Wheels on fire

HERE'S a story that'll bring tears to your eyes - from laughing.

Sure, the ingredients for a sob-fest are all in place: plucky wheelchair-bound heroine; life-shortening genetic disease; love found and lost; sudden death; soaring ambition and raging libido. I could tug your heartstrings until they snapped. But if I did, the lady in question wouldn't recognise herself. Natasha Wood is more of a motorised Mae West, with a mouth built for saucy quips and a habit of grabbing life by the - well, you get the picture.

Wood sets the tone by recounting a memory from when she was four and had the following conversation with her dad:

"We bought you in a store, toy department, top shelf."

"How much did you pay, Dad?"

"Oh, very cheap on account that you were broken."

"Why didn't you try and fix me?"

"Your mother tried. She went out and bought sticky tape and glue."

"Well, why didn't you try and take me back? You always told us that if something's broken you should take it back."

"Ah, well, you were sold as seen."

Her delivery's slick and polished - the accent's pure Midlands - and doesn't change much when she performs later that night at a London preview. When your show's autobiographical it must be hard separating your stage self from the real deal. Am I talking to the "real" woman? She assures me every word of the show is true and, to be fair, everyone has a preferred method of relaying their personal saga. Some play the victim, some the ingenue. Wood plays for laughs. Indeed, the only disconcerting note is her constant use of the verb "walk" to describe how she moves through the world.

She is the youngest of three. Her eldest brother, Martin, is a bookmaker and able-bodied. Next came Johnny, born with the genetic disease spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), in which the impulses in your brain cannot communicate with your muscles which, since they cannot be used, become atrophied. By the time he was diagnosed, Natasha, now 37, was on the way. She, too, has SMA, and was born with three curves in her spine. She's never been able to walk, but that didn't stop her for long. Her engineer grandfather found two decommissioned dodgem cars and reconfigured them with batteries. Whizzing around in their little cars, she and Johnny were well-kent traffic hazards in their little village.

At first she wore a large plastic and metal brace with a built-in chin rest. As she grew, it became a metal chest brace that fitted beneath her clothing. When her best friend Jane took a beating on the playground, Wood insisted on being wheeled over to confront the attacker. "Hit me," she insisted, getting right in his face. The little boy did, and broke his hand. Off he went to hospital; she went to the headmaster's office. Not for the first time, either. She'd had a reprimand at age six for telling someone to piss off. "When that happened we knew you were going to be all right," her father said. Just as well, since Martin liked bringing his friends home to throw darts at his armour-plated siblings, exhorting them to avoid hitting the younger kids' heads or arms.

When she stopped growing Wood had an operation to stretch and reinforce her spine. "You're stretched on the table as far as they can, then they put metal rods on either side of the spinal column, with wires going into every single vertebrae, so it's absolutely rigid. It was a huge operation, I was nine hours on the table," she says.

Having two kids in wheelchairs never daunted her parents' drive, nor were they prone to bouts of self-pity. "My mum was a beauty queen and was very much into her looks and how she presented herself. She liked wearing her little skirts and getting her boobs out. She was always glamorous," recalls Wood.

"It was a lively house and a noisy, funny, quirky childhood. My parents had a very successful underwear business on the markets in Nottingham and Birmingham. School holidays were spent selling underwear. My dad taught me how to tell a woman's cup size from the age of six. Weekday evenings were spent watching television and sorting bras. Our living room looked like a sex shop. I don't remember any disability talk. I've never had that conversation with them, even now, so it'll be interesting to see if this show brings it out."

Johnny chose to board at a residential school, returning home at weekends, but Natasha went to the local primary. Kids are cruel at the best of times, I muse, and surely she suffered more than most? "I think I've got my mum's fighting spirit and my dad's sense of humour. I remember being gobby. I gave as good as I got, so it stopped before it got anywhere." When she was 11, some kids wrote SPACK on the ramp at school. There were three of them in wheelchairs; one, a friend with spina bifida, was quite shy. "When I saw the graffiti I worried that it would upset her. I didn't register that it was for me, too."

In a nonchalant tone laced with enough edginess to make my ears prick up, Wood tells me her mum never made a secret of the fact that she wanted a little girl who could walk and dance. But the jokes keep coming. There was a holiday to Antigua. A normal family brings home straw hats and seashells. They returned with a baby. "It's funny, because when Tammy came along I was 18. My mum got talking to people on the beach and a few days later this baby was passed through our door and now she's 20. It's the most bizarre experience. But I never had any strong feelings about it because I knew I was moving out." The biggest problem now, she jokes, is that her little sister's always hitting her up for cash.

Johnny was very focused on his disability and conceived an ingenious master plan. "Old people's homes are the way forward," he announced. "That's where I'm going and I have no intention of coming back. There are plenty of people around; you can have a bath whenever you want; and there's no competition because half the old folks won't even know you're there." He moved to one on the east coast, and Natasha found one in her home town of Nottingham, where she lived until being granted an independent-living flat, in the red-light district.

Independence (of a sort) accomplished, it was time to tackle her lifelong dream of attending an accredited drama school. First she'd need an A-level in drama. She was accepted at college but the education authority wouldn't pay. Apparently it wasn't an appropriate use of funds.

Because they didn't think you stood a chance, I ask? "Yes. It wasn't illegal to discriminate back then. I decided to fight it. I figured if I got a letter from a school or a theatre company offering me a place at the end of the course, I could take that in and say look, I've got an audition now." This turns out to be typical of Wood, who's an expert at seeing the finish line and determining exactly what steps are needed to get there.

Three weeks and a ton of letters later she won a role in a production of Why, put on by the disabled-led Graeae Theatre Company, and went off on a national tour. "I had my Equity card before even going to college! I walked back in to the education authority, waved it at them and said, 'Don't suppose this would swing it, would it?' They were so impressed they paid my fees."

