Ian Gelder (John) and Natalie Dew (Alex) in Human Animals
Ian Gelder (John) and Natalie Dew (Alex) in Human Animals
© Helen Maybanks

Natalie Dew is beaming. Sat in the trendy refurbished bar at the Royal Court, ahead of opening night of new play Human Animals which she is starring in, the actress looks relaxed, happy and refreshed. And so she should: she's been taking a well-earned rest after finishing playing footballer-lover Jess in Bend It Like Beckham. "I couldn't stop sleeping after the show [ended] I went into complete shut out from life," she tells me. "I hibernated for about a month."

Bend It Like Beckham was a mammoth project for the 29 year-old Dew. It was the longest contract she had ever taken, the show went straight into the West End in May 2015, got great reviews and ran for a year. Not bad for an actress who didn't actually train in musical theatre. "Ironically, our final year at Guildhall featured a musical and I didn't do it." Instead she headed off into paid work to do Twelfth Night at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Since then she has starred in plays at the National Theatre, the Royal Court, Liverpool Everyman, Leicester Curve and has had stints on TV. But not much singing and not many musicals.

"I was a really nervous singer," she explains, "I had auditioned for something a few years ago [where I had to sing] and I had got so nervous in the audition room that I cried. The people in the room were mortified. It wasn't that I was upset, it's just that I had forgotten to breathe." She looks back on the experience lightly now, but it is part of why she decided to head to the audition for Bend It. When her agent rang up about the audition her initial reaction was "I don't know whether I can put myself through that again." But she rethought and decided to go for it to prove she could do it.

I got so nervous in an audition room that I cried

And prove it she did, getting through audition round after audition round and singing and singing. I'd say they probably loved her, because it's hard not to love Dew: she's bubbly, friendly, funny and charming. She has bright wide eyes and a generous soul evident in the way she talks about her friends ("I can invest in their lives again now Bend It is over") and the Bend It cast (they were "amazing").

She also gets excited by cutting edge theatre, citing the National's recently departed Shed as one of her favourite places: "I saw some of the best things there. Nadia Fall did a production of Home with Michaela Coel, it was exciting for the National to have a bit of an experimental space."

Dew is clearly into 'straight' theatre both as an actor and an audience member, which makes me wonder if she ever worried she would get pigeonholed into musical theatre with Bend It Like Beckham. "I think it's very old fashioned now to have such a distinct line between musical theatre and straight theatre," she says. "I'd never say no to a musical. It's a completely different discipline and it is so much harder than I had ever anticipated." She is full of respect for people who go from contract to contract, saying that over the year in the show she spent her life wearing a scarf and not talking much.

Coming out from Bend It Like Beckham was never going to be easy, then. "I knew I wanted to come back and do a straight play" she says "And when I read the part [in Human Animals] I just knew it was right". She had worked with director Hamish Pirie before on Teh Internet is Serious Business, but there was a fear, she says, about whether she could take on anything other than Jess: "I had done that for a year and a half and wondered: could I play somebody else?"

Natalie Dew as Jess
Natalie Dew as Jess in Bend It Like Beckham
Ellie Kurttz

By all accounts she definitely can: WhatsOnStage's Matt Trueman called her 'outstanding' in his review of the play which is a dark, dystopian vision of the future by Stef Smith. Dew describes it as Black Mirror-esque in the way it explores a world where animals in a city have begun to run riot, spreading chaos and disease. Dew plays Alex, an animal rights activist back from a year of travelling and intent on finding her vocation. It couldn't be more different to Jess, and she's happy with that.

The future for Dew is uncertain, but for the first time in her life she doesn't mind feeling a bit freer. Gurinder Chadha has talked about taking Bend It Like Beckham overseas and I ask her if she'd ever go back to it. Dew immediately says it is "important [the show] has a new life" but she would certainly go on a trip with the cast to watch it. For now, she's enjoying being back at the Royal Court, where she loves the work that Vicky Featherstone is creating. "She's not doing shows to achieve five stars," says Dew. "She's doing shows because they are interesting." Which reminds me a little of Dew's own work choices: she clearly goes for what interests her. And long may that continue.

Human Animals runs at the Royal Court until 18 June.