Felixstowe Spa show tackles breast cancer issues

Sickness and pole dancing don’t mix, as entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE found out while talking to Michelle Heaton and Maureen Nolan of new comedy The Naked Truth.

I never thought I’d be asking one of the Nolan Sisters or Liberty X about pole dancing; not without picking up a restraining order.

Many of the cast are suffering from colds and, in Michelle’s case, an ear and sinus infection - not good when you have to hang upside down from the top of a metal pole.

“I wasn’t able to do it last night and Maureen lost her balance a bit and fell bless her because we’re all a bit under the weather,” says Michelle.

Falls come with the territory in a play set in a pole dancing class.

“We’ve all fell in different quantities. At the beginning I was quite bad. I’ve got bruises now. You’re flinging yourself around so there’s going to be a few bumps and grazes along the way,” she laughs.

“Every scene there’s a blackout and there are poles on stage, chairs, bean bags and not a lot of room. We’re all trying to run around so every single night I bump into something.

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“A few weeks ago I fell down the stairs on to the set. I stood up and said ‘I’ll teach you that move later girls’ and got a round of applause.”

Maureen had a few lessons before the tour opened, but still ended up bruised top to bottom.

“I’ve been learning as we go along and I’m certainly better than I was. It’s so hard, I don’t think people have a clue; you’re lifting your whole body weight on to this pole and then trying to do something artistic and swing round it.

“If somebody had said ‘you know you’re going to be pole dancing at your age’ I’d have said ‘oh please section me’.”

The play follows the various ups and downs, literally and figuratively, of five very different women raising money for breast cancer.

Also in the cast are Emmerdale and Bad Girls’ Claire King, Grange Hill and Hollyoaks’ Julie Buckfield, Olivier award-winning West End star of Hairspray Leanne Jones and Alison Young.

The role of sufferer Sarah was close to Maureen’s heart.

Sisters Anne and Linda had the disease when she auditioned and sister Bernie developed it after she got the part. All three have since been given the all-clear.

“People ask if it was really hard to play but not really. I think I’m the best equipped to do it,” she says.

“I felt privileged and hope I portray it in the way I should. We’ve had lots of women in the audience who’ve had breast cancer and they all say ‘that was just me’. There are many serious, sensitive issues handled really well in this play.”

Michelle’s late grandmother had breast cancer twice.

“Everybody in some way or another is touched by cancer,” she says. “It’s crazy how this disease is so prevalent in today’s society and yet we still can’t fight it fully.”

The role of pole dancing teacher Gabby is Michelle’s first professional acting role since leaving pop group Liberty X, the runners-up on reality show Popstars.

Despite going to drama school and roles in shows like Byker Grove - “I think everybody in Newcastle was in it,” she laughs - acting fell by the wayside during her seven years storming the charts.

Decamping to Ireland after the break-up of her first marriage she worked as a judge on a talent show before qualifying as a personal trainer.

“Pole dancing is a great form of cardio and also weight bearing exercises without having to go the gym. You use all of the relevant muscles to be able to get a good work out,” she tells me between questions about her role.

Michelle’s still in touch with the rest of the group but clearly doesn’t miss the attention.

“I’m proud I was in a band that successful. I think a lot of people forget I was in a band, they just believe I’m this hopeless wannabe celebrity not doing anything,” she sighs.

“I did more than most and now I’m working as an actress.

“For about six months I maybe went out and had a few drinks like anybody else going through a divorce. I did nothing wrong but the national press put me in this box; it’s very unfortunate.”

It was while living in Dublin, where she met her new husband, she decided acting was where her heart lay.

“I got a new agent and within a week was sent this script. I read it in one evening, I couldn’t put it down. I laughed and I cried.”

The gap between roles or learning to pole dance didn’t worry her; acting alongside established actresses such as Maureen and King however.

“I grew up with them and my mum’s a massive fan of the Nolan Sisters and Emmerdale. To be given my first role alongside them in an equal starring capacity is pretty daunting. I’m very lucky.”

Commissioned by producer and director Stephen Leatherland, The Naked Truth was written by David Simpson who penned hit comedy Girls Night Out.

The idea came from their respective wives Karie - who grew up in Ipswich and jokes her husband’s pole dancing rivals the cast’s - and Diane.

Four years on it continues to sell out theatres across the country, raising thousands of pounds for local breast cancer charities in the process. It’s fitting it’s coming to Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion on April 18; Stephen started his producing career there some 17 years ago.

“When I was starting Theatre Productions I was treading the streets in a tuxedo putting posters in windows to get people to see my shows,” he remembers.

“We’ve had people with terminal breast cancer see this show and really feel enlivened, which to me is the ultimate accolade.”