When I spoke to Andrew Flintoff a couple of years ago he told me he had no great desire to sing and dance. I reminded him of this when we caught up as he prepares to make his stage debut in Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends – The Musical, at the Grand Theatre in Leeds.
“I never thought I’d be doing this in a million years,” he says, laughing. As it happens it isn’t be the first time he’s been on stage at the Grand, having appeared there a couple of years ago with his live show marking the 10th anniversary of England’s epic 2005 Ashes victory.
“That was my favourite night of the tour,” says the Lancashire-born former cricket star. “I had to sit down for the first five minutes and let the crowd give me some stick, but it was such a good night.”
Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff was one of the most popular cricketers of his generation and a key member of the side that sent the much-vaunted Australians, rated one of cricket’s greatest ever teams, packing. He picked up 24 wickets during the five Tests and pitched in with 402 runs, which led to him being named man of the series and later voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Sadly, that Ashes victory proved to be the high watermark of Flintoff’s cricket career. Although he went on to captain England and was part of the 2009 Ashes-winning team, the wear and tear of top-level cricket had taken its toll on his body and he was forced to retire at the age of 31.
Since then he’s forged a successful career as a TV and radio personality, winning plaudits for his documentary The Hidden Side of Sport, which offered an insight into depression among sportsmen and women. He’s even tried his hand at boxing, training for a one-off heavyweight fight in 2012 which raised a few eyebrows.
Flintoff has never been afraid of trying something new and next week he’s taking a leap into the unknown when he makes his debut in the musical version of the award-winning TV series penned by Mellor.
It was while he was working with the Leeds-born scriptwriter on her BBC drama Love, Lies and Records that the seeds were sown. “I got a part in one of the episodes and she asked me if I would be interested in doing musical theatre and I said ‘yes.’ I’m always willing to try something different but I never thought I would get the part.”
But he did and then came the dawning realisation that he was going to be singing on stage which, the odd karaoke night notwithstanding, was something he’d never done before. “I’ve done a few Elvis impersonations but nothing like this,” he says.
“When I turned up for the first day of rehearsals I didn’t know what to expect and it was a bit of an eye opener. The cast all started singing together as a vocal warm-up and I didn’t realise people could sing that well. I just stood there and mouthed the words because I didn’t want other people to hear me singing. I didn’t have the confidence,” he says.
Mellor then came over and gave him a pep talk. “She had a chat with me because she wanted me to feel part of it and that gave me the confidence I needed, and after a couple of weeks rehearsing I loved it – and I never thought I’d be saying that.”
Given his lack of musical and theatrical credentials he was initially concerned what his fellow cast members would make of him. “I played cricket and I’ve messed about a bit on telly but I was coming into their world and I was a bit worried about the reception I’d get, but everyone’s been so welcoming and kind. I’ve smiled and laughed a lot in the last few weeks.”
At the same time it’s been a steep learning curve and made him appreciate the hard work that goes into a stage production like this. “You realise how hard acting is, you constantly have to be in the right place at the right time. There’s a real art to it and I’ve had to get my head round all that.”
It’s taken him out of his comfort zone and he admits it’s a world away from playing cricket. “The only thing I can draw on from my cricket days is when you’re playing you’re part of a team and there’s one person batting and bowling, and when you’re on stage there’s one person delivering their lines but you have the confidence of knowing you’ve got the support of the rest of your team.”
Flintoff was desperate to be a cricketer from an early age . He played his first competitive match at the age of eight and quickly rose, making his first class debut for Lancashire in 1995.
Both a big hitter and a fearsome bowler his abilities as an all-rounder drew comparisons with Ian Botham.
It’s eight years since a dodgy knee and ankle forced him to retire from the sport but he says he no longer misses the thrill. “If you’d asked me that question a few years ago I would have said ‘yes.’ I was 31 when I stopped playing and I still felt I could have played for another five or six years and I struggled with retirement. But I can honestly say that during the last three years or so that’s gone. My kids play now and I take them to watch matches and I’ve fallen back in love with the game.”
While cricket was always a passion, acting only appeared on his radar a few years ago when he auditioned for a part in the popular TV series Prime Suspect. “Lynda La Plante asked me to audition and I got down to the last two but I didn’t get the part,” he says.
Despite missing out it fuelled his enthusiasm. “I thought I’d like to have a crack at this so I did some acting classes in Manchester.” On the back of that he got a part in Love, Lives and Records.
Since it was announced that he was appearing in a musical he’s had plenty of stick, albeit good-natured, from his friends in the sporting world. “They take the mickey but they all want me to do well. My kids think it’s funny, too, though they find everything I do funny,” he says.
For Flintoff, though, there’s a serious side to all this. “I want to be the best that I can be. That was always my attitude when I was playing cricket and it’s the same with this.
“It’s a funny script and a brilliant show and I just want to do it justice, because if you’re going to do something then you should give it your all, no half measures, go and do it properly.”
It’s another string to his bow as well as a further opportunity to broaden his horizons, something he’s grateful for. “I’ve done so many different things since I stopped playing cricket and I’m very lucky.
“I never thought about doing theatre but now I’d like to do more drama and more acting… though I might feel differently on the opening night,” he says, laughing again.
Fat Friends – The Musical runs at Leeds Grand Theatre from November 7 until December 2. For more information and tickets call 0844 848 2700.