Just opened at the Manchester Royal Exchange is a new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairytale mash-up, Into the Woods. In the central role of The Witch is local lass Gillian Bevan, who was born just seven miles down the A6 in Stockport.
As one of the UK’s most experienced Sondheim proponents, she is no stranger to the musical theatre stage. Among the highlights on her CV are roles in the original London production of Follies (Shaftesbury), The Wizard of Oz (RSC, playing Dorothy), The Boys From Syracuse (Regent’s Park), Road Show (Menier Chocolate Factory, London premiere), Billy Elliot (Victoria) and Sweeney Todd (Royal Exchange/West Yorkshire Playhouse).
Despite the extensive theatre experience, Gillian is probably best known in the UK for her role as the terrifying school headmistress Clare Hunter in the hit comedy TV series Teachers. But the stage is where she is most at home, and most celebrated, having recently won great critical acclaim for her role as Polonius (well, Polonia) in the Royal Exchange’s regendered Hamlet starring Maxine Peake.
Craig Glenday caught up with Gillian during a quick break in rehearsals for Into The Woods and asked the how the show was progressing.
So, how’s it going as The Witch? You’ve got the best part, surely?
Yeah, it’s very exciting! I’ve got my third flying call this afternoon – I’ve got to do some flying in it and it’s a rather marvellous thing because I’ve never done any flying before, so that’s very exciting. It’s a first for me.
Is The Witch a part that you know well?
I’ve never done it before but I saw my darling Julia McKenzie do it. She’s one of my heroines, obviously – we were in Follies years and years ago , the first London production, directed by the dearly departed Mike Okrent – so I’ve seen her do it, and I saw bits of Bernadette doing it. It is one of those brilliant parts, isn’t it? How well do you know the show?
I’ve seen it countless times and never tire of it...
That’s the brilliant thing about Sondheim, isn’t it? He’s like Shakespeare: you can do his stuff time and time again and put your own slant on it.
And in different locations…
Yes, what’s great about being at The Exchange is that it’s in the round. It’s got its restrictions but that can also be a bonus as well. We’ve got the wonderful Matthew Xia, the new Associate here – who’s half my age! – and it’s his first musical, let alone his first Sondheim, so he’s come up with lots of new, exciting ideas. His concept is to do a much more Manchester take on it. It’s definitely an Into The Woods for Manchester audiences! He says his woods are out by Alderley Edge [6 miles from Macclesfield] and his stepsisters are very much those Footballers’ Wives kind of girls! As you know, it’s funny as hell but it’s also quite dark, so it’s about mining those two aspects: to get the comedy but also not to shy away from how dark it is. As Sondheim says in Merrily We Roll Along, “Bricks can fall out of clear blue skies!” Bad things happen to good people.
You’ve had a lot of Sondheim experience. Has he been good for you?
He has! I was trying to count my Sondheim shows the other day. You’re Scottish, aren’t you? Well, my first experience was doing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Dundee Rep. I got my Equity card at Perth –
I’m actually from Dundee, but I never saw Forum...
It was a long time ago. You might not even have been born when I did it, darling, but let’s gloss over that! Anyway, that was my first Sondheim experience, which I absolutely adored. I then got the chance to play Young Phyllis in Follies – the young Diana Rigg. And while in Follies, Simon Green [Young Ben] and I produced a benefit concert of Merrily that Julia McKenzie directed, and raised a lot of money for the Terrence Higgins Trust. Oh, and I did Sweeney Todd – I played Mrs Lovett here at the Royal Exchange and at the West Yorkshire Playhouse – and of course Road Show at the Menier Chocolate Factory for John Doyle. I was also asked to sing in Company as part of Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebrations. So yeah, a good run of Sondheims. There are always plenty of good parts for women in them.
Is it difficult as a maturing actress to find work? Do you find it a struggle?
It’s certainly an advantage being able to sing as well as act. I suppose I’ve been brave enough not just doing every single musical I get offered – I am a bit picky about doing the ones I want to do. And I’ve been able to have a television career and a straight acting career. The last show I did at the Exchange was Hamlet with Maxine Peake; I played a regendered role of Polonius, renamed Polonia [for which she won Best Supporting Actress at the Manchester Theatre Awards]. Then we did the film of that, which was great. My next job is playing Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Company. So I love the fact that I can do a musical here then head off to do a Shakespeare somewhere else. That’s when you know it’s all going well, when you can mix it up a bit, and you do a bit of telly in the middle of it to pay the gas bill.
Do you particularly enjoy Shakespearean roles?
I’m always drawn to Shakespeare in the same way I’m drawn to Sondheim. There are so many fewer roles for women in Shakespeare, though, so it’s great when people are brave enough – like the RSC are now – to regender some of the casting. [Director] Melly Still will have me playing Cymbeline as a queen, not a king, which will be interesting.
