Australian-born Damian Humbley recently starred as Walter Hartright in the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White at the Palace Theatre, directed by Trevor Nunn.

His other stage credits include All Roads Lead to Home at Melbourne International Arts Festival, Billy Boy Bill in Urinetown for Melbourne Theatre Company, Oliver!, Masterpiece – the Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Three Watters, Passion, McCubbin - A Musical Biography Of Frederick McCubbin and Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Western Australian Conservatorium of Music.

Humbley is now playing Jamie in the UK premiere of Tony Award-winning American composer Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander The Last Five Years at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark, south London.

Date & place of birth
Born 13 February 1979 in Queensland Australia.

Lives now in
Turnpike Lane (north London), I’ve been there about four months. I’ve been a nomad since I moved to London. I was in King’s Cross when I first got here, then I got The Woman in White when I was at London Bridge. Then during that show I moved to Holborn then Camden Town and now Turnpike Lane. So I think I’ve seen a lot of London! I live with some friends from The Woman in White

I trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts – WAAPA for short.

First big break
Really, I would say The Woman in White because I’d just come to a new city. I was here a month and I auditioned for it just by putting in my own CV, I didn’t have an agent or anything. I just sent it in, they called me in for an audition with Trevor Nunn and I got it. I had seen the show once, the day before I auditioned for it. I was sitting in the wrong area for it, though. You had to be in the stalls or circle, I was in the upper circle and so couldn’t see all the projections.

Career highlights to date
The Woman in White. And The Last Five Years definitely. I fell in love with it when it first came out in 2002, and it’s been something I’ve wanted to be involved in for ages. My first gig was doing the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in China, in a show called Masterpieces. It was my first international thing and my first gig, and it was with a lot of lovely people like Elaine Paige. There are a lot of people from that I still call friends.

Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
Urinetown - I loved it even though I had the smallest part in the show. It was for Melbourne Theatre Company, which I guess is the Australian equivalent of the National Theatre. The director was awesome, the cast were great, and it was such a fun show. I had one line to say, or rather sing, in the whole thing. I could just turn up, do my line and go. Within that, you can just have fun, there’s not pressure of being the lead.

Favourite directors
Trevor Nunn, of course, because of his stature really, and the fact that the only thing that wasn’t denim were his shoes. He talks a lot in rehearsals and some people might find that tedious, but I love being able to understand something before I do it. I don’t like it when people say “right, let’s just get up and do it… no that’s wrong, let’s do it this way!”. When you fully understand something, then you can do it. I had the most fun in my audition with Trevor for The Woman in White. We did a scene from Romeo and Juliet. He worked on it with me and we had such a ball that I couldn’t have cared less if I got the gig, I was already on such a high. And Matthew White doing The Last Five Years is amazing. The atmosphere he created in the rehearsal room from day one was lovely to work in. There was a lot of freedom. This is a two-hander and the way it works time-wise jumps around a lot, so it can be quite complicated. I think Matthew will be one of my favourite directors of all time. And Simon Phillips from Melbourne Theatre Company.

Favourite co-stars
I idolised Michael Cormick when I was in Australia when I was a young kid. I saw him in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when I was very young – and he hates me saying that so write it in bold! To get to work with him in The Woman in White, when he played my nemesis and I had to beat the living crap out of him every night… that was fantastic! Working with Alexandra Silber on that was extremely lovely, too – so lovely in fact that I thought I might date her for a while, and we’re still there so that’s great. Lara (Pulver, Humbley’s co-star in The Last Five Years) is exquisite to work with. She’s so giving and there’s no pretentiousness there, no ego. As soon as you enter this room, it’s like, how can we both make this work, it’s not about how can this make me shine. They’ve been my three favourite co-stars. I hope I’m not offending anyone by leaving someone out….

Favourite playwrights
Tom Stoppard. What I love about his work is that you can approach it not knowing anything about the subject and still get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but if you do know more about it, there are lots of these little extra things he puts in. If you look at Shakespeare in Love and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, you realise if you know a bit more about Shakespeare, you get 150 percent out of it. Stephen Sondheim is a very good writer, I think. I’m going to go back to my Woman in White days by saying that I think Andrew Lloyd Webber still has a lot to offer the industry. I know a lot of people panned it, but I think Woman in White was one of his best works. He’s just getting more sophisticated in his writing, going beyond musicals in a way. The Woman in White is more like opera, but it’s very accessible and enjoyable for people to watch.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I'd have been an astronaut. Unfortunately, I was born with a defect in my eyes, they shake, which meant I couldn’t be a pilot or an astronaut. So I had to go into theatre - that was the only other option!

Which roles would you most like to play still?
I’d love to play Rosencrantz in and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it’s a wonderful play. And Yvan in Art, that’s one of my favourite plays. I’m pretty much alone in this, but I think Sunset Boulevard is one of the best pieces ever written. I’d also like to play Floyd in Floyd Collins (a musical based on the true story of a Kentucky caver). I played Georgio in Passion. I think I was too young, he was a bit ahead of me then, so I’d love to have another go at that.

