Ruthie’s on song
Life’s a blur for West End star Ruthie Henshall at the moment. Not only is she co-starring in Blithe Spirit with acting legend Alison Steadman but she is also engaged in an on-going national concert tour reviving the sounds of the golden age of Hollywood and she is also preparing to take part in an all-star Christmas concert at the O2 Arena.
Having dropped her children off at school, I speak to her as she is driving down to Brighton for an evening concert. Life is really that busy. She has an agreement with the producers of Blithe Spirit, the Noel Coward revival she is currently appearing in, to have night’s off to honour her concert commitments which were in place before she was cast.
“Life is certainly hectic,” she laughs, “But, it’s a nice problem to have. In a way it’s the nature of our business. It’s either feast or famine.”
Ruthie, who lives on the Suffolk/Essex border, is well known for playing both lead roles in Chicago both in the West End and on Broadway. She was nominated for an Olivier for Crazy For You and then won for She Loves You. She also appeared in Les Miserables both in the West End and in the Dream Cast production as well as headlining new musicals Peggy Sue Got Married and Marguerite.
In addition to her increasingly frenetic professional life, Ruthie is also taking time out to raise money for a local charity Suffolk Family Carers. She said that like many showbusiness celebrities she is frequently contacted to lend her name to good causes or charity work but she only accepts those which she feels she can make a positive contribution towards. It’s not enough just to have a name on a letter head.
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On December 5, Ruthie will be playing a sell-out concert at the Ipswich Regent, raising funds for the Suffolk Family Carers – a charity which really moved her when she was introduced to their work 18 months ago. “I was just knocked out when I learned about the work of the Suffolk Family Carers. I was amazed at what they do because we go on living our lives and we just don’t realise the support they give people who really need it.
“They help people who are caring and they don’t know they are. They are looking after someone, who can’t look after themselves, and they are doing it because they love them. They don’t see themselves as carers but they are and they need help and support. Also you have the situation where you have children, some as young as eight, caring for parents or older family members, and it’s just a way of life for them. Then you have people at the other end of the age range, people of 85 caring for friends and family. If you added up what friends and family save the country in terms of looking-after loved ones then you would be amazed. It would make a big hole in the Government’s budgets.
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“Caring is a full-time job and many people have no respite whatsoever. And no matter how much you love them, people do need a break and that’s where Suffolk Family Carers step in. They help with respite breaks, raise awareness of the needs of family carers and provide support services.”
She said that she saw her job as patron to use her celebrity, her gifts as a performer to raise the profile of the charity and help raise funds.
Ruthie was introduced to their work when she was invited to open a Suffolk Carers fete and she was bowled over by the work of the charity and the dedication displayed by the staff and volunteers. “It was an amazing experience. They were giving Suffolk’s carers a fantastic afternoon of fun and events and I was shown around and was really overwhelmed by the work they do – giving Suffolk’s Carers additional skills and information, support, help, contacts and people to talk to and provide advice or just an opportunity to blow off steam. I was given just a glimpse at the vast amount of what Suffolk Carers actually do and I was so moved by meeting the carers that I couldn’t walk away from it.”
She said that she was very aware that Suffolk Family Carers wasn’t a very high-profile charity and it was doing such important work that she felt that this was one worthy cause that could benefit from her association. “If I can draw attention to them and help them carry on their incredibly valuable work then I will be very happy. It’s such a busy world out there and there are so many charities with very well developed publicity departments that it’s very easy for some of smaller charities to get overlooked. I am determined that Suffolk Family Carers will not be one of them.”
She added that the message she wanted to get out there was if you are caring for a friend, neighbour or loved one there was no need to struggle on alone. There was an organisation able to lend you a helping hand.
She said that her concert at the Ipswich Regent not only was an opportunity to raise money for a worthy cause but was also a chance for supporters to let their hair down.
“The show will be a mixture of bits from the Sounds of Hollywood show because people love those songs and I love singing them but also some other bits as well. There will be plenty of variety. We are picking some good, well known musical songs. We are aiming to provide a really good evening at the theatre and these are the songs that people want to hear.”
As soon as the concert is finished Ruthie will be returning to her performance as Elvira in Blithe Spirit – her first foray into a straight play, although musicals like Marguerite, Chicago and The Woman In White have more than proved her dramatic range. “I was doing Chicago on Broadway earlier this year when Thea (Sharrock – the director) phoned me up and asked if I would consider doing Blithe Spirit. She asked me to do something six years ago but I had just had Lily and was reluctant to take on anything else. I had just finished Chicago and Fosse and I just wanted to spend some time with my little girl. So I turned the job down.
“Fortunately the opportunity has come round again and I jumped at the chance because I think Thea is a brilliant director. They are talking about her taking over the running of the Donmar Warehouse – she is that good. She directed Daniel Radcliffe in Equus and Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope. I also thought I am getting a little older now and I really ought to spread my wings. I have always done musicals, I have been raised on musicals, and I relished the opportunity to do something a little bit different.”
