Thriving On Calamity

Toyah Willcox loves pushing at the frontiers of acting, which is why she so relishes the role of Calamity Jane. Lorraine Mawhinney sets the scene for the musical's arrival in Edinburgh.

Toyah Willcox is everything you expect her to be, but still manages to confound all expectations. In her Basingstoke dressing room, costumes for her role as Aladdin await the next of that week's 12 performances; but hanging at the mirror is the mystical Egyptian ankh and other accessories more telling of her rebellious roots.

When she arrives, thrusting a mug of tea forward, "I wasn't sure if you take milk", her tiny frame seems to fill the entire doorway and the room springs to life. 

This is the person to have round for those "can't be bothered" moments.

This panto run of two shows a day, six days a week for four weeks she calls a "holiday" from the touring production of Calamity Jane.

"We were touring Calamity for three months doing eight shows a week. I had a week off and into this. Then I have another week off and it's back into Calamity Jane." There's a look of sheer delight when she talks about this workload, particularly the prospect of getting back into buckskins.

"I love Calamity Jane. I love it to death. When I was approached to play it last year I had to say yes, but with the rider that I couldn't go down the same road as Doris Day. I mean, come on . . .

"But this production has a beautiful, no-nonsense approach. There's no glitter, no camp dance steps, and it's back to the nitty gritty. It's intended to be a little more historically accurate. We've forgotten about technology and gone back to how humans would have behaved being stuck in this desert town." 

Certainly, they would have behaved pretty badly. Willcox becomes even more animated when talking about the real Calamity.

"Did you know she was a real person? A really dubious background, too. She was an occasional prostitute, but then again, I think most people were then.

She was an Indian scout for the army, though." Fans of the Doris Day/Howard Keel love match may wish to look away now. 

"She never got together romantically with Bill - there were questions about her sexuality - but it seems that she may have had a child by him.

"She did join his wild west show, though, and it seems she died of alcoholism after touring Europe." Audiences in 1953 would have choked on their popcorn if Doris had chosen to go down this route, but for Willcox her Calamity has to be slightly more spit and sawdust.

One thing it does have in common is the physicality. Doris Day was injured on the set while being thrown around the saloon by Howard Keel. After watching rehearsals, Toyah's lawyers insisted she made a will.

"I get caught, I get thrown. Things get really rough. Then I get hoisted up on to rafters." The fact that all this is said with an ear-to-ear grin leads you to suspect that this is what attracts her to the role.

"Well, I presume that my Calamity is chaste, so all that pent-up energy goes into aggression and physicality." Physicality is a word that comes up with alarming regularity.

"I love throwing myself into things. I'm a huge fan of Theatre de Complicite. They haven't asked me to join, although I've done the workshops.

"I'm well aware that I'm not a typical female heroine. I can't just stand there and open my mouth, my voice isn't velvety enough for that, so I've always over-compensated.

"I'm more confident when I'm being physical. I'm short, very muscly, and I have no pretensions to be feminine." This does seem strange as Toyah is more conventionally pretty than at any other time in her career.

"Well, I haven't cut my hair for two years. I didn't want to wear a wig and we had to think of a way that Wild Bill could see Calamity as a real woman for the first time. When I tear the ballgown off, I stand there semi-nude.

My hair has fallen down and tumbled down over my shoulders. I think long hair tumbling down like that will always be a turn-on." Her single-minded approach to work seems to be an antidote to depression which is alluded to.

"Work keeps me physically and mentally fit. I think most artists have a tendency to depression and extreme physicality is how I deal with it. Even when I'm working I end every day with an hour of aerobics.

"I'm 44 now and loving my forties. My thirties were a different matter - the most miserable time of my life. I was going through changes, I got very overweight and I didn't have any kind of spiritual base. I really felt I was never going to fight back." 

The importance of conventional beauty in showbusiness is something that Willcox returns to and names actors such as Billie Whitelaw and Judi Dench as inspiration. "When I was a pop star I didn't think beyond 30. In the area I was working in, it seems that you're written off after about 25. I also know that at my age, I'm seen as difficult to cast." 

