Alison Arnopp steps into the shoes of Dusty Springfield

Ahead of the new jukebox musical Dusty, the Finsbury Park actress tells Bridget Galton why the legendary diva’s music remains in ‘people’s hearts and minds’.

Bringing the life of legendary soul star Dusty Springfield to the stage has been a bumpy ride.

The technically complex multi-media musical in which live performers interact with archive footage and 3D holgrams, was originally due to open in June, but has been radically reworked over months of previews during which all but three of the original cast left the show.

Now a Finsbury Park actress has stepped in three weeks before press night to take the lead role of the singer whose hits include Son of A Preacher Man, I Just Don’t Know What to do With Myself and You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.

Irish-born Alison Arnopp is grabbing her big break with both hands.

“I got this audition and got lucky, it’s all happened so quickly. I’ve had two and a half weeks to learn everything, but I’ve been waiting for this chance for so long, I’m not going to sit around and complain about it, you have to get up and do it!”

Arnopp, who moved to London five years ago to study singing at the Royal College of Music, says she’s taking the punishing rehearsal schedule in her stride and using the nerves as “positive energy”.

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“At the moment I am most nervous about the quick costume changes whether my trousers are zipped and blouses buttoned in time and I’m wearing the right wig – I’ve got six!”

Dusty was born into an Irish Catholic family – in a maternity home in Fordwych Road, West Hampstead on April 16, 1939.

Christened Mary O’Brien, her birth certificate gives her parents’ address as a mansion block in “Paddington W9” but they soon moved to Ealing where the young Mary shared a love of singing with older brother Dion as they listened to their tax consultant father’s blues and jazz records.

The star later said she fell in love with the voice of Peggy Lee and by the age of 10, announced to the nuns at her convent school that she wanted to be a blues singer. Around the same time, she acquired the nickname Dusty for her tomboyish habit of getting dirty playing football.

While still a teenager she successfully auditioned for the Lana Sisters trio, but two years later joined Dion – who changed his name to Tom - and his friend Tim Field forming The Springfields.

After several folk/country hits, on a landmark 1962 trip to Memphis, Dusty heard the Motown sound and there was no looking back.

Married to her husky, bluesy voice it was a match made in heaven and between ’63-69 her brand of “blue-eyed soul” that introduced the British to the sound of black America, would chart 10 top 10 solo singles.

Told through the eyes of childhood friend Nancy Jones, Dusty deals with the singer’s rise to fame and early career, from 15 to the eve of recording her 1969 album Dusty in Memphis.

It includes her deportation from South Africa for refusing to play to segregated audiences, and touches on her bisexuality which she was forced to hide.

Arnopp says: “Growing up I heard lots of her stuff because my dad was a big fan of blues and soul. People say ‘I don’t know her music’ then I sing a couple of hits and they say ‘that’s my favourite song!’ Her music is in people’s minds and hearts.”

At a time when ‘girl’ singers were patronised and sidelined, Dusty was an obsessive perfectionist who took control of her recordings as she pursued the new at the time R&B sound she wanted.

Famous for berating her band if they played a wrong note live, she sought to give her fans an experience as close as possible to the recorded music.

But behind the forceful stage presence, beehives and beaded dresses, lurked crippling self doubt.

Dusty was a shy, insecure woman, prone to mood swings.

“She was wracked with insecurities about how good, how pretty she was and how much she deserved her success,” says Arnopp.

“I can imagine having to hide who you are must have caused a lot of pain. When you know that (she was bisexual) it adds to the special quality of her voice and to those songs about forbidden love.”

Not touched on in the musical are Dusty’s destructive relationships and later battles with illness, addiction, insomnia, and self-harm as her career waned.

Arnopp has watched plenty of archival footage to capture the essence of Dusty’s unique voice, widely recognised as one of the best white soul singers ever.

“I am not setting out to completely mimic her voice, besides some of the songs are used dramatically in the storytelling rather than as recreated performances.

“But I’ve tried to embody as many of her qualities of her voice which has quite a wide, dark seam.”

Coming to the production so late, Arnopp has seen few of the changes that lead to such a long preview period but says:

“It’s technologically complicated and the producers wanted to tweak the script and get everything how they wanted it before press night.”

A spokesman for the show said extensive changes made to the production during previews meant some characters were dropped while others chose to leave the production.

Dusty continued to record, and enjoyed a comeback in the 80s collaborating with The Pet Shop Boys on What Have I Done To Deserve This?

She died of breast cancer in March 1999 at her home in Henley on Thames, a few weeks before her 60th birthday.

Dusty is booking at the Charing Cross Theatre in Villiers St until November. 08444930650.