As she returns to the London stage in Billy Elliot The Musical, new mum Joanna Riding tries hard to concentrate for her interview with Matthew Amer.
“I just hope that I make some sense, because I’m a new mum at the moment and I have a teabag for a brain, so God knows what I will come out with.”
It is an endearingly honest way for actress Joanna Riding, who is returning to work as Mrs Wilkinson in Billy Elliot The Musical after having her second child, to begin our conversation. It is also slightly concerning as half an hour of random mumblings and rambling tangents do not always make for a compelling interview. But it soon becomes apparent that I have no need to worry, as Riding’s brain has nothing in common with the popular breakfast brew.
“It’s remarkable, actually, what mums are capable of doing,” she says in her warm Lancashire accent after telling me how she is up four or fives times a night and regularly gets no more than five hours sleep. “In most circumstances that would be a form of torture, that lack of sleep, wouldn’t it? But there is a price to pay and that is that some days you just seriously don’t have a brain.”
It all begs the question, if you are sleep deprived and drained of energy, constantly running around after a new born and a two and a half year old, why compound it all by performing every night in a West End musical?
“I’ve been an actress a lot longer than I’ve been a mum,” Riding explains. “I’m loving being a mum, but you get to work and you go ‘Ah, me time.’ I just get on the stage and it all falls into place… the rest of the day is a constant muddle. The beauty of theatre is that it gives back, it’s a two way thing. When you are getting that sort of reaction and that appreciation and the crowd is obviously enjoying themselves so much, it feeds energy back into you.”
Riding very obviously wants to make the job work. She is even expressing milk during the second half of the show and again when she gets home late at night, she tells me, before adding that it is “perhaps not something that you want to hear”. It took me by surprise, I admit, but it just illustrates Riding’s commitment.
"In most circumstances that would be a form of torture, wouldn’t it?"
The Laurence Olivier Award-winning actress – she won Best Actress in a Musical for both Carousel (1993) and My Fair Lady (2003) – originally joined the cast of Billy Elliot The Musical in December 2008, but was forced to leave the production earlier than planned when she fell pregnant.
It was a strange situation for the actress, as it was the first time in her career that she had actively sought out a particular role. It followed the birth of her daughter Sky and a period where she left musicals behind to prove she was also a formidable straight actress. Yet, with the need for stability in her household, the thought of a long London contract in a show that had previously sparked her imagination proved a tempting lure. Having convinced the producer to see her, events took a slightly surprising turn: “I went and gave the worst audition of my life; I was so out of condition. I couldn’t get my breath for the singing, they tried to give me a ballet class and that was a joke, I forgot the words of the song, I sweated like an old pig!” She laughs about it now, a fabulous, fully-bodied cackle, but at the time “no-one was allowed to mention Billy Elliot to me. I was just so embarrassed that I would be asked to be seen for it and then give the worst audition of my life.”
After a seemingly interminable wait, she was offered the role. “They must have crossed a few names out before they got to me.”
What was it, I wonder, about Billy Elliot that made the award-winning actress set her heart on playing Mrs Wilkinson? “When you go and see shows as an actor,” she explains, “it’s often a busman’s holiday. It’s very hard to switch the critical faculty off and sit back and just enjoy. With Billy Elliot I really forgot that I was an actor.”
Riding puts that partly down to the musical’s Cinderella story of a boy’s unlikely dream coming true, but also to the fact that the production is “so well looked after”. With a roster of child performers that seems to constantly change, the show is regularly rehearsed and re-rehearsed with different groups all bringing their own personalities and performances to the stage.
Even without the production line of child performers that join and leave the show, Riding has a regularly revolving variety of co-stars. “Every night there’s a different Billy. You might have the same Billy maybe twice a week, maybe three times if there’s some illnesses, but very rarely two shows in a row will you have the same Billy or the same ballet girls.” With each Billy having his own style and choreography, Riding’s baby brain needs to be on the ball each night.
"I sweated like an old pig!"
