Screaming supporters, banners of encouragement, groupies who know more about you than you do; it all sounds more like the life of Take That than a musical theatre performer. Yet former Wicked star Dianne Pilkington, who has left her magic wand behind to join the cast of long-running comedy hit The 39 Steps, knows exactly how it feels, finds Matthew Amer.
“I’ve never known it before and I probably never will again,” Dianne Pilkington says of the boy band level of fan frenzy she received during the three years she played good witch Glinda in Oz-set musical Wicked. “I had fan mail when I went in on my first rehearsal day!”
The fans, it turns out, are far from fickle and even though she has recently left the show which originally brought their adoration, they have promised to come and support her in her new role, taking on the multiple female characters in the four-person staging of the famous thriller. While she is delighted to have their support, Pilkington is slightly concerned about the possibilities of banners appearing in the Criterion theatre’s intimate auditorium.
“There’s a little bit of proving something, just for me, so that no-one can say ‘Obviously she got that role because she could sing it’,” the soft-featured Pilkington tells me when we meet in a break from rehearsals at the Criterion theatre. Tucked away in the bowels of the venue, she admits that this change of production “feels a little bit like I’m learning on the job again”.
Though she is a relative veteran of the musical stage at the ripe old age of 34, The 39 Steps marks her first professional foray into non-musical territory, and while both disciplines are similar, she is already noticing differences: “In a play it seems that people want to explore characters and then get it on its feet, whereas with musicals you have to put it on its feet and then you get to it. It’s the same stuff, just in a different order.”
“[Wicked] was a little bit like being at a sixth form college”
The 39 Steps is straight acting of a very distinctive style. It is no simple re-telling of John Buchan’s tale, nor is it a send up of Alfred Hitchcock’s film. It cleverly blends the tale of a secret malevolent organisation with clowning and a hefty dose of anarchy. Pilkington’s choreographic history has helped her with the show’s physical comedy, but understanding exactly what is happening on stage in a show that can sometimes appear to be pulling apart at the seams has also been aided by a pair of backstories which help explain, for the performers’ benefits, why only four people are trying to tell this twisty tale.
Both of these stories, put in place to assist the actors but entirely unknown to the audience, suggest that the cast are actually playing a small acting troupe which, for one reason or another, does not have enough props or performers to perform its own production of The 39 Steps. “It adds a different layer of desperation to try and tell the story,” she explains. As the tale is told, “there’s the characters’ reaction to the things that are going on on stage, but there’s also occasionally the actors’ reaction” to the fact that something goes wrong. The backstory, she explains, “stops it becoming farcical and stupid for the people who are playing it, because it could so easily get out of hand.”
If the tales of her time on Wicked are anything to go by, it would not take much for Pilkington to inadvertently cause havoc on the 39 Steps stage. She may have recently finished playing a popular, enchanting, eloquent witch, but grace may not be her strongest point. The suggestion that she has clumsy tendencies is met with a giggling grimace and a toss of the head.
“I think I broke several lights,” she says of her less than controlled wand-throwing antics in Wicked. “They used to have to tell people not to be in the wings at that point.”
The Wicked cast may have run the risk of being impaled on a magical projectile, but it sounds like this only added to the backstage camaraderie: “It was a little bit like being at a sixth form college where everyone’s got the same sense of humour. Everyone just dissed everyone else constantly. It was brilliant because it means that it’s just lovely to go into work.”
Leaving a job she loved that much was, of course, a tough decision to make, and had to be made six months in advance. “It’s just one of those shows that’s very tempting to stay,” Pilkington explains, “but I think if I’d stayed another year I would probably have ended up staying there until I was [elder character] Madame Morrible. I was starting to unlearn my lines because I’d been saying them so long. A few of us were, Harriet Thorpe certainly. We sometimes had conversations that bore no resemblance to what we were supposed to say.
“We sometimes had conversations that bore no resemblance to what we were supposed to say”
“You forget, until you start rehearsing something else, even if you really loved the job you were doing, there’s something so exciting about doing something new. You just have to take a leap of faith.”
Pilkington was still starring in the production when it won the Laurence Olivier Audience Award for Most Popular Show, an award voted for by users of Official London Theatre, but it was incoming stars Rachel Tucker and Louise Dearman who accompanied producer Michael McCabe to accept the award at the star-studded ceremony. It was a decision that riled many of Pilkington’s fans, who were even more dismayed when the producer referred to the star as Diane Langton.
While Pilkington admits that “it’s always nice to go to something like the Oliviers,” she is entirely sympathetic about McCabe’s decision to publicise the show’s future stars, who looked a little bemused themselves. “It’s not their fault,” she says. “They’re just going where they’ve been told.”
In fact, she is very sympathetic towards McCabe as well, generally sorry for the storm he inadvertently created among her loyal fans by leaving her – and co-star Alexia Khadime – out of proceedings and forgetting her name. “Michael rang me and apologised. I said that’s alright Mr McKenwright, so we had a laugh about it.”
Before climbing into Glinda’s floating bubble, Pilkington began her professional stage career in 1997 in another show that has proved to be a long-time favourite with London audiences, Les Misérables. “If you were a singer and an actress and not particularly a dancer, that was the show that you wanted to be in. I spent two years running around with a shawl over my head being a poor person… literally.”
The French revolutionary tale, which this year celebrates 25 years on the London stage, with its mix of established musical theatre performers and new upcoming talent, proved to be a fabulous learning opportunity for a young actress fresh out of drama school. Pilkington would “just sit and watch and see how people deal with things, because there are things you’re not – and can’t be – prepared for at drama college, the everyday running and the things that you do and the things that you don’t do. You don’t know about those until you actually work. I would always give that advice to anybody.”
“My singing teacher very tactfully suggested that I might want to look at an acting route”
Since learning the ropes in Les Mis, Pilkington has risen through the musical theatre ranks, joining the ensemble of The Beautiful Game at the Cambridge theatre, leading the UK tour of Beauty And The Beast and playing lead roles in Tonight’s The Night, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and The Far Pavilions in the West End before joining Wicked.
But, having established herself as one of British musical theatre’s leading ladies, 2010 is a year for branching out and trying something new. She is taking to the non-musical stage for the first time and, once she has settled into her new role, will be recording an album produced by her fiancé.
In contrast to much of the music around at the moment, Pilkington wants her offering to “be very simple; piano and voice, maybe voice and guitar at certain points. It’s all very well manufacturing a sound, but when it comes down to it, that’s not what people hear on stage and that’s hopefully why people will want to buy it, because they’ve heard me sing live.” The album may also feature an operatic aria, as Pilkington returns to her classical training, though she is unsure if it will make the final cut. “My singing teacher very tactfully suggested that I might want to look at an acting route,” she laughs about her operatic past. “We’re giving it a go; if it sounds rubbish it’s not going on and if it sounds alright I’ll brave it.”
There is also the small matter of an October wedding to plan, though Pilkington, who has already played both a Disney princess and a fairy, does not sound too worried about the trappings of an occasion that so many little girls dream about. “It should be about spending it with your family and friends, not what table cloths go with what,” she smiles.
So, though she describes her age as an in-between time for musical theatre, waiting to mature into roles that she has her eye on, the cheerful, down-to-earth actress is not letting limbo rule her and is looking to expand her horizons, giving her fans even more to get excited about. She is hoping to give television a shot some time in the future but, acting being a fickle mistress, is not pinning her hopes on it. “I’ll do everything I can to try new things, but I’ve been so happy doing what I do that I can’t really complain.”