Abi Titmus to star as Lady Macbeth

Media It girl Abi Titmus swept into Suffolk yesterday to start rehearsals for her new play at Lowestoft's Seagull Theatre.

Andrew Clarke

The news that media star Abi Titmuss had been cast as Lady Macbeth in a new touring production raised a few eyebrows but as Arts Editor Andrew Clarke discovered, Abi is a woman with strong acting roots and wants the public to look beyond the headlines.

Standing by the sea on a bright but chilly morning actress Abi Titmuss appears happy and cheery. But, if truth be told, as she later confesses, she is slightly tired and rather apprehensive.

In an announcement that has raised eyebrows in the theatrical world, Abi Titmuss - media darling, former nurse and glamour model - has been cast as Lady Macbeth in the classic Shakespeare sword and sorcery drama Macbeth. She is making her Shakespearean debut at the Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft before taking the play on a short tour across Suffolk and into Norwich.

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When I meet Abi on that bright and breezy beach she is recovering from a long drive from Wakefield to Lowestoft. On Saturday she finished a long tour with the acclaimed Hull Truck Theatre company who had staged a 25th anniversary tour of John Godber's classic comedy Up 'N' Under. She completed a matinee and evening performance in Wakefield, said an emotional goodbye to her cast mates, jumped into her car for the long drive to Suffolk.

But, on talking with Abi, it's not as an outrageous suggestion as it first seems.

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Abi has been steadily working as a stage actress since 2006, her nursing was funding her way through drama school when the hit the headlines as TV presenter John Leslie's loyal girlfriend his famous sex scandal trial which ultimately collapsed. The tabloids took to her immediately and she became a permanent fixture in newspapers and celebrity magazines alike. From 2004-5 she appeared on 38 different magazine covers.

Modelling contracts and fashion spreads saw her earning �30,000 a day. Lads mags like FHM, GQ, Maxim and Loaded fought to have her in their pages while the cheap and cheerful weeklies Nuts and Zoo regarded her as their patron saint of circulation.

Always busy Abi also conquerored the world of television appearing on Celebrity Love Island, Hell's Kitchen, Come Dine With Me - was a regular on Channel 4's The Friday Night Project and was the subject of a documentary Abi Titmuss: A Modern Morality Tale.

But, talking in her dressing room at Lowestoft Seagull theatre she looks back on those times as fun but they served to rather sidetrack her from what she has always wanted to do which was to act.

Looking at that statement in black and white, it does look rather incredible - but Abi does look and sound sincere. She points out that if she wanted to make a high profile statement about reinventing herself as an actress she could have offered herself as the new barmaid in EastEnders or Emmerdale.

“No, I was always very serious about my acting I wanted to do it the right way - learn my craft on stage and work my way up.”

Abi fixes you with meaningful eye contact that leaves you in no doubt that she means what she says. She makes no apologies for her past and has obviously enjoyed the fame and riches that it has brought but now she feels it is time to get down to carving out a long term career that will sustain her.

A conversation with Abi, both on the beach, where the photo-call is being held, and back at the theatre makes it clear that she is a clever woman, who knows where she is going.

This is no blonde bimbo possessed of good looks and no brain matter. She is both shrewd and smart. A straight A student at school, she earned a nursing degree from City University in St Barts Hospital before gaining the position of staff nurse at London's University College Hospital.

She worked nights taking charge of the hectic acute admissions ward attached to the Accident and Emergency department and has seen enough real-life drama to know that no everyone is as lucky as she has been.

She explains that it was while she was doing her nursing training that she had made the most terrible mistake. She realised that what she really wanted to do was be an actress.

“I fell into nursing because I was interested in medicine. I originally wanted to be a doctor. As soon as I got to university I joined the drama club and I loved it. I have always done plays all my life but where I grew up in a little village in Lincolnshire, being an actress just wasn't an option.

“So there I was in the university drama club, doing The Life of Brian on stage, wearing a stripey dressing gown and carrying a balsa wood crucifix and I got an award from the university for my drama work even though I found myself missing lectures to run the club. I realised that this was what I wanted to do. Even though I was pelted with stones from the stoning scene I was thrilled by being on stage, I couldn't wait to find something to do next.”

What followed was the anguished phone call to her parents explaining that she had decided to give up the respectable life in medicine to follow her heart and a life on the stage.

“They were very good because I had an interview lined up at medical school and I knew that if I went for that interview then that would be the path I would take. My parents were terrific they both supported me. It was difficult to explain that their daughter wasn't going to be a doctor or a nurse but an actress.

“They were great but they did say finish your course, finish your nursing qualifications then you can support yourself with that - and that's what I did. I went part-time almost immediately and did night shifts and worked weekends while I did acting classes Monday to Friday.”