What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Festen. I loved it and couldn’t get enough of it: the performances, the design, the use of music throughout it… everything, the whole thing was amazing. My mum used to take me to a lot of musicals when I was a kid. She’s actually one of the main pushes of me getting into this industry. I remember she took me to see The Secret Garden at the Lyric Theatre in Queensland. It was with Anthony Warlow and Philip Quast. That’s when I decided I wanted to get into music theatre study – not in the sense of being in musicals but to understand music in plays and understand acting in musicals and how dance is used. The performances were amazing, and I love anything to do with father-son relationships. I bawled my eyes out like a little baby.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I think your Equity system is really wrong because you don’t have to be a member to work in the industry. If it was compulsory, various things would happen: your standard would go up because only the people who are good at what they do would be in it, therefore you’d be getting more people to come and see productions; the amount of productions put on would probably go down a little bit because of the higher standards, but you shouldn’t have any crap out there; and going to see theatre would go up a notch, it would be classier.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Julius Caesar. It would be nice to see what it would be like to run the majority of the world just for a day, and just enjoy the gold, I guess.

Favourite books
I’ve just finished reading The Time Traveller’s Wife and that was amazing. I was a little boy again – and I cried like a little girl! My favourite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those books are fun to read but so dense – you’ll never beat them.

Favourite holiday destinations
Well, I can say this because I live over here now, but the Port Douglas area in Queensland. If there ever was an Eden, that’s where it was. You can walk outside from your backyard to palm tress and a white shore and blue ocean. That and Dubai.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice was during rehearsals for this show. Jason Robert Brown was telling us “do something because it makes you rich, famous or happy”. That is the best advice I’ve ever received.

What made you want to accept your role in The Last Five Years?
When it first came out, I fell in love with the show. I totally understood where it was coming from, the music was perfect for me to sing, the role was another aspect of me. Everything was perfect about it, why would I not accept it? And I tell you, given the choice between this and another West End production of something for a year running, I would have chosen this. It’s a wonderful piece, truly beautiful. And we’ve all gone through it, you know, we’ve all gone through that long relationship period where things haven’t worked out and all the feelings that go with that. It’s accessible, and to me, it’s what music theatre should be, extremely intimate.

Describe your character in The Last Five Years.
Jamie is a very easy-going, fun-loving guy who doesn’t get bogged down in stuff. Having said that, I don’t think he’s had the chance to because everything seems to be going his way and that confirms everything he feels about himself and his own abilities and his own talent. So he’s just cruising along - the song “Moving Too Fast” is a perfect example of that, so many things are happening for him and it’s all going perfectly for him. He feels a little let down by what’s going on in his relationship.

How involved has Jason Robert Brown been in the rehearsal process?
Jason auditioned us and he came in a week after we had started rehearsing for a few days and worked with us on the show. But he was very insistent on trusting us with it, and especially Matthew. He trusted Matthew’s direction, which I think is a good move for someone who’s so intimately connected with a piece of their work. It gives us a certain amount of empowerment.

Why do you think Jason Robert Brown has such a cult following but has not been so successful commercially?
I think a lot of Jason’s inspiration comes from Stephen Sondheim. He’s like him in two ways: musically but also in his cult status, although he has gone more into the commercial realm a little lately. I think Jason is a writer ahead of his time in a lot of ways, his stuff just hasn’t got out there enough, but I think it will really get appreciated down the line in the way that Sondheim has. And I think that’s cool, that’s where you want to be, you don’t want to be in the commercial market and then, when the next top ten come out, you’re off it. To be part of a community that will appreciate you down the line is much better. Jason is very well respected. If you take any of his songs separately, they can stand on their own, they don’t have to be part of a show. Parade, Songs for a New World and this one have all had cast recordings. I’m not sure where The Last Five Years has been done in the US, but this is its first production here. Parade was done at the Edinburgh festival last year I think. But his shows just haven’t really been done enough and that’s why the general public don’t know about him yet.

Why do you think the Menier Chocolate Factory is a good place for The Last Five Years to receive its UK premiere?
It’s such an intimate piece, and the way the Menier is built, it’s such an intimate space. You come, you have dinner, you have a drink at the bar and head into this beautiful little space where you’re pretty much sitting on top of the performers. Not only all of that, but the idea at the Menier, that everyone does everything and it’s all like a family, is great. You can get the artistic directors taking your booking or tearing your ticket as you go into the auditorium. It’s such a tight-knit family. And it’s got that cult feeling, you know, it’s on the fringe and there’s something very classy about it.

What are your future plans for the future?
I have three weeks off and then I’m going to Sheffield to play Perchick in Fiddler on the Roof, so that’ll be good. That takes me to the end of January. Alexandra is playing Hoddle in it, which is funny, we’re playing love interests again. And for the future I just don’t want to be comfortable. I had the option of doing something other than this and it would have been fun and easy, but I just didn’t want to be comfortable and get stagnant. I always want to work on roles that are going to challenge me.

- Damian Humbley was speaking to Caroline Ansdell

The Last Five Years is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 30 September 2006.