MICHELLE Gayle, former EastEnders actor and recording artist, stars in a new Craig Revel Horwood-directed musical featuring Dusty’s songs. EDWIN GILSON found out more

DUSTY Springfield wasn’t exactly the soundtrack to Michelle Gayle’s young life, but she vividly remembers her parents’ obsession with one of the legendary pop singer’s tunes.

“They loved her song You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” says Michelle. “It was played in my household a lot.”

For a child who had ambitions to be a performer from the age of two, it is easy to see how Springfield’s distinctive vocal and stage presence would have struck a chord with Michelle. It was only later, however, that she came to appreciate the full power of the music.

“As I got older I heard more of her songs and you think, ‘wow, what a woman, what a voice’” she says.

In many ways, Springfield’s back catalogue – with its compelling lyrical narratives – is a perfect vehicle for a riveting piece of musical theatre. That was the view of Craig Revel Horwood, who eulogised about Springfield when explaining his decision to help develop Son Of A Preacher Man, which is written by Warner Brown.

“Her lyrics are really quite poignant,” said the choreographer and director earlier this year. “She tells human stories with amazing rhythms that can be applied to men or women and crosses through to being gay as well. That’s why her music is universal.”

Like Girl From The North Country, the hit musical worked around the songbook of Bob Dylan currently running on the West End, Son Of A Preacher Man weaves the tunes into the plot. It is far from a mere tribute concert. The story follows three drifters, including Michelle’s character Alison Hooper, who are all suffering unrequited love. While the action is set in the modern day, the show occasionally flashes back to the swinging 60s.

“They’ve each heard this myth of the preacher man who once owned a record store, someone that people seek out for advice,” says Michelle. “They all think, ‘why not pay him a visit?’ You know when you’re at your lowest ebb and you’ve got nothing to lose? That’s where these people are.”

Alison’s own story of private torture, the internal struggle that leads her to the Preacher Man, involves a 17-year-old boy. “She’s a widow and she’s been tutoring this boy,” says Michelle, “and she feels as though she is falling in love with him.”

While one of the play’s overriding messages is acceptance and open-mindedness, Alison worries that the passion she has for her student is socially unacceptable.

“She goes to the preacher to make sense of it, to make sure she doesn’t act on her feelings – she wants to rid herself of them,” says Michelle.

Son Of A Preacher Man is the latest interesting move in Michelle’s varied career. After attending stage school as a teenager and going on to star in children’s TV drama Grange Hill, she embarked on a pop career, releasing three albums. Her two highest-charting hits were Sweetness and Do You Know.

She’s also written a number of young adult books, the first of which, Pride And Premiership was based around her experience as a “Wag” (Michelle was married to footballer Mark Brighton for 10 years). She has always known the feeling of having an audience.

“The first time I performed was when I started dancing in the park at the age of two and people started watching,” says Michelle. “My parents thought ‘what are we going to do with this girl?’.” Drama school seemed the only answer.

Michelle has always thought of herself as a performer but she admits that a constant “anxiety” permeates her work. “That comes from the fear of not being able to do the best I can do, or letting the people around me down,” she says. The remedy for this insecurity, she adds, is “over-preparation” for any role. “I always overthink it and do a hell of a lot of research,” she says.

For all the pressure Michelle piles upon herself, there must be moments during Son Of A Preacher Man when she loses herself completely in Springfield’s sublime back catalogue.

She isn’t the only one who will be revelling in nostalgia when the show comes to Brighton.

Son Of A Preacher Man. Theatre Royal Brighton, April 17 to 21. Visit atgtickets.com