Where are you most comfortable?
I think I absolutely do love the theatre, but as I get older it takes an enormous amount of discipline and fitness, so I’m touching wood now, as I’m lucky enough still to be able to do these big parts. But you know what? I think I like doing all of it. I’ve done a lot of radio as well. Most actors, out of necessity, can’t afford to pigeonhole themselves, and the kids coming out of drama schools today are all triple threats: they can sing, act, dance, do voice-overs, radio, telly, you name it. That’s what you have to do to have a fully rounded, interesting career. Otherwise, you’re stuck in a rut, churning out the same thing.
Your Mrs Lovett at the Royal Exchange was fantastic, and the “Postman Always Rings Twice” interpretation of “A Little Priest” was genius. How was it playing her like that?
David Birrell [Sweeney] and I really loved that. We were trying to find a way into “Priest” and I just an image of a film – was it Tom Jones or Henry VIII? – anyway, a black-and-white film in which they were eating chicken legs and throwing the bones on the floor. From that, I had an idea: can’t we just smash the pies into each other’s chest, and use them in a terrible, lascivious way? So, from what was a just a casual comment, Nick Winstone – who’s the most brilliant choreographer – absolutely ran with it and unlocked it for us. The lines are comic, obviously, but we were able to do something choreographic with it that made it, I think, really funny. It was certainly an absolute hoot to play every night, although I did frequently fall on my arse from slipping on all that pie detritus.
You also found a sexiness in the role of Mrs Lovett that I’ve never seen before or since. She is sexually frustrated...
I’m thrilled you’ve said that, because that’s what I wanted to get at. It was a driver for her: she’s so obsessed with him, and has this weird pact – or at least she thinks she has.
I’m intrigued to see your Witch. Will you be channelling your inner headmistress?
[Laughs] In the first act – and I’m not going to give too much away – my costume is extraordinarily hideous, the kind of costume that only someone as talented as [designer] Jenny Tiramani could come up. I’m so thrilled to be working with her. I’ve always admired her and the stuff she’s done at the Globe, and it’s great to have a Witch costume designed by her. Everything changes in the second half, so as an actor you have to find the differences. I’m still “in the woods”, so to speak, at the moment, making decisions and editing things and trying to get everything learned and in my head. It’s so picaresque: it moves around a lot and the scenes are so short it’s hard to get a handle on them. But we’re getting there.
Who else is in the cast?
We’ve got a wonderful Baker in Alex Gaumond, and Amy Ellen Richardson – I was just watching her the other day when we ran Act I – she’s simply amazing as The Baker’s Wife. They work really well together: so inventive all the time, but keeping it real. I’m loving working with them. And I’ve got darling Michael Peavoy. He and I seem to work together all the time: he was in Billy Elliot with me and also in Sweeney Todd. He says that we need to do at least one musical a year together. It’s a really good cast, I have to say. I’m in such good company: everybody loves it and everyone’s working really hard.
What did you think about the Into The Woods movie?
Well, I know people were a bit sniffy about it, but I thought what Meryl did with it was extraordinary. It wasn’t as Disneyfied as I thought it would be, and Rob Marshall did a pretty faithful job with it. And it’s introduced the piece to a new, younger audience. I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but I thought it was beautifully sung. Our version is nothing like the film in terms of setting, though. It’s certainly not gone down the enchanted route... it’s gone the Manchester route!
Woods is about our relationship with children. And you’re a mother...?
Yes, I’ve got a 21-year-old son who’s training at Circomedia at Bristol. He’s going for a degree in circus skills and physical theatre – the first juggler to do so.
Has working on the show made you reflect on your relationship with him?
Yes, of course. As you say, parenting is one of the key themes, so it does have a resonance. If I’d played it 20-odd years ago, before I had my child, it would probably be very different. Also, we were working through this aspect of the show last week when we heard news of the bombings in Paris. Running the last 10 minutes of the show, it had a deep, deep poignancy – not just for me, as one of the few people in the show who is a parent, but for everyone, and particularly Matthew, who has a young child. It really does hit home, you know: “careful the things you say, children will listen”.
It’s a pertinent message, given the endless news coverage of terrorism and immigration...
Indeed. One of the other main themes is community responsibility and about taking responsibility for our actions. It sounds a bit hackneyed now but we do need to be aware of what we’re doing to each other and what we’re doing to the planet. Certainly what’s happening in the Middle East is terrible and not easy to sort out but you can’t be black and white about it. It’s what Sondheim says: “Witches can be right, Giants can be good.” It’s not as simple as good guys versus the bad guys. We all need to put more thought into it…