She said that working opposite a comedy legend like Alison Steadman provided her with an acting masterclass. “It’s not a complete change because you have to act in musical theatre and I have done shows like Marguerite which require some strong acting skills but when you are doing a play opposite Alison Steadman then you know things are moving up a gear.”
She said that musical performers get mentally pigeon-holed as people who only appear in musicals. “You get put in that slot and there you stay unless you aren’t careful. I think I have something more to offer and hopefully this will give me an opportunity to show what I can do.”
She said that working with Alison Steadman was like having a masterclass in advanced acting skills. “She’s amazing. I feel very honoured to be working opposite her because she is absolutely one of our national treasures. She knows comedy. Not only that she knows theatre. She arrived at the first day of rehearsal absolutely word perfect. It’s wonderful to play opposite someone like that.”
She said she is having a second education not only watching Alison at work but also co-stars Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst. “I never thought I would hear myself saying this but plays are very different. If I am doing a musical I am either on stage performing or I am in the wings getting changed or waiting to go on. You are concentrating the whole time. You are always ‘on’. In play you come on do and a scene and go off. Then you have to remain focused off-stage for quite a while before re-entering and bringing with you that same amount of energy. There’s no music to help you. You have to carry that energy yourself.
“Working with Alison, Hermonie and Robert shows that to succeed on stage you have to put the work in. There are no short-cuts. You have to know your lines, you have to know your moves and you have to rehearse properly. That’s not to say that you don’t in musicals but the dynamics are different.”
For Ruthie one of the surprises is not being miked. She is having to rediscover her theatrical stage voice. “Having been in musicals for most of my career I am used to having a small microphone inserted into my hair, my wig or along by my ear and I don’t have to worry about being heard. I can whisper if I want to and they will pick it up. Musicals have become so big that we need microphones to get over the orchestra.
“When I started rehearsals on stage – without the aid of a microphone – then I had to start worrying about hitting the back of the upper circle. What I found difficult at first was that feeling of being slightly dishonest, that you weren’t really acting, you were declaiming.
“At first it feels unreal because you are having to project in order to hit that back row but after-a-while the old skills comes back and you start to feel more comfortable again. It’s a whole different ball game and I have to say it did take me my surprise because I have spent my whole life in the theatre. “But doing straight plays is like learning my business all over again. It’s going back to the roots of theatre of being in an audience and being transported to another place, another world, by the play being performed in front of you.
“I was fortunate to be involved in the last days of rep when I was at Chichester. I was cast in a Shakespeare and when I went down there, I found myself in the rest of the season. We rehearsed one play, put that on and rehearsed the next one during the day while you performed the original play at night. The you put the second play on and you are rehearsing the third.
“For me it was like being back in college again. I was learning so much from people like Keith Michell, Dorothy Tutin and Tony Britton. It was very hard work but I found very quickly that there was much to be learned from people who are doing it and are experts at their art.”
She said that performing Noel Coward was also a challenge as he wrote very particular dialogue which had to be delivered quickly and precisely.
“There is a certain way of playing Coward and if you don’t do it right then it doesn’t make sense. It’s very quick fire and we are using that sophisticated ‘40s delivery. But at the end of rehearsals during that first week our brains were fried. We were exhausted but the way that he wrote it was just so clever.
“For me, it is interesting because the way it is written is almost musical. The dialogue is just like a set of lyrics which have to be delivered in a very precise way. Also if you look at the stage directions he was very particular, very specific about what he wanted. He obviously had a vision because he wrote the whole play in five days – over a long weekend. It’s inspired which is why it has survived.”
Instead of being exhausted by the fact that she has virtually double-booked herself, Ruthie says that the change of performing styles, switching as she is doing from a straight play into a concert setting has actually energised her. “There is something liberating about giving a disciplined performance in a straight play, then leaping into a car and driving to Manchester and doing something which is pure showbiz, pure glamour – singing show tunes from the golden age of Hollywood.”
She confirmed that musicals remain her passion and she can’t see herself ever not singing but she says she is grateful to be able to do something a little bit different, something that will stretch her and keep her energised.
Her only regret is that her busy lifestyle means that she doesn’t get to see as much of her two daughters Lily, 7, and Dolly, 5, as either she or they would like. However, because much of her work is in London, she is able to get the girls up and enjoys being with them in the mornings and taking them to school. If she is away then the nanny brings them over for visits. They even stayed with her in New York during the Chicago run but life as a single mum can be difficult. “I try and be with them as much as I can. I am so fortunate to have a really good nanny and my parents help out. Also their daddy Tim (Howar) sees as much of them as they can but it is important that they have a stable home life, particularly now they are at school.”
Apart from a one-off O2 Christmas concert Ruthie has December off and is looking forward to getting the girls in the Christmas spirit. “It will be lovely to spend all day with them.”
Then in the New Year it will be back into Blithe Spirit opens at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London on March 2 and runs until June 18. There will be out of town previews at Milton Keynes from February 14-19 and at Richmond from February 21-26.
Ruthie Henshall’s fund-raising concert for Suffolk Family Carers, Care For A Song: An Evening with Ruthie Henshall and Friends is at the Ipswich Regent on December 5.