Nearly 50 years after her West End debut, Bonnie Langford is returning to Drury Lane to star in 42nd Street. The versatile performer, familiar to EastEnders viewers and musical theatre fans alike, tells Matthew Hemley about growing up as part of a theatrical dynasty and how a life on the stage has its trials and tribulations
Waiting in the wings to make her first appearance as Dorothy Brock in the West End production of 42nd Street, Bonnie Langford had a “moment”.
Because the Theatre Royal Drury Lane is where Langford made her professional stage debut aged just seven, in the 1972 musical production of Gone With the Wind.
Her entrance for that musical – nearly 50 years ago – was in exactly the same place as her entrance in the dance extravaganza she has just joined.
“My whole life flashed in fast forward before me,” Langford says, speaking the day after performing in the musical for the first time. “It was an extraordinary moment. A lot has gone on since then.”
She’s not exaggerating. Since that debut, Langford has gone on to become a favourite of stage and screen, one of the UK’s best-loved, and most prolific, theatre stars. Her credits include being in the original cast of Cats, Me and My Girl, Gypsy – alongside Angela Lansbury, both in London and on Broadway – Sweet Charity and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Her TV work, meanwhile, includes Just William, a stint as the Doctor’s assistant in Doctor Who in the 1980s, and, most recently, a three-and-a-half-year turn in EastEnders.
Her CV is an impressive mix of theatre and television, from soaps to variety performances and reality television, and panto to musical theatre.
Langford has never worked outside the entertainment industry and, judging by her CV, doesn’t appear to have taken many breaks, either.
Has she ever not worked? “Not really,” she says. “I’ve had some fallow periods of course, but they’re the times you learn the most, in a way.” She adds: “I think it’s stupid that people say actors are ‘resting’. That’s the time you’re working the most, trying to get the next job.”
Langford joined 42nd Street direct from her stint in EastEnders, in which she plays Carmel Kazemi, a mother whose son was stabbed to death in a recent storyline. She had begun craving theatre again, she says – her last stage appearance was in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels three years ago.
“At the beginning of the year I thought I needed to do some live stuff. I’d been thinking if it could fit around EastEnders that would be great, but if not that would be fine too,” she says. In the event, she left EastEnders, and began rehearsing for 42nd Street just two days later.
Despite the intense two-week rehearsal period now followed by eight shows a week, being back in the theatre offers Langford a break from the “punishing” schedules of a soap. She adds that the shift to stage brings some regularity.
“In EastEnders, you don’t know when you are going to be needed, you are on call all the time and don’t know your availability until the Friday before,” she reveals. “Silly things, like booking a dentist appointment, become impossible. That sounds like a stupid thing to have as an issue, but after a while you don’t know where you are. I started to think I needed to come up for air a little bit.”
She adds: “I needed to do other stuff, to get out there and feed that other part of my soul. You have to nurture the whole lot, otherwise you can’t do your job properly.”
Langford takes up the role of Dorothy Brock having previously appeared in a touring production of the musical, playing Peggy Sawyer. She is, she believes, the only actor to have played both roles. Her previous stint in 42nd Street was in the 1990s, but she wasn’t in a good place at that time, she says, and wasn’t able to enjoy the experience.
“That was the other thing that went through my mind when I was waiting to go on as Dorothy for my first performance – how extraordinary it is that this little girl is still doing it and still enjoying it,” she says. “Because I haven’t always enjoyed it.”
She explains: “When I was on tour with 42nd Street, I was in a very transitional place. I found it very difficult doing that job. I was in this all-singing, all-dancing show and was meant to be happy, but actually I wasn’t.”
She adds: “I was selling this scenario of going on stage and it being the most wonderful, magical thing, but I was not in a happy place.” Today, Langford says she has rediscovered that happy place, but back then was “tired” and thinking work “would fix my life”.
“But, of course, it doesn’t,” she sighs. “It has to be about a life/work balance. And I have that balance back again now. It’s nice to feel the joy of this show, having been through things and come out the other side.”