At college, Wood fell in love with a hunk called Duncan. She thought the affair was a flash in the pan, but even after going off to university in Manchester he kept coming back at weekends. Meanwhile, she was struggling. "I got a couple of walk-on roles in London's Burning and some theatre work, but nothing that was going to keep me in the manner to which I was determined to get accustomed. On the set of London's Burning I got talking to the broadcast assistant and asked what she did. I said, 'Oh that's my job. I'll have it.'"

Eventually she saw an ad for the trainee broadcast assistant post of her dreams and beat 1,500 other candidates for one of just two spaces. She prepared for the interview by swotting in the library. "There was nothing I didn't know about the BBC. I could've written the Trivial Pursuit questions."

She and Duncan got a house in Nottingham. He commuted to Sheffield and she commuted to Birmingham. Life was pretty fantastic. "Sex for breakfast, sex for tea, and a great circle of friends." After ten years together they married in France, surrounded by family and friends.

While writing the show Wood tried to address all the questions someone might ask about her condition, so yes, there's even a sex scene. But it was only by reading her blog that I discovered nothing's off limits. There aren't many interviewees of whom I could inquire: "Did you really have all your pubic hair lasered off?" or "I bet the view of men's asses is terrific from where you sit." Wood hoots with laughter. "Yes, I'm bald as a coot down below! I'm an advert for the laser. I've had my eyes lasered, my underarms done, and my pubic hair removed."

She also had her boobs done. Rather, she had some installed. "The right one didn't exist because of me back and the left one drooped right down because of me twist. I wanted tits. My whole life was tits. My mother had a double-D cup. I wore a metal brace from the age of four until I was 13, and I wanted to get big enough to wear the one that had holes cut out in it." She circumscribes two circles over her chest. "Sadly I never did."

Just when everything seemed perfect, it crumbled to dust. After 14 years, she and Duncan realised they were no longer facing the same direction. He longed for a peaceful existence and she wanted - actually, she couldn't put her finger on it. There's a catch in her voice when she says, "I exhausted him mentally. I knew he wanted to relax with a glass of wine in the garden in the middle of England and I love that. I'm angry with myself sometimes that I wanted something more and I didn't know what it was.

"When he left, the first thing I did was apply for a transfer to New York, as a joke. But they gave it to me. I couldn't go until spring, because it was too cold for me in winter and I had ten months at home not going out much. I was very lonely because no-one knew. It took me six months to tell anyone in the office we'd split up. Every day I'd pick up the phone at 4pm and pretend to have a conversation with Duncan. It took me nearly three months to tell my dad. He used to come round every Friday for a coffee and I would say Duncan was working late. I didn't want anyone to pity me. I miss him terribly. He's with someone now and he's very happy. I haven't seen him since the day I helped him move out in April, three years ago."

Worse was yet to come. The threat of infection is omnipresent for people with SMA, because they lack the physical strength to shake it off, especially if it settles in the chest. "Everyone assumes that I can do so much. I drive. And I walk everywhere - but I can't take my shoes on and off. I can feel every part of me, but I can't lift it. It's an overall weakness of muscle, top to bottom. People come in at different points of the day to help me out, five times a day. At the age of 34, when Duncan left, I felt disabled for the first time in my life. With Duncan it was undress, toilet, brush teeth and throw me into bed in ten minutes. Now it's undress, toilet, brush teeth and into bed using a hoist by a stranger - and it takes an hour. It's not Duncan's fault, we had the most amazing marriage and the most amazing divorce. It kills me, but we were so f***ing civilised."

She lost her way for a little while and in the winter before she was due to head to New York, caught pneumonia. Two weeks after leaving hospital she learned that Johnny also had pneumonia, only he didn't recover. He was never as strong and, being heavier, the burden on his heart and lungs was greater. "I was too weak to go to see him; it was 80 miles away. When he died it was such a shocking moment. He was 37. I'd seen him at Christmas and thought he looked fantastic. Six weeks later I had to get on a plane and go to America. For the first time I started to think, what is this disability I have?"

In Manhattan she rallied, worked on the US version of What Not to Wear and dated up a storm. She started feeling like her old self; the kid with attitude was making a comeback. When her job ended she headed to LA for a year off. Maybe she'd study acting, maybe take some writing classes.

California meant celebrities, and she's done her share of mingling with A-listers such as Leonardo DiCaprio. "I met him at a screening of Blood Diamond and I had him on his knees for the photograph!"

At last November's BAFTAs she compared ankles with Dustin Hoffman; told Tim Robbins that her dad had divorced her mum so he could marry Susan Sarandon, meaning Tim had ruined her chance of having a great stepmother; met Emma Thompson - "fabulous" - and flirted shamelessly with Forest Whittaker. Still, she's realistic. "I know it's 'Oh, I'll go talk to that little girl in the wheelchair.'" But once she opens up that fresh mouth they quickly realise an encounter with Wood is more than just a photo opportunity.

So there you have it: a life much like any other, full of highs and lows but told with panache by a woman with the talent to take us from pathos to punchline in a heartbeat, carefully avoiding bathos along the way. After years of ignoring her disability, Wood is facing up to it in her own iconoclastic style. "I know I've been lucky. I'm one of the happiest people around. I've never been in therapy. Instead I've just laughed my way through or cried, but I just got on with it."

• Natasha Wood, Rolling with Laughter, is at the Pleasance Dome, 1 Bristo Square, Edinburgh, August 1-27. Tickets, 5-8. Tel: 0131-226 0000 or visit www.edfringe.com

• For information about SMA, visit the Jennifer Trust's website, www.jtsma.org.uk