If Billy Elliot The Musical’s younger performers have any thoughts about continuing an adult career in the theatre, they could do worse than ask Riding for advice. She, like them, started at a young age, singing at local music festivals rather than on the West End stage. After winning the chance to attend New York School of Performing Arts for a fortnight – “I promptly hid in the toilets for most of the two weeks” – she decided to “try this drama lark. Such was my northern farmer’s daughter chip-on-my shoulder inferiority complex that I didn’t dare audition for a London drama school. I thought I’d never get into a London school. Isn’t that bizarre?”
After studying at Bristol Old Vic and serving an apprenticeship in Chichester, Riding was cast opposite Brian Conley in the hit London musical Me And My Girl, before starring in Lady Be Good at the Open Air theatre and making her National Theatre debut in Carousel – only her third London outing – for which she won a Laurence Olivier Award. It sparked a period of years in which she became a National Theatre regular and one of the London stage’s most acclaimed and sought after musical theatre leading ladies.
Even after such success, Riding has a rather humble view of those years: “I’m under no illusion. There’s hundreds of girls that come out of drama school who are just as capable, but for one reason or another you get a little break and that ball starts to roll. Then, of course, you start to get better because you’re gaining experience and learning as you go. I’ve been very very fortunate. For me to get involved at the National so early on was just brilliant, because they do it like no other.”
With the musical theatre world at her feet, Riding made a conscious decision to move into straight drama at the end of her My Fair Lady contract. Partly, she says, this was due to criticism she received from some parties claiming she was too old to play Eliza Doolittle at 35. “In all walks of life,” Riding admits a little reticently, “people want young, youthful, vibrant things, sometimes over experience.” It was criticism that the Laurence Olivier Awards didn’t share, as the performance saw her win her second statuette and create history at the same time, making Eliza the first role to win an Olivier Award two years in succession, following Martine McCutcheon’s victory the previous year.
The change of direction took her to Manchester Royal Exchange, where she appeared in Hobson’s Choice and The Happiest Days Of Your Life, and then to the Theatre Royal Bath, where she shared a stage with Penelope Keith in Blithe Spirit. It was this production that brought her back to the West End in 2004.
While at this time Riding was proving herself to be as accomplished a performer without musical accompaniment as with it, it also signalled the start of one of Riding’s most trying personal periods as she tried to start a family. “I spent three years virtually pregnant,” she states, “but unfortunately kept losing the babies.”
"In all walks of life people want young, youthful, vibrant things, sometimes over experience"
As deeply upsetting as this must be, it was made worse when an article in The Independent announced to the world that Riding had left a production because she had fallen pregnant again. She had not even told her family.
“I’d had a string of miscarriages,” she explains. “What happens when you have miscarriages is you stop telling people that you’re pregnant until you get past the three month point. You don’t even tell your parents. I didn’t want to tell them that I was pregnant in case I lost it again; I didn’t want to put them through that again. But there it was, and yes, I did lose it, so it was doubly compounded then that everyone knew from a newspaper article.”
Moved to try and salvage something from the situation, Riding filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission: “The people that write the articles clearly don’t understand, they’re not in that position. I can understand that it’s hard to understand when you’ve not been in that position, but what came about from our case, our complaint, was that now, I believe, you cannot, without express permission from that woman, print that she’s pregnant until after three months.” It says something about Riding’s strength of character that she can find the silver lining in this most painful of clouds.
That, from the short time I have spent talking to Riding, seems to sum her up; there is a touch of northern grit hidden beneath the sparkling sheen of the West End performer; the motorbike riding, water-skiing farmer’s daughter who doesn’t mind hard work and fighting her corner.
While she is back in the West End for now, and has not yet decided how long she would like to stay in Billy Elliot, the future is less certain. Producers who have noticed her return to the musical stage are already expressing an interest in seeing her for projects, but now she has a family, the children come first. “I think it’s best to just take each job as it comes along and focus on being a mum really.”
It suddenly dawns on me that for a new mum with a four-month-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old, Riding’s telephone call has been remarkably quiet and uninterrupted. No eagerness to play games or crying that might indicate anything from hunger to a full nappy. “The timing is marvellous,” she says, with a hint of relief in her voice. “The in-laws are here, so they’re keeping them well entertained.” All of which will give Riding a little more energy to pull off the same trick with the Billy Elliot The Musical audience.