With this in mind, Langford is glad to see discussions about the importance of looking after performers’ mental health taking centre stage in recent months. As she puts it, people may go to the gym to unwind, but you “need to go to the head gym too”.
“There is a difference between whinging and moaning, which we are all quite good at, and when you actually feel you need support,” she says. “Support is really important, in every single way.”
I ask whether she was supported by the EastEnders team during her harrowing storyline about knife crime. There’s a silence, then an awkward laugh. “No,” she says, “but I had support at home.”
While that seems a surprise, Langford is diplomatic and instead focuses on the opportunities she had to talk to people who had experienced knife crime in their own lives.
“I was acting it, but got to go home at the end of the day,” she says. “These people were broken, but they were the most extraordinary people. I hope that I was able to represent them in some ways, and that we opened up the conversation about knife crime and made people aware.”
Beyond the long hours and difficult storylines, Langford is full of admiration for the team behind EastEnders and the quality of television it produces each week. She was also one of a number of musical theatre stars to be cast in the soap in recent years, alongside the likes of Jenna Russell, John Partridge and Maria Friedman.“I think that had a lot to do with [former producer] Dominic Treadwell-Collins,” she says. “He adores theatre.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I haven’t had one.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Gone With the Wind at the age of seven.
What is your next job?
Golden Girls, a tour with Maria Friedman and Lesley Garrett.
What do you wish someone had told you starting out?
Trust yourself, and listen. I was told when I was little to watch and listen to people – all people, from everywhere, not just the industry. And to value those people.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
My daughter, now. She is nearly 18 and is also at Arts Ed. When I was younger that person was Angela Lansbury, who I was in Gypsy with. She is still doing it [Lansbury is 92], and what an incredible woman she is. I saw the things she did off stage – she was a real-life human being and happy to show her flaws but was very, very kind.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
They are the worst – I can’t bear auditions. But I try to relax and listen.
She adds that, although the tide is changing, musical theatre performers face a constant battle to prove they can do more than just sing and dance. “I have had it my whole life,” she reveals. “They say: ‘Okay, you can sing and dance, but have you tried any acting?’. You think: ‘What the hell do you think I have been doing?’.”
She continues: “Musical theatre is just a heightened way of communicating a story. There was a time when there were a lot of musical theatre performers in EastEnders and that’s brilliant. Because, apart from anything else, musical theatre people know how to work damn hard, and know when to turn up and do the job, and deliver. There is a lot of discipline involved.”
She says some actors feel the need to edit their CVs to remove certain productions they have done. But she doesn’t, and adds. “I don’t really want to. I think everything contributes to the person you are today.”
Langford continues: “There will always be somebody who reminds you of something you have done in the past. If I had not done the things I did in the past I would not be the person I am now.”
Langford is from a family with performance in their blood. Her mum is still a dance teacher aged 88, and her great aunt danced with Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Langford’s nieces are the Strallen sisters, daughters of her sister, Cherida.
“There was a dance element to our family,” she says. “But it was about the training, and performing as experience, not about getting famous.”
Langford became an exception to this when she took up a place at Arts Educational Schools as a child and soon found herself cast as Bonnie Butler in the Gone With the Wind musical, having replied to an advert in The Stage. Arts Ed was not happy that she was performing professionally. “They did not approve,” she laughs. Not that it stopped her.
Shortly after Gone With the Wind, she was cast in Gypsy, alongside Angela Lansbury. She appeared in the show in London before moving to Broadway to star in it for a year there.
To perform that role in the US at the young age she was, she had to be made a ward of court – with her mum accompanying her to New York. “It was a wide-eyed adventure, amazing,” she says. “That is why I don’t take things out of my CV. They are special.”
… Taking care of herself:
I am not very good at all that. I said to Lesley Garrett: “How do you look after your voice?” She said she sleeps a lot.I don’t go to bed very early and with EastEnders you had to get up at 5am. I can’t go to bed before midnight. It was great when I had to do my recent storyline, looking terrible, as I just didn’t care and it was great. I looked so dreadful, but it was fine. It was liberating. I didn’t have to put false eyelashes on and it felt great.
