All Singing, All Dancing, All Smoking
Haydn Gwynne tells Catherine Shoard about cartwheeling with 45 starstruck teenagers in Stephen Daldry and Elton John's stage adaptation of 'Billy Elliot'
Haydn Gwynne could be forgiven for looking a little jittery. Next month she opens in Billy Elliot The Musical, Stephen Daldry and Elton John's long-awaited musical about a miner's son with a talent for ballet.
As dance mistress Mrs Wilkinson (the part played by Julie Walters in the film), Gwynne is the main adult in a cast that includes 15 children. Or rather, 45 children - labour laws require all underage roles to be rotated throughout the run. In practice, this means rehearsing three different shows. And another three in six months' time, when the current children's contracts expire.
A giddying prospect, and indeed the run-up has had its bumps. Firstly, the proposed opening season in Newcastle (the action is set in County Durham) was scrapped. Then Anne Rodgers, who played Billy's granny, pulled out. Then the extended season of London previews was whittled back to make way for more rehearsal time.
"No musical is easy," admits Gwynne with a smile that blurs the line between ruefulness and mania. "It's a whole different beast from a play. There are just so many elements to fit together - the choreography, the music, the direction - and you're constantly reminded of how much it's all cost [£5.5 million, apparently]. That financial pressure is in the air. The children have been a joy to work with, but they have to have breaks and minders, and the logistics are a mammoth task."
The more she talks, the more nightmarish it sounds, like running a crêche for stagestruck teenagers. But Gwynne really doesn't seem too rumpled, especially considering she's been up most of the night with her sick toddler. In fact, she looks very lively, more delicate than she does on television, where she's best known for her sexy/tough routine on Merseybeat, Peak Practice, Drop the Dead Donkey, and, in 1989, the BBC's adaptation of David Lodge's Nice Work. She looks young for 43, gangly, with a big, easy laugh. Sitting cross-legged on a futon in her rather bare dressing room, she comes across like a new student making the best of things at a rather grim poly.
The fact that Mrs Wilkinson is her highest-profile job in years, and that the fate of Billy Elliot will be known across the globe, doesn't seem to faze her. "I hadn't thought about it internationally," she laughs. "Thanks for that."
Why the composure? Presumably because her first musical - Harold Fielding's super-turkey Ziegfeld, which opened in March 1988 and closed shortly afterwards - has prepared her for absolutely anything. "It was the musical nightmare to end them all," she grins. "My biggest regret is that I didn't keep a daily diary. The most extraordinary things happened. The star and the director were fired after press night; it was rewritten. It did have its moments - my costume was worth £10,000 - but mainly it was agony. I cried myself to sleep most nights." More enjoyable was City of Angels, Cy Coleman 's razzle-dazzler the following year, which won Gwynne much praise for her rich, gravely voice.
The voice is used to belting effect in Billy Elliot, with an inspirational crowd-pleaser 'Shine' and a knockabout funk number called 'Born to Boogie', in which she gamely attempts a cartwheel. Gwynne, not a natural dancer, tackles Mrs Wilkinson with guts and an admirable lack of vanity, often clad in skin-tight, hot-pink 1980s leisurewear. It's a fun, warm, turn but inevitably the spectre of Julie Walters hovers over the stage.
"I didn't find the fact that Julie is such a national institution scary. I might have if I was playing Mrs Overall. But when I looked at the script I thought that, actually, there was no reason why I couldn't play Mrs Wilkinson. It's very open. She could be tall, short, fat, thin. The starting point is that she runs a rather crappy little dance school up in the North East. You can go a lot of places with that."
She's also very caustic, something that appealed to Gwynne. "Oh yeah, all-singing, all-dancing, all-smoking, I like that. She's very upfront and quite rude, a bit more so than I remember from the film."
Indeed, the musical is surprisingly gritty and foul-mouthed, and one suspects some of Mrs Wilkinson's more dubious lines (a cerebral palsy gag, in particular) might not make the final cut. "You want that sharpness about her but you don't want to push it too far," says Gwynne. "The connection between Billy and Mrs Wilkinson is very tender as well as abrasive."
She takes a sip of coffee. "Then there's the whole dead mum thing."
The way Mrs Wilkinson takes Billy under her wing is much emphasised in the musical; she even sings a duet with an actress presumably meant to be the ghost of his long-dead mother. I wonder if Gwynne finds this easier to relate to now she has children of her own.
"The easy answer to that would be 'Yes'. But then to say that an actress who hadn't had kids couldn't play this part is a bit insulting. You can do a lot of mothering without being a mother. But it's true there are aspects I don't have to search to imagine."
The prospect of juggling her on- and off-stage mothering duties is what's probably worrying Gwynne the most. "I don't at all like the thought of all those late nights and then having them jumping on my head again at five in the morning."
Billy Elliot is the first job Gywnne has taken that means she can't put her children to bed, and it clearly troubles her. Being a mother - of Orlando, six, and Harry, four, by her partner, Jason, a psychotherapist - has revolutionised her life, she says. She used to love travelling alone - she spent five years in Rome teaching English after graduating from Nottingham University, then drove round America while deciding to be an actress. Now she can't stand the idea of being apart from her family.
She used to enjoy extreme sports; now even plane flights make her nervous. "Since I've had children I've just turned into Miss Chicken. I can't enjoy that stuff any more. It's some invisible umbilical thing."
In the past, she took whatever part she liked and had the financial freedom to drop out of Drop the Dead Donkey at the height of its success. "I certainly wouldn't do that now. I'd kill for a sitcom!" Gwynne no longer feels she has the licence to be too snooty about work. "Maybe Peak Practice or Merseybeat aren't jobs I'd have chosen before I had children, but it meant stability for them as pre-schoolers because they could come with me and live in the country."
Gwynne's other source of income lately has been recording radio plays - which she loves - and audio books, which she finds "Bloody exhausting; you barely have time to go to the loo." But her aptitude with accents means she's much in demand, most recently reading Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake.
"That was just a joke, though - Australian, South African, Tamil!" The one accent it emerges Gwynne could never master was Geordie - something that she admits did daunt her about Billy Elliot, at first. "Now, though," she laughs, brightly, a bit ghoulishly, "it's the least of my worries."