From Punk To Panto For Versatile Toyah

Since bursting on the scene as a singer in the punk era, Toyah Willcox has remained prominent in the entertainment business for more than 30 years which the star puts down to her ability to constantly reinvent herself. But one mainstay has been performing in pantomimes at Christmas, which this year brings her to Sheffield to play the Wicked Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Lyceum Theatre.

This is her 17th panto appearance. "I have played various roles – Jack, Aladdin, Peter Pan. This will be my sixth time as the Wicked Queen," she reveals.

And she takes them very seriously. "I am very fussy that the panto tells the story because I think these stories are wonderful," she says.

"I also believe that the tradition of panto grew out of Shakespeare roles – Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy for a wedding celebration and when you look at good pantos the structures are the same.

"You've got the characters pretending to be different sexes and characters pretending to be different people and the fight between good and evil and I think these are very good stories to tell at Christmas."

There are potential difficulties with the staging of Snow White, she says. "Walt Disney made a very famous animated film and it means firstly as a trademark you can't go near that film and secondly you are dealing with a film that demonised the stepmother which feminists don't like.

"And then you are dealing with a production which uses a very unique kind of human being, the dwarves, so I will only do a Snow White which is in total celebration of everyone on that stage and that's what I find very, very good about the Wood family."

Willcox's very first panto was with the father of producer Emily Wood.

"This is complete family entertainment and made for every generation of a family," she says.

"You see grandparents, their children and their children and sometimes their children and it's very moving. That said, in matinees you sometimes just see elderly couples which moves me to tears. It's beautiful."

Toyah Willcox was last in Sheffield on tour in Calamity Jane but admits she is not keen on doing musicals.

"It's a difficult one because I get asked to do them an awful lot and I am really quite avant garde in my tastes," she explains.

"I love pantomime because I think it is the most off-the-wall thing anyone could ever see. A man dressed as a woman, a woman who is royalty playing a murderer, it's utterly bizarre and suits me down to the ground."

She makes an exception for Vampire's Rock, a goth musical which tours one-nighters (in Buxton recently) and doesn't involve long runs which is one of the other reasons she has shied away from offers like Rocky Horror in the West End.

"To be in one place for a year, I am just not used to that. Vampires are in a different place each night. Sheffield, I am here for six weeks, and then I am off to Seattle."

It's the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, perhaps.

"Yes, I am used to living out of the boot of my car, exploring different cities, and each city or town is a completely different culture and it's never dull and always interesting."

She will be going to Seattle to link up with Bill Rieflin, the REM drummer, with whom she is collaborating on a band called The Humans

"We made an album in July and then we start some sporadic tour dates in January. We do Stateside, Europe and Russia, the Baltics. It's a music genre I have never done before, it's very film noir, it's very dark."

It began with a commission in Estonia originally for her husband, the musician Robert Fripp, but as he won't tour she took up the project herself. It proved so successful that Fripp subsequently asked to join the band.

"It's nerve-wracking because I want it to reach its full potential and you can never guarantee how, but it's exciting and I never expected at the age of 51 to have a music career going the way it is going."

You could say that about her whole career. "Towards the end of the 80s I was having huge success as a Shakespearean actress and then suddenly I was presenting Holiday and Health Check Watchdog for the BBC, Songs and Praise and Heaven and Earth, so I have always gone off on bizarre tangents.

"I think I have always been available to take opportunities," she says.

"When you start something new whatever age you are you are starting a new experience for the audience and I am very aware of celebrity, so I do the odd thing like have a bum lift for the Daily Mail.

"I am totally aware of what my audience expects. Reality TV can bring a new audience, the only way I will win a young audience is to do a children's TV or a reality programme."

Reality TV? "It's cool, I don't have a problem with that. The funniest thing I was offered and I actually said yes was to enter Miss Universe in Las Vegas where they wanted me to be a bodybuilder," she laughs.

"It never came off and I would have loved to have done that."

Sheffield Telegraph
December 2009