Bonnie Langford interview - 'Every so often, I'll look up and picture my Dad watching me in 42nd Street'
An eight-year-old Bonnie Langford made her West End debut in a stage musical version of Gone with the Wind at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. That was some 46 years ago; and now she's come full circle, back to this very same stage, to take over as Dorothy Brock in the current hit revival of 42nd Street.
In-between, she's played Broadway, both as a child star (in a transfer of a London production of Gypsy, in which she played Baby June to Angela Lansbury's Momma Rose), and as an adult (reprising the role of Roxie Hart that she'd previously played in the West End in Chicago). She's also returned to this stage once before, 35 years ago, in a production of The Pirates of Penzance that transferred from Broadway.
"But I wasn't in this room, for sure… Tim Curry was here then!" We are sitting in the star dressing room, located just off to the side of stage left, on the same level as the stage, and it has its own sitting room, complete with day bed, beside the dressing room itself.
It was also in this theatre that she coincidentally had her first audition for Cats - "in the ballet room downstairs" - and became the first person to play the role of Rumpleteazer, in a cast that also featured Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed and Wayne Sleep back in 1981. She wasn't yet 20, but had successfully transitioned from child actress to West End featured player.
'I wasn't a very happy girl then - now, all these years later, I'm still here but in a very different place'
In the years since, she has become a West End and pantomime fixture, but she's also that welcome, no-nonsense creature of the theatre: a jobbing actress. So she's also frequently toured - including in a touring version of 42nd Street nearly 30 years ago, in which she played the juve lead role of Peggy Sawyer, the dancer who has to go out an understudy but comes back a star.
"I had a seminal moment when I was standing on this stage and had to sing 42nd Street, and I flashed back to when I was 23 and was playing Peggy. Every so often, too, I'll look up at the people sitting up in the gods [the balcony] - and I'll picture my dad sitting up there."
But she admits today, too, that those were difficult times: "I needed to get my work-life balance correct - I wanted to have fun and go out and party, but I was physically exhausted. I was expecting the job to fix my life, but of course, it didn't. I wasn't a very happy girl then - now, all these years later, I'm still here but in a very different place."
The life of an actor is full, inevitably, of ups and downs - as the great Stephen Sondheim song from Follies has it, "Top billing Monday, Tuesday, you're touring in stock, but I'm here." Bonnie reveals that when she appeared on Broadway in Chicago in 2009, she was reunited with Donna Marie Elio [now called Donna Marie Asbury], who had played the balloon girl in Gypsy on Broadway in 1974. "I was playing Roxie and in my first week she was playing Velma - here we were, 35 years later, all those years had gone by but we were still doing it!"
'42nd Street is a joyous show, and the company seem really happy'
She's of course used to being in the public eye - at the age of just six, she had been thrust into the spotlight, quite literally, as winner of the TV talent contest Opportunity Knocks, and then as a child star on TV's Just William. She's also since had major TV exposure as the Doctor's companion in Doctor Who in the mid-80s, as a contestant on the first series of Dancing on Ice in 2006, and most recently as a regular on EastEnders.
"I was meant to go in for eight episodes, but I ended up staying three-and-a-half years," she says of the latter. "It's a huge machine and amazing and awesome, but also flawed. I don't think I've read a book for three years because you just don't want to read anymore after you spend all your time on learning scripts. But it really sharpens you - I have huge respect for the people who are there."
There're also different pressures: instead of the long-shot of the theatre, you have to be ready for your close-up. "The first thing I was asked was: Are you HD ready? I didn't know what they were talking about." She had to learn to leave her vanity at home: "It was liberating. The last storyline I did was a poignant one about knife crime - it was harrowing and gruelling, and I loved it. I wasn't allowed any make-up!"
It's also hard work - the days are long ("they sometimes call you for 12 hours, with a 45-minute lunch break"), and you have to keep learning new material. "You have to turn up, be prepared and produce the goods, delivering when required. You have to know your lines - or hide them behind a cushion - be aware of where the cameras are and know your marks."
That's a different challenge to the theatre, where "you're rattling off the same words every night, so you have to keep the thoughts behind them fresh. But what I like about theatre is that you find new things all the time and polish it a bit, whereas with telly you're always thinking on your feet."
But most of all there's a special camaraderie in theatre that you just get nowhere else. "It’s a joyous show, and the company seem really happy." A few nights before our interview, on a gala night that's been preserved forever online, she performed in the finale. "As the only person to have played both Peggy and Dorothy, they invited me to join them in the finale - I came on at the very back and tapped all the way down, while the rest of the cast tapped towards me. They were all screaming as they came towards me and it was amazing!"
She is with the show until 5th January, when the theatre closes for a major refurbishment. But Bonnie won't be resting at home for long: just a week later, she joins Lesley Garett and Maria Friedman in a new touring concert that kicks off on 12th January in Canterbury to mark the release of a new album called Golden Girls, on which they sing songs like "As If I Never Said Goodbye", "Feeling Good", "Get Happy" and "Nobody Does it Better." Each of those song titles could sum up a phase of her remarkable, unparalleled career.
42nd Street is booking at Theatre Royal Drury Lane until 5th January 2019.
42nd Street tickets are available now.
Photo credits: Sophie Thomas