Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Interview: Bonnie Langford

West End icon Bonnie Langford is currently preparing to play her solo show An Evening With Bonnie Langford at the London Hippodrome on 31st March 2016. 

Bonnie will be accompanied by the Winston Rollins Band with musical direction by Anthony England. Bonnie is currently starring as Carmel Kazemi in BBC One's EastEnders. Her most recent West End roles include Lady of the Lake in Spamalot (Playhouse) and Muriel Eubanks in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Savoy).

Just a few of Bonnie’s extensive theatre credits include 9 to 5, Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Sweet Charity, Oklahoma!, 42nd Street, Me and My Girl, The Pirates of Penzance, Cats, Gypsy and Gone with the Wind. On screen she has starred in Opportunity Knocks, Bugsy Malone, Just William, The Hot Shoe Show, Doctor Who and Dancing on Ice.

I recently caught up with Bonnie to discuss why she’s shaking things up for her new solo show, her special guests and what she enjoys about performing in such an intimate venue. We also spoke about EastEnders’ new found staginess and what people have been saying to her in the street…

On 31st March you’re having a night off from Walford to play a solo show at the London Hippodrome! Was it an easy “yes” when you were asked?
Oh yes! I’ve done my solo show many times before, but I haven’t done one in London for a while. They asked me ages ago but I couldn’t fit it in… then they asked me again and I decided I really wanted to do it because I’m not doing any music at the moment. I had a couple of weeks off in January and started thinking “I’ll add in this and I’ll do that instead” and of course now I’m working all hours trying to put it together! I know it will come together, I’m totally overworked and stressing but I didn’t want to just do what I’ve done before. I’ve decided to do some nice new stuff and I’ve been changing things up a bit. 

So what can people expect from the new stuff you’re putting in?
I love to reflect on some of the shows and the TV shows and other things I’ve done in my life – I like my concerts to be authentic and truthful. I’ve got an absolute mountain of stories to tell; I think what’s nice is that when people talk to me about seeing me in different shows I’m obviously seeing it from my side which is different to their memories. I mean, I can’t tell everything [laughs], but I can give a different insight into the shows that I’ve been in. There will also be stuff which have shaped the place I’ve got to and then I will also look forward and share some of the stuff I enjoy in my own life – I love a bit of Stevie Wonder and a bit of Tina Turner! There will be a lot of humour, a lot of fun and a lot of reflection. Hopefully everyone will have a lovely time and maybe find out a little more about me and why I’ve made some of the decisions I’ve made. 

Bonnie in EastEnders

The Hippodrome is such a beautiful, personal venue. How do you find going from performing as a character in huge West End theatres to suddenly being yourself in such an intimate space? Do you get nervous?
Oh of course I do! I think most artists will say it’s scary; firstly because you’re being yourself and secondly because you’re so up close and personal, but once you get beyond that and you start to really share with the audience it can be wonderfully liberating. It makes the audience feel like they have shared something special with you. People feel like they are being embraced and brought into your world. In a [jokingly] ‘lovely dovey’ way, it’s a really nice sharing, bonding moment! At first it can be very daunting. It can also be very personal, I was rehearsing the other day and my musical director (Anthony England) played a gorgeous version of a song and I burst into tears! It was ridiculous! What’s the matter with me?! I just find some of it very touching.

And I hear you might have one or two exciting guests joining you..?
Yes I’ve got a couple of guests! Somebody from EastEnders is coming to join me which is lovely… but I have to get clearance for him first. [jokingly] I am owned by the BBC now [laughs], which is lovely because I have that support but sometimes I forget everything has to go through them. Anton Du Beke is also going to join me …if he turns up [laughs]. He’s a bit of an airhead and I love him to pieces. He does that thing where he says, “Oh Bon, we can do it on the day can’t we darling?” and I go, “No Anton, we need to know what we’re doing!” So it will be a bit random, but it will all be very nice! Winston Rollins is doing it with me – we’ve done a few shows together and he’s played in lots of bands. He also plays for Jools Holland and has got his own big band so I’ve got about seven or eight playing with me. You can’t do Stevie Wonder with just a piano!

