In a year which has seen her shot back into the public awareness courtesy of a stint on reality TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, Toyah Willcox is now leading the cast of wild west musical Calamity Jane, opening on June 26 at the Shaftesbury. Matthew Amer caught up with her to get some advice on how a whip should properly be cracked away…
2003 has been a year of resurgence for the diminutive diva best known for her days as the fiery princess of punk. A short break in the middle of the Calamity Jane tour gave her time to adventure into the Australian outback to be watched over 24/7 by an avid viewing public waiting for the next time a plastic snake, fake spider or Anthony Worral Thompson might drive her to shout the immortal words ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here.’ Now she’s back on Blighty’s fair shores and heading to the West End faster than a speeding wagon train.
"We’ve added a bit more b******s to it!"
The gun-toting, whip-cracking, rip-roaring musical has been touring the country since last year with only a short break for Willcox’s antipodean adventure. The show was well received by regional audiences, but, not resting on their cowboy themed laurels the cast have “taken it up a notch” for the West End opening. “We’ve kind of revamped it so it’s more ‘West End’ and we’ve put big dance numbers in. We’ve added a bit more b******s to it!”
Willcox describes the comic cowboy caper as “a play about 20 characters who are all quite deviant in their ways. If you took any of them out of their community and put them in New York or Chicago they’d all get arrested within an hour.” The eponymous deviant, the unfortunately monikered Calamity Jane [what kind of parent names their child Calamity!], risks her reputation by promising to bring a sexy singing sensation to Dakota’s Golden Garter Saloon. After an unfortunate case of mistaken identity and some hilarious hi-jinks she delivers the goods, but this is only the start of the fun.
Calamity Jane was made famous by the 1950s film starring Doris Day which won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Day is considered one of the great screen icons, so surely this puts a weight of pressure on Willcox’s petite shoulders? “No, because Doris Day is, I think, very much a period piece and what we’re doing is very much about human nature. Our production is not saccharine sweet, it’s really very ballsy. There are no sequins in our production whatsoever!”
"There are no sequins in our production whatsoever!"
This anti-glitter stand that Willcox takes, which is sure to aggravate one group of activists or another – The Army for the Liberation of Tinsel? – is demonstrative of her desire for a particular type of female role. In the past she has unforgettably played Mad in the seminal punk movie Jubilee and Monkey, who was not hairy and didn’t eat bananas, in Quadrophenia. “I only look for strong, female roles. You’re never going to see me as a romantic, young heroine; I relate to unusual heroines. Because Calamity Jane is such an oddball you can do so much with the character. You can go in places that you wouldn’t dare go with Ophelia.” It is fair to say that any theatregoer would be surprised to see a whiskey drinking, gun-toting, 10-gallon-hat-wearing Ophelia going ever so slightly mad while Hamlet propped up the bar and watched some showgirls.
"This is how you button a shirt correctly, Bill"
As well as possessing mental and spiritual strength, the Calamity in this production also has to be very strong physically. The show has a real get-up-and-go vibrancy about it with big dance numbers and an extremely active cast that the Duracell bunny would be pressed to keep up with. “It’s like running a marathon for two hours. It’s the kind of part where I can’t let people talk to me during the show because if I’m distracted I either hurt myself or I’m not on stage in time. We’re keeping chiropractors in business around the country.”
Willcox’s penchant for the physical things in life was one aspect of her character that shone brightly while she was doing I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Sadly for Willcox, who was geared up to do scary/revolting/utterly undesirable tasks each day, footballing favourite and King of Gladiators John Fashanu got to do the lions share of the tasks often wearing eel helmets, walking rickety rope bridges or swimming with Great White Sharks while wearing a tuna thong [that last one is not remotely true, but it would make good television]. When Willcox was given a chance to get her hands dirty it was in the most repulsive manner having to pull meal tokens out of a stinking bog full of rotten debris. Admittedly this is not everyone’s idea of fun and most would not want to put themselves through it, but this is just where the action woman in Willcox shone through. “I love anything physically challenging, it suits my sense of humour.” Willcox actually asked I’m A Celebrity’s producers, at a meeting entirely unrelated to the show, whether she could take part in the show.
"We’re keeping chiropractors in business around the country."
In stark contrast to last year’s Australian escapade, which saw numerous members of the ‘cast’ nearly come to blows, this year’s merry band of celebrity survivors decided to tackle the task as a team. So strong was their bond that they even rebelled against the Gods of television, often called producers, when they thought they were not being treated fairly. At the time they had not realised that the whole point of sending a group of celebrities into the jungle was for the warm hearted public to see them suffer – it seems unlikely that they were ever going to be treated fairly. Still, the celebs held strong in the face of adversity. “We just thought, ‘we’re not in here to lose our dignity, we’re here to actually try and achieve something for our charities’. I think it was a remarkable privilege to be asked to do it. I’ve got no regrets about it at all.
Indeed, Willcox does not regret many things, preferring to look to the future rather than dwell on the past. With such an eclectic and eccentric past that includes a punk/pop career, acting at the National Theatre and being ‘the voice’ of the Teletubbies it would seem a shame to forget about it completely, but Willcox is a woman driven by ambition; even the present does not hold her attention for long as she admits she “only looks to the future rather than enjoy[ing] the moment.” But what of the future? It would have been hard to predict that the actress who played Monkey in Quadrophenia would later present shows about differing spiritual outlooks on life or that a young punk setting the music world alight would ever play Calamity Jane in the West End. If Willcox has her way, it will involve a little less work and a lot more play. “I just work and work and work. It’s something I’ve been trying to address, along with my husband, for the last two years. Both of us are complete workaholics and keep forgetting that actually life isn’t about work, it’s about downtime.” Never a truer word spoken, but one wonders whether Willcox will ever slow down and take time to enjoy the moment rather than looking to the future. What does the future hold? It’s a mystery.