Suffolk-based West End star Ruthie Henshall is having a busy Christmas this year. Not only is she finally doing her first panto, playing the Wicked Queen in Snow White, but she is also gearing up to open a professional drama school in Bury St Edmunds in the New Year, while continuing to campaign for family access to care homes. 

As with everything she does, she is very hands on. She doesn’t just lend her name to a project, she makes sure she gets involved. 

Setting up a stage school, programming the courses, sorting out financing, looking for premises, booking top professionals to act as tutors plus sorting out 101 unforeseen micro-details would challenge even the most experienced business entrepreneur. But add in the prospect of a four-week run in panto and being a physical presence in Parliament when the hot topic of access to care home residents is being debated, and Ruthie is happy to have her longstanding professional partner Paul Schofield onboard to help shoulder the burden, along with newly-appointed head of academic staff Gary Willis. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Ruthie Henshall alongside CAST drama school membersRuthie Henshall alongside CAST drama school members (Image: Oliver Rosser)

“I love a challenge,” she laughs, “Life’s busy but it’s also great fun.” She adds that by playing the panto villain she is earning her fair share of boos and hisses from the audience. 

“I love playing the villain – especially in panto – you can just let yourself go and make that connection with an audience. You can wind them up. You can be as evil and as over-the-top as you like and they love you for it.” 

She says that, despite enjoying a long and very successful career, she has never had the opportunity to appear in a panto before. “I have always taken my daughters Dolly and Lily to the New Wolsey’s Rock ’n’ Roll panto, but I have never been in a panto myself before now. 

“I think the problem is that if you are in a West End show or rehearsing for a tour you are not available. I’ve always wanted to do one – particularly to play the villain – so when the New Wimbledon Theatre asked me, I jumped at the chance. I’m a panto virgin no longer.” 

East Anglian Daily Times: Ruthie on stage in Billy ElliotRuthie on stage in Billy Elliot (Image: Alistair Muir)

It’s a style of theatre with its own rules and conventions which Ruthie is relishing. “I love being able to forget about the fourth wall and make direct contact with the audience, and although all the bits of business are very much scripted you are given some leeway to be spontaneous in your reactions, you can make the most of those happy accidents, those moments when the audience interact with something particular which is happening on stage.” 

She says that pantomime has reminded her of why she went into theatre in the first place – her early days saw her performing as a dancer and a member of the chorus in end-of-the-pier shows at Clacton-on-Sea before landing the role of Jemima in Cats during the early days of its West End run. 

This, then, opened up her career signficantly, with parts in in Miss Saigon, her breakthrough role as Fontaine in Les Misérables and an Olivier award-winning role in Crazy For You. Ruthie would then star as Nancy in Cameron Macintosh’s revival of Oliver at the London Palladium which in turn led to her playing both leading roles, Roxy Hart and Velma Kelly, in Chicago, in the West End and on Broadway. Other critically-acclaimed roles include the titular character in Peggy Sue Got Married, Marguerite and a long run as the dance teacher in the West End production of Billy Elliot. 

Theatre continues to be her first love, performing live in front of an audience, and earlier this year, she starred in a revival of Passion, Stephen Sondheim’s last full-length musical, to mark his death at the age of 91. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Ruthie as Roxie in ChicagoRuthie as Roxie in Chicago (Image: Contributed)

Ruthie says panto always heightens that live, on-stage experience for both performer and audience – something she would like to put across in her own drama school courses. With CAST, her new professional training academy in Bury St Edmunds, she wants to give young actors the tools to be able to perform in a theatre as well as before a camera – skills to enable them to have a diverse career in an ever-changing industry. 

The genesis of Ruthie’s stage school, which will take in its first students in September 2023, stretches back 10 years to when she penned a self-help book for aspiring musical theatre performers called So You Want To Be In Musicals? 

It was a practical guide to not only performing but also how to audition for both roles in shows and for stage school. It was all about helping the next generation of actors and musical stars make their mark in an industry which regards 90 per cent unemployment as a norm. 

So, what prompted the desire to build upon the book and open a physical academy? 

Ruthie is clear. “I have always wanted to inspire or mentor young people coming into the business. It’s a wonderful business but it’s not always a kind business. There’s a lot of rejection and periods of no work, so you have got to love it.  

