She considers herself at home in class or on stage

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
Oliver! teacher feted by her pupils. Who could ask for more?
Oliver! teacher feted by her pupils. Who could ask for more?

Ashley Russell stops short of drawing comparisons between Andrew Lloyd Webber and a group of pre-pubescent children. But the peripatetic drama teacher admits that performing in front of pupils helped prepare her for the uncompromising criticism she faced from the redoubtable composer.

Until she was voted out by the public this month, Ms Russell was one of 12 finalists in I'd Do Anything, the BBC programme that will cast the roles of Nancy and Oliver for a forthcoming West End production of the musical Oliver!

Appearing in a weekly sing-off with the other would-be Nancys, 24-year-old Ms Russell frequently faced scathing criticism from a panel including Lord Lloyd Webber and actress Denise Van Outen.

"When I sing in front of the kids, I say, 'Right, guys, what do you think?'" she said. "If I hit a bum note, they're the first to tell me.

"But it's definitely harder to perform in front of Lord Lloyd Webber. He's a legend. You'd finish a song and then have that moment of realisation: you have to go over to the wolves. And it's obviously devastating when they criticise you."

Ms Russell's interest in musical theatre was in part inspired by her former headteacher at Grangemouth High in central Scotland.

"He wanted to be an actor or director," she said. "He had a definite flair for it. So he worked on all my audition pieces with me."

When she undertook an MA in musical theatre and English, specialising in children's theatre, he helped her with her dissertation.

Since graduating, Ms Russell has combined teaching part-time in north London with regular auditions.

"Pupils need a creative environment," she said. "If you want them energised at 100 per cent, you have to come in 200 per cent.

"So teaching is definitely good preparation for performing. You are physically, mentally and vocally ready. I'm basically sitting at the start box."

Since appearing on I'd Do Anything, Ms Russell has received constant support from her pupils. Many have offered her the advice she originally gave them: keep focused and remember who you are.

Like other teachers-turned-reality-show-contestants, such as Beverley Trotman, the Luton primary teacher who appeared on The X Factor last year, Ms Russell has been treated as a celebrity on her return to the classroom.

"They have already asked me for my autograph," she said. "When I went back to visit, I said, 'I'm just the same.' And they said, 'Yes, sure. But can you sign this for my Gran's best friend's daughter?'"

Ultimately, though, she hopes her pupils will be inspired by her example.

"This has put a fire in my heart," she said. "It's a great platform for things to happen. I say to the kids, 'It just shows that good things can happen to normal people.'"

The 'I'd Do Anything' semi-final airs on BBC1 tomorrow at 6.50pm.

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