Denise Van Outen channels ‘outrageous’ past into new play inspired by Shirley Valentine

at the arts theatre

at the arts theatre - Credit: Archant

As a 10-year-old growing up in Essex, Denise Van Outen used to sing along to the pop music coming from her older sister’s bedroom. Now the 40-year-old presenter and actress has worked those 80s favourites into a semi-autobiographical solo show about a woman having a mid-life crisis.

Hits by Soft Cell, The Thompson Twins, Culture Club and, erm, Sonia feature in Some Girl I Used To Know, which is peppered with Van Outen’s trademark cheeky laddette humour and racy anecdotes culled from her own life.

Fashion designer Stephanie has a successful career and stay at home husband who is eager to start a family when she receives a Facebook ‘poke’ from an exciting old flame looking for a hotel hook-up.

The will-she won’t-she narrative is told through a juke-box of musical numbers and soliloquies inspired by that similarly 80s hit, Shirley Valentine.

“It was one of those films that influenced a whole generation of women,” says Van Outen, who lives in Hampstead, a stone’s throw from the film’s stars Tom Conti and Pauline Collins.

“But there was nothing similar for women of my generation. My motive behind co-writing this was that I relate to the character. She is a successful career woman, in a stable relationship. The tables have turned, in that she’s the main breadwinner and he’s wishing she would slow down and start a family. She is thrown into turmoil by her first proper love who is single, in town and suggesting a meet.

“She thinks, ‘Why am I feeling this when I have everything anyone could wish for?’

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“It’s about temptation, love, reminiscing. It’s funny and heart-warming and sad. The character and crisis isn’t me but there are a lot of stories that were real-life experiences. All I’ll say is the more outrageous ones have happened to me!”

Born performer

Van Outen is a born performer, starting out as a child model before attending the Sylvia Young Theatre School aged 12 and enjoying early theatre roles.

By the time she’d graduated to presenting The Big Breakfast in 1997 she was an old hand and her subsequent career has mixed reality TV (Strictly Come Dancing “the most toned I have ever been – I was fit as a fiddle”), musicals (Chicago) and presenting – most recently on Magic FM.

She says live performance – whether stage or screen – is her “passion”.

“I like the risk factor. It’s one of those things that you have to have the confidence, the balls to get up and do it. If I have the choice, I prefer to do anything live, TV or radio.

“I have filmed TV dramas where there is a chance to retake, but I like having no second chance – you have less time to analyse things.”

Although Van Outen admits before every show she is “cursing myself for doing it” she clearly thrives on flying solo on stage.

She certainly has past form, having successfully pulled off the Lloyd Webber single girl in New York musical Tell Me On A Sunday in 2003.

“Once I’m on stage and into it, I don’t have time to think, it goes by so fast.

“Some people ask, ‘Do you get bored doing the same thing every night?’, but you never know what you are going to get. Some nights a quiet audience, others the minute you step on stage you know they are receptive.”

In Some Girl, Van Outen has the music to carry her through.

“I wanted to put music in the show because they are not just songs that had a special meaning for me but because my play is about feelings and music is so connected to the feelings you had when you were young.

“I had an older sister and would hear these hits coming through her bedroom wall. I remember mix tapes – you are never too old or young for a mix tape – and seeing Kids from Fame at Wembley.

“(Sonia song) You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You was a cheesy pop song but I could hear there was a really good ballad in there. My music producer laughed at me but he went away, had a little tinkle and I nearly cried when I heard this version. It sounds so beautiful.”

As for her home life, Van Outen has four-year-old Betsy with ex-husband Lee Mead and loves Hampstead Heath.

“I go there with a personal trainer or just going there with my daughter for a walk. I love Kenwood House through all seasons. If I have been on holiday anywhere in the world, coming home and being on the path is the best feeling.”

Some Girl I Used To Know is at the Arts Theatre in London from August 22 until September 13. Tickets from