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DAVID ESSEX at 60 is still turning heads. With his close-cropped hair and dapper white beard, this East End boy looks like a retired diplomat attending the Henley Regatta. He may now be in his 61st year but David is still forever young.

"Inside I feel about 23," he declares. "My 60th birthday fell on the day we started rehearsals for Aspects of Love. All these 60th birthday cards kept arriving and I couldn't understand it. Who are all these cards for? I kept asking myself."

David is paying an overdue return visit to the musical theatre by taking the role of the suave roué George Dillingham in this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love. It's something of a reunion for both men since David memorably created the role of Che in the original 1978 production of Evita.

For Aspects of Love, David read everything about the show and his character.

"George is an engaging and charismatic man with lots of charm. There are aspects of his personality which we'd all like to imitate."

A possible reason for David's lengthy absence from the musical theatre is the number of other lives he leads. After all, David is not simply an actor. He's also a performer, a songwriter, a recording artist, a record producer and an enduring heartthrob for ladies of a certain age and their daughters.

"I am trying to do less," he protests, unconvincingly. "And I hate the idea of outstaying my welcome, of hanging on too long so that people get fed up with me. It would be nice to think that people who've seen me in my rock show will also come to Aspects of Love."

Whenever David does decide for the pipe, the slippers and the bus pass, he'll be able to look back on an extraordinary career. He has written and/or recorded a string of hit records in the UK and the US, chalking up 23 singles in the British Top 30 alone. Rock On topped the US charts and established him in American show business. David starred in both That'll Be The Day and its sequel Stardust. He enjoyed a long run in the West End as Jesus in Godspell and both wrote and starred in Mutiny.

"Music has always been my first love and I always feel more comfortable with music around me. I never wanted to be famous, that's why I chose to be the drummer so I could hide behind the cymbals. It sounds very worthy but I found the fame and the adulation slightly embarrassing."

David reckons that his survival in show business is down to his long apprenticeship in the world of entertainment before stardom came calling.

"It all started to happen for me when I'd been in the music business for the best part of ten years. I'd started as a drummer in a blues band when I was 14 and for most of the next decade, I was living hand to mouth in a succession of B & Bs or in the back of a Dormobile.

"I often wish that I'd savoured my success a bit more. I remember that I was filming That'll Be The Day when I learnt that I was No.1 in America. I couldn't really take it."

Among David's current projects is All The Fun Of The Fair, a new musical on the theme of travellers which he's writing in partnership with Jon Conway.

Looking back on his career, David puts much of it down to self-belief.

"I've always been my own man and so I've been able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I don't do much television either. I did do an episode of Heartbeat just to please my mother. Of course, it's easier to be picky about what you do when you have a few bob in the bank."

In the wake of his mother's death earlier this year, David went on a nostalgic pilgrimage to the East End of his childhood.

"I spent the day there, visiting my parents' graves, wandering through Canning Town and then crossing the river and spending some time in Greenwich. When I was a boy, the East End was much more unified and, like society in general, it was a much more caring place. Growing up in the East End, it was like being part of a family. Now it's much more selfish. When I'd go to watch West Ham at Upton Park, dockers on the terraces would be happy to pass kids like me down to the front so we could get a better view of the game."

Aspects of Love is at Wycombe Swan, January 22 to 26. Tickets: 01494 512000