School run by day, West End by night. How does Billy Elliott actress Ruthie Henshall manage?

Ruthie Henshall as Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliott: The Musical

Ruthie Henshall as Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliott: The Musical - Credit: Archant

As a working mum, West End star Ruthie Henshall knows all about the pressure of being in two places at once.

Ruthie Henshall

Ruthie Henshall - Credit: Archant

Ruthie is currently starring in Billy Elliott at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London but can also be seen doing the school run in Suffolk, where she lives with her children Lily and Dolly.

She is delighted to be back on stage in a musical again but is finding the routine exhausting.

“It’s huge fun and I’m loving it but the strain of being there for the girls and being in London for matinees and the evening performance does take it out of you. I have started to have a nap between performances, which is unheard of.” In Billy Elliott, Ruthie is playing Mrs Wilkinson, the dance teacher played by Julie Walters in the original film.

The stage musical, directed by Stephen Daldry, who also directed the 2000 film with Jamie Bell as Billy, has expanded the original story with songs by Elton John and Lee Hall.

Ruthie Henshall is on stage with the cast of Cats at the Ipswich Regent talking to her daughters cla

Ruthie Henshall is on stage with the cast of Cats at the Ipswich Regent talking to her daughters classmates from St Joseph's College. - Credit: Archant

Mrs Wilkinson is the latest role in a glittering career on stage in the West End and on Broadway for Ruthie over the past 27 years. But all her success comes with a cost – which is the need to balance the demands of a stage career with a stable home life for her beloved daughters.

She says it is difficult and exhausting trying to balance the demands of theatre and family. Pre-children, it didn’t matter how long you slept the following morning because on non-rehearsal days the theatre world doesn’t really get going until lunchtime. But those days are gone.

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“Now I have kids and I am juggling school runs with theatre nights. I don’t think I have ever been so tired. All I can say: ‘It’s a good job I love my children and it’s a good job I love the show.’

“I get home about one in the morning, get to bed about two and I am up again at 6.30 with the girls. I take them to school, then I come home, walk the dog, then life takes over and you have chores and jobs to do; and now, because there’s a new Billy coming in, for two or three afternoons a week there’s rehearsals and that means I don’t have a chance to go back to bed.

“I get to Thursday and I’m good for nothing, so I have a nap in between shows. If I don’t have to go in during the afternoon then I try and go back to bed for a couple of hours before travelling in for the evening performance. Believe me, trying to survive on four-and-a-half hours’ sleep catches up on you very quickly.

“Sunday is my only day with my children so I want to be completely awake. The kids are now old enough to understand what’s going on, which helps in a way. They don’t like it, but I have to work. We’re lucky to have a lovely nanny who picks them up from school, does the homework, cooks dinner and puts them to bed.

“I know they don’t like it because I find that a lot of fighting happens when I start working and I realise that it’s a fight for my attention. It’s a fight for time. The fact that I recognise that means that I can do something about it, but mothers feel guilty no matter what. I try and spend time with them as much as I can, but I am gone a lot simply because of the travelling.”

She says video technology like FaceTime helps a lot because she can see and talk with them in real time, even when she is not in the house.

She added that because Billy Elliott features children in the cast, security arrangements mean she can’t bring her own two along to sample life backstage as she could when they were younger.

But technology and a lot of early mornings mean that family life continues; and if that wasn’t enough, Ruthie has adopted a surrogate family at the theatre from among the children appearing with her on stage.

“I can’t tell you how much I love those children. These youngsters light up my day and what’s so great is that you have a different Billy every single night, so the energy is different every night. Watching them grow, I feel like I’m the mother for all of them. I say ‘If you’re feeling down or miss home, come and see me.’ They have got a huge support network so they probably don’t need me, but I feel very protective.” Potential Billys are trained at their local schools before being brought to London for intensive rehearsals. “They have to bring them up to a certain standard. They teach them ballet and tap and, having got the dance skills in place, they then have to teach them the show.

“There’s one move when Billy has to leap from a piano that’s called a biryani – it sounds like an Indian meal to me – but I was watching a rehearsal with one of the resident choreographers and I said ‘How do they do that? That’s ridiculously difficult,’ and he said ‘We just don’t tell them it’s difficult.’

“That’s kids for you. They’re fearless. If they don’t know it’s hard then they just do it.”