Sometimes, music is the answer. And never more so than for Martine McCutcheon, who’s answering back to seven years of pain, suffering and depression by singing with a new nationwide tour, Don Black’s Songbook.
Showcasing the legendary songwriter’s hits and Oscar winning scores, McCutcheon found that one song in particular, As If We Never Said Goodbye, perfectly summed up what she’s been through.
“[The song] is about losing your confidence and losing your footing within the industry and then kind of building yourself back up again. I literally had tears streaming down my face as I did it,” she says.
“Not only did it feel like my story, but I also realised that it was still second nature for me to sing, it felt so natural and I was so very grateful for that.
“I told the shocked musicians at the rehearsal session, ‘I’m sorry to cry but this is me, this is meant to happen’.”
McCutcheon’s initial steps into the showbiz world seemed to be part of destiny, too.
She sprang to fame aged 18 as Tiffany Mitchell in the BBC soap opera Eastenders, went on to win a coveted Laurence Olivier award for her portrayal of Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady in a West End production in 2002, and played the love-struck secretary to Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), in 2003’s Love Actually.
But then it all came crashing down.
“Years of hell” saw her stricken by the chronic fatigue syndrome ME; she was confined to a wheelchair for a time and even contemplated suicide. Last year, after years being unable to work, she was also declared bankrupt.
Although she now looks glowing with health, with her glossy brunette mane of hair and trademark dimples, McCutcheon, 37, says. “It’s been very, very tough. It’s taken me a long time to get myself together and get back again.
“There have been many times when I was so depressed I didn’t want to go on. Suffering excruciating pain for years with no medicine to ease it can get the better of you.”
McCutcheon, originally from Hackney, London, first suffered minor health problems while she was performing in My Fair Lady, eventually forcing her to pull out of the highly successful show after a year.
“That was put down to a virus but also it’s incredibly demanding performing eight shows a week, and that takes its toll on the best of performers,” she says.
Even so, nothing prepared her for a few years later, when she felt so ill that she collapsed 20 times, piled on weight, and suffered depression.
“I had unbelievable pain in my muscles and my joints, was incredibly tired and fatigued the whole time and was so weak I couldn’t even lift my arms above my head to wash my hair.
“What was awful was that I genuinely thought I was going mad because I kept going to all these experts and having blood tests but nobody could find anything that made sense.
“The doctors finally had a ‘eureka’ moment and told me what I had but then revealed they didn’t know what to do about it. That was a double whammy of a blow, I felt in complete despair.”
Luckily, throughout it all, she was sustained by the love of her husband, singer/songwriter, Jack McManus, whom she married in 2012.
“Jack was definitely sent to me from somewhere special above because I just don’t know how I would have carried on without him,” she says.
“He’s been a massive part of my recovery. When I gave up on us, our relationship and my career, and my confidence was on the floor, he never ever did.
“He even washed my hair for me and carried me when I was too weak to do anything.
“He isn’t just my husband, he’s my best friend, and I discovered through the dark times more than ever that I did really, really love him.”
While McCutcheon still has to cope with symptoms of the condition – “it’s about constantly managing it and keeping it at bay, and I have the odd bad day” – she feels she’s gained more understanding of why the illness struck and how to deal with it.
“I was very young when I found success and I am by nature a perfectionist to the point of fault,” she says.
“I definitely paid a price for that. I was incredibly hard on myself. No matter how many people told me I was talented or beautiful or whatever, I would feel I had to prove myself and push harder.
“My mind was incredibly strong, so I think the only thing that could force me to stop and make me take time out to smell the roses was my body stopping of its own accord.
“Now I see my body is trying to protect me rather than hindering me and I listen to what it tells me. I pace myself, don’t push beyond my limits and rest when I need to.”
One thing she will push herself to do, though, is pay back her debts through an arranged payment plan. “The medical bills were huge, I couldn’t work, and even though Jack kept me afloat as much as he could, in the end it wasn’t enough. It was very difficult, but I can’t wait until I can clear my debts and get straight again.”
Her upcoming musical tour, in which she will appear with West End star, Gary Wilmot and actress Maria Friedman, will probably help with that, but of course, it’s about more than finances – she clearly relishes returning to singing, having first found success back aged 15 in all-girl group, Milan, which became a backing group for British boyband, East 17.