Whip-crack-away!

She survived the 'Celebrity' jungle. Now she's braving the (Wild) West End in the musical 'Calamity Jane'. Toyah Willcox talks to Anna Bailey

'Toyah', according to Native Americans, means "water giver of life", a name Ms Willcox certainly lives up to! She's currently celebrating 25 years in a successful showbiz career and enjoying a revival. In the past two months alone there's been ITV's I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here, a new album and now the musical Calamity Jane, currently previewing at the Shaftesbury Theatre. So what keeps her going?

"Well, I'm always looking for that 'ideal' job and I'm definitely a workaholic. When I was younger I wanted fame at any cost. But now I want to be really good at what I do and for something people will remember."

Since coming out of the jungle, the work offers have been flooding in: quiz shows, rock tours and pop albums. But it's creative freedom that she wants, hence her attraction to acting. "I'm a middle-aged woman. I don't want to pose in limos or wear Gucci. I love being able to walk down the street and to observe real people. And I think acting is the only career that can allow me that lifestyle."

Toyah is no stranger to the theatre. By the time she had shot to punk stardom in the early '80s, she had already worked at the National and had four films to her credit, including Derek Jarman's Jubilee and The Corn Is Green, with the legendary Katharine Hepburn. So did music get in the way of an otherwise healthy acting career? "Yes, completely! I might have been in Hollywood by now. But I have no regrets."

And why should she? She's got the lead role in Calamity, which has just played to sell-out audiences around the UK. Yet her achievement hasn't all been easy. Physically, "it's a real killer," admits the 45-year-old, who's worked with a stunt advisor to the Bond films in order to crack the bullwhip technique and perform all the high-energy acrobatics. "If I was five years older I just wouldn't have been able to do it!"

One challenge Toyah doesn't have to live up to is the 1950's Doris Day original, because this version has been adapted for a modern audience. It's got more action and more punch. And Calamity the cowgirl? "Well, she's a stronger and independent woman," explains Willcox, who has an inclination for playing tough ladies.

She also loves all the famous musical numbers in the show: 'Windy City', 'Black Hills Of Dakota' and 'Secret Love', her personal favourite. However, she doesn't regard heself as a traditonal West End singer. "I'm very much singing like Patsy Cline would, so it's more country and western. There are no bellowing vocal notes because I'm simply not made that way. And at the end of the day, the style of the musical is about bravado and spontaneity - and that's why it suits me."

So has she met Doris Day yet? "No, but I'm working on it." Toyah has just written the sleeve notes on Day's new album, to be re-released for the Hollywood stars 80th birthday, and further, would like to make a documentary on all the actresses who've played Calamity, including Barbara Windsor.

But for now her focus is on the musical and then, hopefully, a regular acting job on a soap like Eastenders. So, can we expect to see her replacing Babs in the Queen Vic? "No, I'd much rather be on the streets playing an evil old prostitute. But every time I beg them to write the role for me they just keep putting the phone down!"

What's On In london
18 - 25th June 2003