every Woman, I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor), The Weather Girls' It's Raining Men, Dancing Queen by Abba, and Sister Sledge's We Are Family.

Girls' Night runs from June 19 to 24 at Chelmsford Civic Theatre. Box office 01245 606505.

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