Billy Elliot - London

A life-affirming musical about a young boy beating all odds to fulfill his dream.

London Star Gillian Bevan on 25 Years of Musical Memories, from Follies to Billy Elliot

Gillian Bevan has spent 25 years on and off the West End, appearing largely in musicals (Follies, The Boys From Syracuse, Road Show), as well as three years in playwright/director Alan Ayckbourn’s Scarborough theater troupe in the north of England. For the past year, the spirited actress has been playing Mrs. Wilkinson, the crusty but caring dance teacher, in the hit musical Billy Elliot at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre. caught up with Bevan one recent afternoon to talk long-running musicals, Sondheim and more.

After more than a year in Billy Elliot, does the show feel like home?
It does. I finished Road Show at the Menier Chocolate Factory in September 2011 and started rehearsals for this the following Monday. After the initial contract, they asked us to stay on, and I thought I’d be stupid not to. I’m contracted until May now.

Billy will celebrate its eighth birthday in May. What has led to its longevity?
I think word has got out that it’s a great evening, and I’m not saying that just because I’m in it! The piece is a seamless event in that it is a brilliant polemic about the meaning of art in all our lives, but Lee [Hall, the writer] addresses that topic with great humor so that the show is not just for an elite. Then, of course, there’s Peter Darling’s choreography and Elton’s music, which has been brilliantly orchestrated by Martin Koch, and tying it all together is the genius of [director] Stephen Daldry.

Did you know the show before agreeing to be in it?
Yes, I’d seen it with Haydn [Gwynne] and then once I knew I’d be doing it, I came to see it again with Genevieve Lemon. But what I couldn’t have anticipated is the interesting and unusual relationship I would end up developing with these hugely talented kids. We have four Billys and three Michaels and three Debbies, which amounts to a lot of people who get to do these fantastic roles.

Is it hard saying goodbye to the young actors as they rotate out of the production?
Well, I was warned before I started: “Don’t get too fond of the boys because they have to move on.” What’s astonishing at the moment is that all four of my Billys are absolutely tremendous, and I love them all. It’s like acting with a different Hamlet every night.

Are you by any chance related to the musical’s co-producer, Tim Bevan?
No, I wish I was, but I don’t know him at all. He’s rather handsome, isn’t he? [Laughs.]

Your producers are also co-producers of the film of Les Miserables, so they must be in a good mood.
In fact, Working Title had a special screening of the movie for us. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Was the dance aspect of your Billy Elliot role daunting?
I don’t think I’ve danced to this extent on stage since I was in Follies all those years ago. They came to me and said, “Darling, we want to give you a tutu for the end,” and I thought, “Bloody hell!” I’m probably the fittest middle-aged woman on the West End.

It’s hard to believe a quarter-century has passed since you were in the original West End production of Follies with Dolores Gray, Julia McKenzie, and Diana Rigg.
We just had a 25-year reunion at Joe Allen [the London restaurant] the other Sunday evening. Bless [producer] Cameron [Mackintosh], he’s such a darling, really. [Cast members] Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson were there, and Julia. Steve [Sondheim] was meant to be there, but couldn’t make it in the end.

You had some amazing collaborators on that show.
Yes, Bob Avian, who’s of course back in London to work on A Chorus Line, and Jerry Mitchell, who was just a youngster then and was Bob’s assistant. I remember Jerry did so much to help me: I had trained as an actor but wasn’t necessarily a dancer, and I had to do all the follies girls’ dances, and somehow we managed it [laughs].

It was during that run that you and Simon Green [Young Ben to Bevan’s Young Phyllis] led a post-show performance of Merrily We Roll Along, which I actually saw.
That was a fundraiser that absolutely took off, and we did it twice—once after our regular [Follies] performance on the Friday and then again on the Sunday night as the first half of a Sondheim gala that included Dame Edna doing “Ladies Who Lunch”! I remember Dolores Gray hearing the overture and saying, “That’s Broadway!” I was Mary, and darling Simon was Frank and Claire Moore was Gussie and we had Glyn Kerslake, who’s also in it now at the Menier Chocolate Factory. He’s become a great mate. That Merrily weekend did become a bit of a thing, rather like a Greek wedding, Everybody got involved [laughs].

Have you seen the latest London production?
I’ve seen it twice! It’s amazing, I must say, how the audience’s take on the show has changed. At the time, no one understood the whole thing of it going backwards.

What’s next for you, after Billy Elliot?
It’s too early to tell, though as ever it’s about juggling your family life with what you want to do [professionally]. I’ve got a son who’s 19 at college in Stratford-upon-Avon, so there isn’t that same pressure to be at home that there used to be.

Your career has been so varied that you have presumably avoided ever being typecast.
I have had one of those odd careers that manages to be a bit of everything: sitcoms, Shakespeare, big musicals, small musicals. It’s the breadth of it that’s wonderful.

I note that the original Mrs. Wilkinson, Haydn Gwynne, is about to play Margaret Thatcher opposite Helen Mirren as the Queen in the new play The Audience. Do you see a Mrs. Thatcher in your future?
No! Well, I don’t know. Come back to me on that one later.