Adventurous Alice cast in the Keeler mould at Gatehouse

ALICE Coulthard s professional theatre debut involves rape, nudity and sex with a string of men. The Muswell Hill actress is playing 60s cause celebre Christine Keeler in a new play adapted from her 2001 autobiography The Truth At Last. With her flawless

ALICE Coulthard's professional theatre debut involves rape, nudity and sex with a string of men. The Muswell Hill actress is playing 60s cause celebre Christine Keeler in a new play adapted from her 2001 autobiography The Truth At Last.

With her flawless skin, glossy dark hair and delicate features, Coulthard looks uncannily like the stunning 19-year-old, who helped bring down Harold McMillan's government after having simultaneous affairs with Secretary of State for War John Profumo and a Soviet naval attaché.

Keeler herself has had final approval of Gill Adams' script and was reportedly pleased with Coulthard's casting.

"She has seen photos of me and has said she's really happy with the casting," says the former Coldfall Primary and Fortismere School pupil.

"I am supposed to be meeting her soon and it is daunting to play someone who is still alive and may see my performance.

"It was also daunting that I have to be semi-naked in the play. When I first read the script I thought, 'I don't know.' But my family are all very liberal and my aunt said, 'It's just your body for God's sake - in a few years people won't even want to look at it.'"

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Coulthard, who has posed in Keeler's famous chair-straddling shot to publicise the show, was satisfied that the play's nudity is neither titillating nor pornographic. They are part and parcel of Keeler's difficult early life - being molested as a child, enduring an unpleasant relationship with her stepfather, giving birth to a premature baby who survived just six days, working as a topless showgirl, suffering rape, stalking, back street abortions and nine months in Holloway on perjury charges - all by the age of 22.

It was during her "brother and sister" relationship with society osteopath Stephen Ward that she slept with men who gave her money and had a three-month affair with Profumo.

Post scandal, she was labelled a prostitute, ripped off by unscrupulous people, repeatedly sacked from jobs and eventually changed her name to escape ignominy.

Now 64, she lives in London and has professed herself "bewildered" by the affair and the public's enduring fascination with her.

The intelligent, perceptive Coulthard understands the burden of remaining true to Keeler's story - showing the vulnerability and abuse - without rendering her a victim.

"This play shows very much empathy for Christine. I don't think people have thought about how badly she was treated by a succession of men, and as a sex object from an early age. She was 19 when the scandal happened - how dangerous can a teenage girl be? She was mostly caught up in something she didn't fully understand. As a teenager you are fearless without the awareness of the dangers - that fearlessness comes from a kind of innocence. She probably saw strange things going on but it's unlikely she knew the broad scale of the situation."

Coulthard, who attended youth theatre at Mountview Theatre School in Crouch End and later trained there as an actress, has immersed herself in research on Keeler, including watching old news interviews around the time of the scandal.

"I'm trying to portray her without mimicking her. It will be a case of working out how far you take yourself to the character and how far you bring it to you."

It's not the first time Coulthard has played a tough part. At the age of 12, she was in the 1993 film adaptation of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden, playing an abandoned orphan. "I really enjoyed it but I was quite unaware of what an experience it was.

"It was hard work for a child - 12-hour days filming. I thought, 'This is really hard, I don't want to be an actress.'"

Fortunately, she caught the acting bug again at university and is delighted to have landed an agent and plum part straight out of drama school.

Despite the complex tale of spying and government machinations, it is the seedy sex scandal of call girls and aristocrats that holds the public fascination.

Keeler, less brassy, more sensitive and more demonised than fellow showgirl Mandy Rice Davies, became caught in what was the first ever tabloid sex scandal, without anyone to advise her.

"She was the first celebrity famous for being famous," says Coulthard. "There are so many people like that now, it's a thriving industry and people are aware of how much money you can make from it, but she had no one to guide her and she was ripped off left, right and centre.

"What do you do with that fame afterwards? She tried to have a normal life but they wouldn't forget it and it ruined her life."

Coulthard understands what attracted Keeler to Ward's shady world of permissive sex with powerful men.

"She was taken to fancy parties and met rich powerful people. It was an exciting, lavish lifestyle and at 18 she enjoyed that. Stephen Ward convinced her of John Profumo's power and attractiveness and although she wasn't in love with him he was kind to her and warm in a way that lots of men weren't."

In her autobiography, Keeler says Ward, who committed suicide during his trial for living off immoral earnings, controlled her totally, but refused to help when she became pregnant with Profumo's child.

"Like many young girls who move in with older guys who are controlling, he cut off her friendships so she was alone and didn't have anyone else to turn to."

Keeler's claim that West Indian Lucky Gordon was not her lover but an obsessed stalker who shut her in a room for three days and raped her is also worked into the play.

Coulthard adds: "Christine's story is also about strength and survival - I don't want her to be just a victim. I am sure she doesn't want people to feel sorry for her but to understand what she has been through and to tell her story in a truthful way."

Keeler runs Upstairs at the Gatehouse from February 14 until March 18.