Having struggled to juggle the demands of her conflicting lifestyle she says she laughs at the fact that the media always use the phrase reinvention when they talk about her life as an actress.

Her voice takes on a mocking tone as she repeats the lines she hears so often: “Oh Abi is reinventing herself as an actress' what many people don't realise is that before my life got turned upside down, before I came into the public eye, I had spent three years at drama school. In fact when I was discovered by the media I was in rehearsals for a play by Brecht - Fear and Misery of the Third Reich - we were doing that at a Westminster college.

“Unfortunately I had to leave the class because I didn't feel comfortable. Press cuttings were being passed around. It just felt awkward.”

She did a short course at central School of Speech and Drama and a full year at Kensington-Chelsea College before going onto Westminster College. “I had hoped to apply to RADA but having already been to university, financially that was extremely difficult, so I never applied.”

Then she was cast as John Leslie's loyal girlfriend. The media adopted her as the sexy nurse, the fantasy figure for thousands of male readers across the country and her life was never the same again.

“My whole life was turned upside down. I genuinely did not know what was happening from one day to the next. I tried to make the best of it but I never lost sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, acting was what I wanted to do.

“As the whole media thing exploded I knew that it would take a long time, and I knew it wouldn't be the right time for a number of years, but slowly things have started to calm down and I have managed to make my mark.”

It was four years ago that Abi made her professional stage debut - in something which could be considered almost as much of a baptism of fire as her role of Lady Macbeth. She was offered the role of a schizophrenic prostitute in a series of playlets by legendary playwright Arthur Miller.

The play Two Way Mirror was staged at the Courtyard Theatre, in Kings Cross in March 2006 and earned Abi the Fringe Report Award for Best West End Debut.

She said that she was grateful that it was her acting tutor Mike Miller who gave her big break - taking a chance that her celebrity wouldn't disturb the delicate balance of Miller's writing.

“It was an ex-drama teacher who allowed me to read for the role. Having worked with me he knew what I could do but it was a huge gamble for him. I was terrified. I had the national press there on my first preview. There was nowhere to hide - my god it was hard - but I managed to acquit myself well.”

It is something she is clearly very proud of. She has since appeared in the black comedy Fat Christ at the King's Head Theatre, Islington, The Naked Truth, a play about a pole dancer, and the 25th anniversary tour of Up 'N' Under.

After Macbeth, she has a number of other London-based plays lined up for the New Year.

“This has been my best year so far. I want to earn people's respect. I have never been interested in being famous for being famous. I want to do something and do it well.

“Being famous doesn't help you sleep at night. It's not who I want to be. This year things I have really taken off. I have been on tour with The Naked Truth from February to July then in August I did a comedy opera at an opera festival in London, which was for free, that was fun, then in September I joined the Hull Truck company and worked with John Godber, which was just a dream come true.”

It was while she was pole dancing in the play The Naked Truth that she met the Seagull's artistic director John Hale. The show came to the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft and John asked her to join the cast of Macbeth.

“I first met John a couple of years ago at an audition and we got on. Then he came and saw me when The Naked Truth, a play about a pole dancer, came to Lowestoft. We talked about the play (Macbeth) and he asked me to do the part of Lady Macbeth which is obviously a world away from the part I was playing at the time.”

She said that the play and the part has caused her to take a deep breath because she realises that this is one of the great parts for a woman on stage. She is up against the memories of Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Vivien Leigh and Francesca Annis in what can be a career defining role.

“It's terrifying but also unbelievably exciting and I remember talking to the director John Hales in the summer about it and how daunted I was by it and how much respect I have for it - but at the end of the day it's a play. You can't spend too long being afraid of it, you have to get on and do it.

“I am an actress and I just feel very lucky that I am able to do it.”

She said that she has always been motivated by a challenge and likes to take any project she gets involved with by the scruff of the neck and really attack it.

“This was never going to be easy. I knew that the way the schedule for the Hull Truck tour fell that I would have no time to learn the part before I started rehearsals, so I learned my part in August, kept the lines in the back of my mind. Then learned the Up'N'Under part, did the tour and then in the last couple of weeks, I picked up the Macbeth script again to refresh my memory before starting rehearsals here.

“I knew that I would have to be off book before I even arrived, so yes, I do respond to a challenge.”

She said that ten years after she started her first drama course her acting career is finally coming together.

Macbeth starring Abi Titmuss is running at the Seagull Theatre Lowestoft until November 22 and from November 30-December 1. Tickets are available on 01502 589726. It's also on tour at Fisher Theatre, Bungay on November 24 (box office 01986 895367), Sudbury Art Centre on November 27 (box office 01787 375131) and The Cut, Halesworth, on December 4 (box office 0845 673123).

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