But one way or another Toyah Willcox has survived and thrived, probably in areas that hardened fans of her early albums are appalled by, but still, she's working while contemporaries are nothing more than TOTP2 fodder.

Many of her contemporaries, however, are still working and still relevant. Siouxsie Sioux, Kate Bush, Debbie Harry were all women who inspired a generation of teenage girls with more than platform soles, branded lollipops, and girl-power soundbites.

"I think at the time people like us were still struggling in a real male area. I think we had work to do: the women of the 1960s, I feel, were exploited by the sexual revolution.

"I do think that people who liked me really suffered for it. Everything I did came from inside my head in a darkened room, so I probably attracted like-minded folk, whereas someone like Kate (who is Toyah's best friend) was very good at researching her music and lyrics." Apart from theatre, there has been TV acting and presenting.

"I think I'm still working because of my personal approach. I'm pretty fascistic in my work and I think that reputation spreads.

"I like to be off script at first day of rehearsal, I love the tradition of theatre and like to be silent on the wings. I do sell my soul while I'm working.

"TV is fine. It gets you into living rooms and it reminds people you're still there, but theatre is by far the most satisfying. It's the only job where I can go home at night and feel truly satisfied. Nothing else does that for me." 

Not even live music. Despite an enjoyable Here and Now eighties tour, live music performance is nerve-racking.

"With live music you have to be yourself, and I don't like that. I've always been very nervous with that and I always will. I reason I love doing something like Calamity is I know that everything I'm good at, I can put into the character.

"Music is forced torture for me. Oh my god, I shouldn't say that, I can see the headline now 'Torture that cuts both ways'." 

The demands of an extensive theatre tour (and the possibility of a west end run) mean that there's little time to return home to Worcester and husband Robert Fripp.

While any marriage between Toyah and the King Crimson guitar guru would hardly be conventional, she admits that their nomadic lifestyles mean they rarely see one another.

"I don't get home much, but I don't want to. We are both very much travellers. He was here last week and I'll see him again soon, but we're happy that way.

"He has a new King Crimson album out in March and he'll be away promoting that. Actually, there's a great buzz about it. They're saying it's the best in 20 years. Even I like it." 

There are more conventional aspects to the relationship, however. When they're invited to parties, there's always a note at the bottom saying "bring your guitar" and Fripp spends time with the in-laws when Toyah is away.

"Where we live in Worcester, we're right on the Avon so my parents can reach us quickly by boat. We see as much of them as possible. Robert lost his parents about 10 years ago, so mine have really taken him under their wing.

"If I phone and I can't get hold of Robert I phone my dad's mobile and find out that they're off to a museum or the cinema or something." One thing the parents can forget about is any Willcox/Fripp collaborations.

"I've never wanted children, but what I'm realising now is there's something in the genetic structure that I nickname the death gene. I think I have inherited a gene somewhere that tells me that this is where this line ends.

My sister's the same. She's 54 and has no interest in children.

"Robert's take on it is that by stopping the family line, you free yourself from the earthly plain. Your spirit has evolved enough and you can go straight to Nirvana. But that's the Buddhist take on it. I just have no maternal instincts." 

There's a pattern of contradictions with Toyah. Contradictions or keeping her options open. Whichever, it seems to be the smart move.

No maternal instincts, but great success voicing the Teletubbies and playing a ghost in the children's show Barmy Aunt Boomerang for BBC Scotland.

Despite management pressure, she's also fighting to keep panto as part of her schedule, too.

She sees organised religion as highly political but has fronted Songs of Praise and the Heaven and Earth Show.

She's also launching herself back into torture again with new music. The Little Tears of Love EP will be released around May, or when she has time to promote it.

"2003 is actually my 25th year in the business, so there will be one big concert and a mini-tour. But it all depends what happens with Calamity Jane.

"I think I spent far too much time wanting to be famous. Now that I can enjoy the work. I feel real joy again." 

Calamity Jane is at the King's in Glasgow from January 21 for a week and the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh for a week from January 28.

Glasgow Herald
7th January 2003
Thanks to Alec Kelly