“For me the business has changed so much since I first entered it. A lot of auditions are now remote – many casting sessions require you to send in a self-recorded video. It seems to have gone a little bit crazy at the moment. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Ruthie in Les MisérablesRuthie in Les Misérables (Image: Michael Le Poer Trench)

“As a result, I have come to realise that we are essentially all self-employed and we need a side-hustle to keep the wolf from the door – to not only fill in between jobs but to make opportunities for ourselves. 

“A sad reality that every young actor has to face is that this business doesn’t pay a living London wage to an ensemble member. Even if you are in work, you need another income to keep your head above water. So I am going to teach them everything, aided by some of the top people in the industry. 

“I have made full use of my address book and I can say we are going to have icons and legends of the theatre industry coming along and passing on their experience and their wisdom to our students. These people will be doing hands-on teaching and the students will look up to these teachers because they have clearly done it themselves. They are passing on knowledge that they have gained in the real world.” 

Among the ‘iconic’ tutors who will be providing some real-world wisdom are Claude Michel Schonberg, composer of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, West End choreographer Stephen Mear CBE who won an Olivier award for his work on Mary Poppins along with other industry names currently being confirmed. 

“We are looking for individuals – people with personalities. We are looking for a diverse intake. It’s not one size fits all. The training will be varied and different because as I said the industry has changed so much and we have to reflect that.” 

East Anglian Daily Times: Ruthie HenshallRuthie Henshall (Image: Contributed)

She adds that to give the individual attention necessary they are only taking 25 students a year. “It will be a unique experience for each person. I feel that when I came into theatre it was ‘show’ business, now it is show ‘business’ with the emphasis on the business. 

“Every performer has to look at themselves as a business. People are now being cast on how many social media followers they have. There are things like that, which are now very important, which didn’t even figure when I started. 

“We are looking to prepare our students for a life-long career in the business. So it’s not just being the young lead, it’s about being able to act, to become a character actor. It’s giving them additional skills, something to have in their back pockets that they can pull out at an audition which will differentiate them from the next person.” 

At the end of three years the students will emerge with a diploma in Musical Theatre Industry Preparation but they are hoping to be able to offer an even better qualification. 

She said that they are speaking to a variety of universities looking for accreditation so that they can award a degree at the end of the third year. They are also looking to provide opportunities for the students to gain real-life theatrical experiences. 

“At the moment most existing stage schools don’t allow their students to any stage work until their third year which, to my mind, is ridiculous because you learn by doing – that’s the best way. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Ruthie Henshall alongside Paul SchofieldRuthie Henshall alongside Paul Schofield (Image: Oliver Rosser)

“I want to find them parts in London so they can be seen by casting agents, directors and producers – so their names and faces are out there. 

“So, I want to turn the very nature of training on its head – make it practical – learn from the best, learn from the people actually working in the industry.” 

She adds that although they are having to charge students each year, ultimately she would love to find someone or some organization to underwrite the fees to allow anyone with talent to make use of the opportunities on offer. 

“Places shouldn’t be based on your ability to pay but at the moment we don’t have a choice but we are exploring options which will hopefully make the playing field a little bit more level.” 

While playing the Wicked Queen in panto, preparing courses for her drama school, getting ready for Christmas away from home this year, she is also keeping an eye on her care home campaign, which swiftly gained ground during the pandemic when she was unable to have face-to-face contact with her mother Gloria who was resident in a local care home.

Like thousands of other families around the country, she looked on helpless as her mother’s health deteriorated because of social isolation. 

Even before her mother died, she started campaigning to allow families to have physical contact with their loved ones to provide comfort and mental stimulation. 

“I think we are now really close to getting Gloria’s Law. I was in the Commons’ gallery when they were debating the details of the situation and it was fascinating because I felt that, at long last, they (the MPs) get it. During the debate so many of the MPs stood up and told their own stories, sharing their own horrific stories relating to their own loved ones in care. 

“All we are asking for, if there is another pandemic or another health crisis or whatever, that everyone should be entitled to a visit from an essential care giver. If, for example, they have to go into hospital for an essential appointment then they get to have someone go with them. 

“Listening to the debate, I think we are very close to getting a law passed.” 

Now, until the end of December, Ruthie is placing her Wicked Queen’s crown back on her head and heading off to duel with audiences at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Practicing her wicked laugh she is now ready to send Snow White to her doom in the dark forest. 

For more information on CAST, Ruthie Henshall’s new drama school, and application forms go online to