Rachael Beck returns to the stage in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after a four-year hiatus. Photo: Joseph Feil
''I'M A terrible person to invite to lunch because I want everything,'' Rachael Beck says somewhat abashedly, scanning the menu at Neil Perry's Rockpool restaurant.
On the contrary, that makes her an excellent person to invite to lunch, safe in the knowledge she's actually going to eat something, and probably enjoy it.
You may not guess it from her petite frame but Beck is a devoted foodie, happily chatting about how much she's looking forward to visiting Melbourne's restaurants when the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in which she stars alongside opera singer David Hobson, moves south from Sydney next week.
She listens intently as the waitress talks us through some of the dishes, asking for recommendations. She decides on grilled king prawns, a platter of cold meats and a wonderful radish salad for starters, followed by a wagyu skirt with a side of pumpkin and sweet potato, with burnt butter and garlic yoghurt, and a green-bean salad with anchovy, chilli and lemon dressing, topped with toasted almonds, for mains.
The whole process takes a long time and Beck is clearly enjoying herself: when the dishes arrive, she take pictures with her phone to share with foodie friends. She is especially fond of condiments - her friends joke that she should open her own eatery under that name - and when the wagyu is placed in front of us, it is accompanied by an array of sauces and mustards. Delighted, Beck samples most of them, forming them in neat little pools on her plate.
The main course ends up being a little hurried, as Beck needs to make her flight back home to Sydney, where she's due to perform that evening.
Rockpool's green bean salad. Photo: Joseph Feil
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the story of the brilliant, eccentric inventor and widower Caractacus Potts (Hobson) and his two children, Jeremy and Jemima, who find themselves in possession of a magical car. Along the way they meet the strong, independent and wonderfully named Truly Scrumptious (Beck), who takes a shine to the whole family, particularly Caractacus.
While children are certainly drawn to the story, Beck believes the wit in the script means it is not just for them.
''It is quite a beautiful love story and it's multi-layered,'' she says. ''It's been written for adults as well.''
Grilled king prawns. Photo: Joseph Feil
Chitty Chitty is Beck's first major role in more than four years, the latest step in a stellar career in musical theatre and television.
She has tackled some of the biggest roles the stage has to offer - and received glowing reviews for them - including Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Fantine in Les Miserables, Kathy Selden in Singin' in the Rain and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. In television, she came to notice as Sam in Hey Dad..! in the early 1990s and was later one of the coaches in Channel Seven's singing series, It Takes Two. Along the way she has had two daughters, Tahlula, 6, and Roxie, 3, with her husband, fellow actor and singer Ian Stenlake.
Taking on Truly Scrumptious has reminded her of just how demanding musical theatre can be.
''You are an athlete,'' she says. ''Coming back and doing this show after a break, I remember how athletic you must be because you have to hit that note. It's just so precise. So in that way you have to be as fit as you can be.''
Singing, dancing and acting seems to be in Beck's blood. She grew up in Alstonville, a small town near Ballina in northern New South Wales. Her mum was a primary school teacher and her dad was a tap-dancing cane farmer - quite a combination, she acknowledges proudly - who later became a drama and economics teacher, as well as a writer and director for the Ballina Players theatre group.
As a child, Rachael, the eldest of three children, learnt ballet, tap and jazz, competing in eisteddfods. All this led her, at just 15, to being cast as Rumpleteazer in the Melbourne season of Cats, for which she quit school (the family by then lived in Sydney) and moved south, with her parents' blessing.
''Someone asked me the other night, 'Were you pushed? Did you have the typical stage parents?' I actually mentioned that to my mum and she said, 'Rachael, it was the other way around. You pushed us.' ''
She knows she was lucky to have parents who agreed to let her take on an adult life while still a child, with faith in her maturity and ability to cope.
''Their upbringing of me was solid enough so that I wouldn't go crazy or lose my mind in that weird fantasy world that I'm still in,'' Beck says, smiling.
Had she not been a performer, she says, she would probably have become a psychologist, which would allow her to explore her fascination with why people behave the way they do.
''I think you'd get that answer from quite a few actors,'' she says. ''I think part of why I love acting is because I feel as though I'm almost body-jumping: you can be somebody else, you can create a total new person.''
Even for someone as talented as Beck, it isn't always easy to find work in theatre in Australia - opportunities are limited and competition is fierce.
''I've had a couple of years off here and there, for sure,'' she says. That time off has not been of her own choosing. But she also readily acknowledges she has been fortunate - all those wonderful roles, and from such a young age - and so has never been tempted by the bright lights of Broadway or London's West End.
''I think I've been so fortunate in the work I've had here that I feel creatively fulfilled,'' she says.
Of course, there are days when it is difficult, when a bad day can affect your willingness to slap on a winning smile and belt out a few numbers.
''There are times when you've had a fight with your partner or your cat has died or you're just down in the dumps and you don't feel like singing,'' she says, savouring the condiments with her wagyu.
''You're also an athlete, so I think the discipline that is required is high, but the love of it outweighs all the other things you have to counter.''
The trick to it? She just remembers that figure she has heard - that only 4 per cent of actors are working at any one time in Australia - and thinks about how fortunate she is to be one of them.
''I think about why I do this and it's because I like to take people on a journey,'' she says. ''I like to make people feel or be removed from their everyday lives for a couple of hours.
''One of the greatest things for me is to hear the laughter after a line, because to make someone laugh in this human condition is wonderful. It's a wonderful gift to be able to give.''