THOSE expecting the platinum blonde beehive and massive mascara of Dusty Springfield to be prominent in Son of a Preacher Man should be aware that it is the songs rather than the singer at the heart of this new musical.

Diana Vickers, the X Factor contestant, takes the central role of Kat, a feisty young orphan grieving the death of her grandmother and looking for love via dating apps before turning for help to a love guru. “She’s big and loud and in your face,” says Vickers, “but I think what’s going on under the surface is she’s quite insecure.”

Her romantic odyssey finds her belting out Dusty standards like A House Is Not a Home, I Only Want to Be With You, Some of Your Lovin’ and Stay Awhile.

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Vickers threw herself into the audition attracted by the prospect of playing a well-crafted character. “It was more of a play with music, it’s not a big jazz hands musical. With the acting there’s more to get my teeth into. Even when I went on X Factor I said, ‘Obviously I want to be a pop star, but I’d love to be an actor’. I loved doing my albums but it was very much ‘I won’t be doing this forever’.”

The talent show that gave her such a public launch still casts a shadow. This X Factor is embarking on its 14th series. Vickers finished third in 2008, aged 16 and is known for opting to wear no shoes.

“It’s weird because I’m so out of that,” she says, “but people go, ‘Oh so what have you been up to since X Factor?’ And you’re like, wow, that’s nine years ago.”

She has recorded two albums and earned great reviews in the West End for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the Scarborough-linked play Jim Cartwright originally wrote for Jane Horrocks. Most recently Vickers has starred in a nine-month tour of The Rocky Horror Show.

She admits she arrives in every rehearsal room thinking she has “something to prove, coming from the X Factor and this stigma that comes with it. I’m forever trying to make people aware that I’m very serious.”

With Son of a Preacher Man she had a head start. She grew up with the sounds of Dusty Springfield in the family home and later connected with her more deeply when imitating her as part of her role as Little Voice, the damaged young performer who only comes into her own when she impersonates the great divas. The cabaret medley in the play began with You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

“Dusty’s just got so much emotion in her voice. She’s this soul-jazz- pop singer - all the genres in this perfect mix.”

The director of Son of a Preacher Man is the star of another talent show, Strictly’s outspoken judge Craig Revel Horwood. “He’s very funny and tells you how it is which I like. He’s very assertive and wants you to give it all and go to the extreme and not be afraid and he makes you push the boundaries.” Vickers is not sure she could imagine being judged by him on Strictly.

“I’ve thought about this, especially coming into work with Craig. Part of me would love to do it but I’m a bit shy. Live TV stresses me out believe it or not. So the thought of going on live TV and being judged again, I’ve already done that,” says Vickers.

The show by Warner Brown weaves 20 songs into the story of three people with romantic problems who seek solace in Soho record store famous from the Sixties. Each hope that a fabled love guru will help them, though things don’t turn out quite as fantasised.

It’s Revel Horwood’s first attempt at this type of musical. How is he finding the task of melding dialogue and tunes? “It’s a joy to work on,” he says. “The Dusty music lends itself to good storytelling, and that’s really important. Her stories always have beginning, a middle and an end, and they’re very soulful. A lot of people will be surprised when they see the songs come to life. Her lyrics are really quite poignant. She tells human stories with amazing rhythms that can be applied to men or women and crosses through to being gay as well. That’s why her music is universal.”

Alongside the full cast of actor/musicians, Son of a Preacher Man features a four-piece band and a three-strong girl group pumping out the hits of Dusty Springfield. They are all discovering that the Craig Revel Horwood they see on television can be like that in the rehearsal room too. “I have to give them notes and tell them how I feel. I’m quite direct”. He promises he’s not always strict. “When you go to work you’re a different person and when you knock off you become yourself again.”

He is not allowed to discuss the new line-up for Strictly Come Dancing, but does he have a fantasy cast of celebs he’d like to slap down?

“I’d love to see Simon Cowell. The world would love that. Sharon Osborne would be good because she’s very mouthy. Prince Harry would be fantastic. Why not? I’d love to see royalty.”

Co-star and mimic Debra Stephenson initially hoped she’d be asked to play Dusty Springfield. Instead she plays Alison, one of a trio of heartbroken characters who seek counsel from the love guru. “She’s a very decent person, but very vulnerable. She’s trying to move on, but instead of dealing with the grief of being widowed she has become besotted with a student. The person she’s hankering after really is her husband.”

“I like the way it’s a bit surreal and ethereal. To be part of something that you can help to create is really exciting. When I was at drama school I had a silly ambition to have my name in the front of the playbook. I’ve always wanted to be the original cast member of something.”

  • Sunderland Empire, September 19 to 23. 0844-87- 3022 or ATGtickets.com/Sunderland
  • Then, York Grand Opera House, October 3 to 7. 0844-871-3024 or atgtickets.com/york
  • Darlington Hippodrome, February 6 to 10. 01325-405405, or darlingtonhippodrome.co.uk