Bonnie in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Talking of EastEnders, can you believe you’ve been there for a year now?
No! Do you know what’s great? This concert is on 31st March which is the anniversary of me starting in EastEnders. It has worked out really nicely, I will be able to celebrate a little bit. At first it was on and off and then it became full time in August. I’ve got a full time job – it’s bizarre! Although it’s hard when I have to get up at five o’clock in the morning, I must say I’m definitely more of a night person than a five o’clock in the morning person – but hey, it’s all good! It’s funny when people call me at eight o’clock in the morning and can’t believe that I’ve already filmed two scenes. This is my life now!

I love that your executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins has made EastEnders super stagey! You’ve got Maria Friedman behind the bar, Wicked and Les Mis posters up in the Vic and Sondheim numbers being performed at weddings!
[laughs] Yes there’s a lot of showbiz – Linda likes her showbiz! When Kelly Bright and Danny Dyer did their wedding as Linda and Mick they got Alice Fearn – who I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with – in to sing ‘Being Alive’ as they walked down the aisle… and Linda’s middle name is Bernadette, so she’s Linda Bernadette Peacock! I must admit that I laughed out loud – it’s so brilliant! Who else could get Sondheim and Bernadette Peters in EastEnders?! It’s just fantastic! So marvellous!

It’s also great to see so many theatre actors in the show. Often musical theatre performers in the UK find it hard to break into television, whereas in America they do it all the time…
What I’ve found with being between America and here is that in America you can be in a Broadway show and do Law and Order and there is no stigma attached, but in this country people go “Oh, you do musicals”. I’ve actually had people ask me, “Oh so you do musicals, have you ever thought about trying some acting?” I mean, what do they think I’m doing in a musical?! Hello! That’s what we do! We just act in song as well – Shakespeare used songs for goodness sake. It’s not like we stop acting to sing a song, the whole point is that we’re portraying everything using a different device. So it’s sometimes frustrating, but I understand it and think it’s really important that musical theatre performers can work in television.

There’s something else Dom did for me, other than putting me in the show which was completely amazing. Quite early on it was suggested that I taught a dance routine as part of a plot which for any other character would have been completely fine, but because it was me I asked Dom “Can I maybe not be the character that has to do that, just because so early on in my carnation as this character I would rather she didn’t”. He was so brilliant about it. Carmel loves dancing – I think she loves singing as well – but she’s really bad at it. What she has in enthusiasm she lacks in talent, which is great! The other day there was a karaoke night – as there often are in the Vic – and Carmel just watched on. It’s great because there’s no stigma and people saying “Oh she’s only on EastEnders because she can sing”. I think when you’re playing a character if it’s too close to a preconceived idea it can be a bit blurring. It’s nice to step away from everything else when I’m playing her.

Bonnie in Spamalot | Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

I was just looking on Twitter and you have some very dedicated fan pages! What’s it like to have so much support behind you and your career? You have people who have been following your stage career for years as well as new fans from EastEnders!
It’s so gorgeous… it’s really nice to have such dedicated support because it can be very isolating and exposing sometimes, so to know you’ve got people who are behind you is really gratifying – I’m so grateful for it! The funny thing is that when you do a show, afterwards you come out and there are people waiting at stage door, but at EastEnders that doesn’t really happen. 

When I go to the shops people used to call me Kush’s mum, but now quite often people call me Carmel which is really nice! That I find quite weird in some respects, but it’s delightful. Also people come up to you and tell you what your character should do… people have said to me “You should get with that postman, he’s really lovely” [laughs]. I get that a lot! I have to tell them that it’s not really me! It’s wonderful, but I imagine it could be really hard if you’re involved in a difficult storyline. We film so far ahead that sometimes I don’t know what they’re talking about if I’m not up to date with what is being shown. There are a few interesting things coming up soon… so that is going to be a lesson..!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

An Evening With Bonnie Langford takes place at the London Hippodrome on 31st March 2016 at 8pm. Click here to book tickets.

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