… joining a cast of a show that is already running:
It’s amazing to join a company like this, as the show is sorted and has worked out its problems. But it’s daunting to join an existing production, as you’re the new girl, you have to get up to speed very quickly. You feel everyone else knows what they’re doing and you don’t – it’s quite pressured. You feel in the spotlight, which I am not that good at.
… her mum:
She always gives me notes. She’s coming to see me in 42nd Street and I’m terrified. She will say something…
After Arts Ed, she joined the Italia Conti Academy of Performing Arts, but left aged 15 and landed a role in the original cast of Cats in 1981 at the New London Theatre, now named the Gillian Lynne Theatre, after the choreographer of that show.
Since then, Langford has appeared in a number of other iconic musicals, not least Chicago, in which she has starred both in the US and in London.
Other credits include Spamalot – “That was a lovely one,” she beams – and the tour of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. She gives the impression that 9 to 5 is one of those shows she would rather forget. “I don’t really know what I was doing there,” she laughs. During the audition, the panel asked if Langford could relate to working in an office, largely the setting for the musical. “I had to say I’d never been in one,” she laughs. Performing is all she’s ever known.
Despite this longevity, it’s a surprise to learn she has never won any major theatre awards. It seems astonishing that a career as long as hers hasn’t furnished her with major accolades along the way.
“But I’ve never been up for anything, never been up for an Olivier,” she says. “It’s fine. I think awards are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate people and theatre but there are never enough to go around.” She laughs: “It’s all right. You’d only have to dust them anyway.”
Her answers suggest someone who, despite her success, has her feet on the ground, and is realistic about life and the industry.
We touch briefly on the idea of actors taking jobs outside of acting, when they are not performing – a topic that has hit the headlines recently, when US actor Geoffrey Owens, a former star of The Cosby Show, was ‘job-shamed’ after images of him working at a grocery store were widely published.
Although Langford has never found herself in the position, she knows others that have. “It’s not that you’re a failure if that happens, you have to keep alive and there should be no shame in that,” she says. “We all have lives to sustain. It’s wonderful to do what we do, and we are blessed to do it, but there is a whole life behind that. If you have to pack groceries, there is nothing wrong with that.”
Fortunately, Langford knows what her next job will be – touring with Maria Friedman and Lesley Garrett with a new album called Golden Girls.
For now, though, it’s all about 42nd Street, which takes her to the end of the year. And while the critics will be in to assess her performance, she won’t be reading them. She avoids reviews “like the plague”, and says actors don’t do their job to “gain approval but to give people a wonderful night out”.
“We should be respectful of the fact people are spending a lot of money, and giving their time. You hope that time and money will be well spent, and that you give them something they can’t get anywhere else,” she says.
However, there is one review that Langford has never been able to avoid. And it brings us neatly back to her debut on the stage of Theatre Royal Drury Lane in Gone With the Wind.
In that show there was a horse called Charlie who, in the words of Langford, “did his business on the stage every night”. The horse’s dirty habit caught the attention of a certain playwright by the name of Noel Coward, who attended the opening night and reportedly offered some words of advice as to how he might be stopped.
“Noel apparently turned around and said: ‘You can solve this problem easily: simply shove the child’s head up the horse’s arse’,” Langford – who was the child in question – recalls, with a laugh. “I found out a little while after, when I was 14 and about to go on stage for some gala performance. I turned to my mum, who was chaperoning me, and asked if it was true. She said: ‘Darling, I’m afraid it is.’ ” She adds: “I thought it was hilarious. And I feel quite honoured.”
Born: 1964, Hampton
Training: Arts Educational Schools; Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts
• Gypsy, Piccadilly Theatre, London (1973/4)
• Cats, New London Theatre (1981)
• Chicago – various: Adelphi Theatre, London (2006); Cambridge Theatre, London (2007-08); National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Canada (2009); Place des Arts, Montreal, Canada (2009); Ambassador Theatre, New York (2009-10);
US tour (2010)
• Best newcomer at The British Soap Awards (2016)
Agent: Alastair Lindsey-Renton at Curtis Brown
42nd Street is at Theatre Royal Drury Lane until January 5