Anywhere in Albion

Natalie likes Albion's mix of music and a subject matter that makes her "physically sick". Picture:  Richard Davenport
Natalie likes Albion’s mix of music and a subject matter that makes her “physically sick”. Picture: Richard Davenport

By David Hennessy

Natalie Casey described the preparations for a play: “Everybody starts going, ‘I don’t know what the f**k I’m doing, arrgghhh’: That’s basically what happens in week three and then week four, you’ve got to get your sh*t together. Then week five is tech week when everyone gets really stressed because then you’ve got to do all the lighting cues and everything. Then the first night, you go: ‘Sh*t, there’s people in’, and then you do it and you go: ‘Ah, it was really good’. That’s what always happens.”

Well known for television roles like playing Donna in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Natalie has also done much stage work, performing in the Laurence Olivier award-winning Legally Blonde and touring with 9 to 5.

Natalie can be seen in Albion at the Bush Theatre. Set in a pub on karaoke night, the story centres around the English Protection Army, a right wing organisation whose mission is to ‘take England back’ but whose leadership is falling apart.

Natalie tells The Irish World: “I think that this is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve done, I think probably one of the most interesting pieces of theatre that has actually been on a stage in recent years because of the subject matter and the kind of world that we’re living in now. It’s incredibly relevant and terrifying all at the same time.

“I play a character called Christine Wolf who starts off the play as a social worker and becomes a councillor, she is standing for mayor of Tower Hamlets with a very right wing agenda really. What is fascinating is that there is really very little difference between the policies of right wing political parties and the policies of what we would call legitimate political parties. I see the world that we should all live in, a multicultural society but there are a lot of people who don’t believe that and feel their voices are not being heard. That’s the journey of my character.

“I think it’s very interesting to have the songs that we have brilliant, amazing songs that everybody knows, combined with the subject matter that makes you feel physically sick. That’s a brilliant juxtaposition in the play.”

Joining Natalie onstage is Steve John Shepherd who would be recognisable to soap fans as Eastenders’ Michael Moon. Steve always played Michael with unsettling intensity. Does he bring that same intensity to the play? “He does, yeah. He has some of the longest speeches in the show, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of standing at a microphone getting people to believe what he believes and to join his political party. To watch him do those speeches is absolutely fascinating and terrifying because the things that he says of his character are mostly appalling and yet he’s such a fantastic actor, you can understand why if this was real life, people would follow someone like that. He’s amazing. To be onstage with somebody like that, I just keep thinking: ‘Sh*t, I better up my game’. That’s all I keep thinking. Every single actor I’m onstage with in this play is insanely brilliant so I’m just very lucky. I don’t know. Ria Parry is the director, maybe she was having a bad day when she saw me and she just wanted to go home and I got cast. I still can’t believe it.

Natalie rehearses with Steve John Shepherd formerly of Eastenders
Natalie rehearses with Steve John Shepherd formerly of Eastenders

“There is nothing like working with a group of actors on something that you get to do on a nightly basis. There’s nothing that will develop your skills as an actor better than the stage. If you do a piece of television, you can film a shot 15 times if they’ve got time, that’s kind of secondary to what the meaning of acting is really. Acting should be about that you’re there and you’re doing it now and the thing about theatre is that things can and do change on a nightly basis depending how you feel, how the person with you in the scene feels, depending on how the lighting goes, how’s the staging goes. It’s something that I love.”

Natalie’s work in Legally Blonde included some Irish dancing, something she incorporated for the 9 to 5 when that tour visited both Dublin and Belfast.

“Belfast is my favourite city in the world, there is nowhere else like that place, man. I would move there. I didn’t have to pay for a drink once. It was awesome. I’m a single malt drinker and Bushmills doesn’t half get you w**kered.

“There’s also the sense of identity that it has and the sense of pride in how far people have come as a group. I also like going to a place where people have the ability to have a sense of humour about themselves and I think that about the Republic of Ireland as well actually. It’s very, very important in life to have a sense of humour about yourself. It’s like being from Manchester, it’s like being a Northerner.

“I went to the Giant’s Causeway and cried. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It was a semi- religious experience. That could have been the Bushmills though. No, it was incredible.

“I’ve got Celtic blood on my mum’s side and on my dad’s side, my grandma was black so basically nobody’s letting me in pubs. If it was the fifties, I ain’t getting in no pubs in England, put it that way.”

Natalie with the cast of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
Natalie with the cast of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

The sitcom Two Pints of Lager, also starring Will Mellor, Ralf Little and Sheridan Smith, ran from 2001 to 2011. Does Natalie miss it? “I think missing is not the word. What you realise though is that it opened up a lot of doors and it’s something that I will always always be grateful for and the weird thing is now, they’ve started to play it on a music channel, this whole other generation of people now like Two Pints, this whole other generation of 17, 18 year olds. I’m like: ‘I’ve got shoes older than you’. It’s great, it’s crazy to be part of something like that but awesome at the same time.”

Could it ever return? “I don’t know, maybe with us all on our zimmers. Who knows? You never say never and I think it was one of those things that was so popular and continues to be so popular that it’s never out of the realms of possibility. I don’t think for a long time yet though.”

In 1984, at the age of three, Natalie’s single Chick Chick Chicken reached number 72 in the UK Singles Chart. This made her the youngest person ever to have a recording in the UK chart: “I have a Guinness book of records record.”

It was at that time that Natalie appeared on the BBC’s Saturday Superstore and asked Boy George: “I did, I thought he was a lady. I asked him to take me to the toilet. That was my claim to fame.”

Natalie sang the song more recently in a 2008 episode of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps. Did she need to be persuaded to sing it again? “I didn’t actually because it’s like I said before about going to Belfast or going to the republic, it’s very important to be able to take the piss out of yourself. You are nothing without it.”

Albion runs at The Bush Theatre in London September 12 to October 25.

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