Since completing her training at Arts Ed, where she won a Musical Theatre Award as well as gaining her diploma, actress Rebecca Thornhill has enjoyed numerous West End successes, taking lead roles in Les Miserables, Ragtime, Playing Away, The Full Monty, Beauty and the Beast, Cats, Sophisticated Ladies, Me and My Girl and She Loves Me.
At the National, Thornhill played Lina Lamont in the West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Singin' in the Rain, for which she was nominated for the 2001 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical, and Gertie Cummins in Oklahoma!, which transferred to the West End’s Lyceum Theatre.
Thornhill is probably best known for her West End roles as Sukie Rougemont in Witches of Eastwick, a part she took over from Maria Friedman when the show moved from its original home at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to the Prince of Wales Theatre, and as murderess Roxie Hart in Chicago at the Adelphi.
Her regional credits include Woman One in Sondheim’s Putting it Together in Harrogate, Sally in the touring production of Me and My Girl, Cosette in Les Miserables in Edinburgh, Rose in Aspects of Love in Ipswich, Brook in Noises Off in Westcliff, Crystal in the national tour of Doctor Who, Diane in Pal Joey in Bristol, and a Hotbox Girl in Guys and Dolls in Leicester. In pantomime, Thornhill has played the title role in Cinderella in Westcliff, Dick in Dick Whittington in Guildford, and Alice in Dick Whittington in Windsor.
Her concert work includes Ragtime at the Cardiff musicals festival, Songs of Jason Robert Brown with the man himself at the New Players Theatre, A Night of a Thousand Voices at the Royal Albert Hall, and Notes from New York at Trafalgar Studios. Overseas, Thornhill has starred in Les Miserables in Denmark and Me and My Girl in Zimbabwe, as well as performing concerts in Sweden.
Thornhill’s television credits include EastEnders and The Bill. She has also joined the cabaret circuit, performing shows at Lauderdale House, the Shaw theatre, 2TooMuch and Jermyn Street.
Thornhill has just launched a national tour of Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin’s classic Broadway musical based on the real-life story of Annie Oakley in which she plays the gun-toting tomboy of the title.
Date & place of birth
Born on 18 June 1969 in Dartford, Kent.
I trained at Arts Educational School, it was brilliant. I did the Musical Theatre course there.
What made you decide to become an actor?
I used to do a lot of am-dram, which I loved. I started dancing because I had no strength in my feet, I was born with a twisted foot. I got to the end of my time in school and I still loved dancing so I said, “I want to carry this on”. I love what I do, I still love it as much as I did when I started out – and I can’t do anything else really, so I suppose that’s why I’m an actor.
First big break
Understudying the lead in Me and My Girl in London. It was my first West End job so to understudy the lead meant a hell of a lot. It was great. It’s very hard to describe what your first break is, though, because each job is a break. It’s not like in the old days where you had one break and were made for life. Each time you do something you then go on to do something else.
Career highlights to date
Playing Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain - it was absolutely brilliant, so much fun. Sally in Me and My Girl was also wonderful when I eventually did play the lead as it’s one of my favourite pieces. And playing Roxie in Chicago was incredible. I had always wanted to do that and I loved every minute of it. Oh, and The Witches of Eastwick was also wonderful.
David Hasselhoff, who I worked with in Chicago. He was fabulous - and so American! In Witches I was playing Sukie, and I got on really well with the women in that - Joanna Riding and Josefina Gabrielle. We were also working then with Clarke Peters, who was wonderful - although I would have liked to have been in the show when my husband was in it. Earl took over from Ian McShane (who created the stage role of Darryl Van Horne) and turned it into what it eventually became, which was such a fun, exciting show. Clarke took over after Earl.
I’m enjoying working with Timothy Sheader at the moment on Annie Get Your Gun. And Matt Ryan who I worked with in Denmark doing a very new version of Les Miserables is wonderful. Trevor Nunn, of course, I was fascinated to see how he works. Um, it’s difficult. When you mention one director, you want to mention them all because they’re all so good in different ways. I don’t want anyone thinking I’ve forgotten them or don’t like them.
Favourite musical writers
Kander and Ebb are fantastic. Their shows are definitely among my favourites. I love Chicago but it’s the stuff that’s not in Chicago I like best. I like all their other stuff.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Eva in Evita would be lovely - if any of the casting directors are listening! I’d also love to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. That’s my ultimate.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I always used to tell people I was a volleyball player in case they wanted something other than just another actress. I used to play volleyball a lot, every time I went on holiday. But now I think I’d open up my own coffee shop - with cake! I’d set one up where there no others. I don’t want to have to compete against all these coffee chains that serve people extremely quickly. I think really good coffee takes time to prepare. The best coffee I ever had was in Denmark, it was fantastic.
What would you advise the Government to secure the future of British theatre?
Just to support it really, especially in this day and age when people need entertainment to take away from what’s going on in the world.
Favourite after-show haunts
I’m a bit of a good girl really, I usually go home. I have been to Teatro a couple of times, but I don’t drink a lot so I usually go out for a nice meal somewhere instead, like the Ivy. I don't go there very often either, but it would be nice to go there every night!
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was the most incredible book I’ve ever read. I read Angels and Demons by Dan Brown and thought that was better than his first one, The Da Vinci Code. It is very simple writing - not brilliant writing, but it is really gripping so who cares!
Favourite holiday destinations
Anywhere that’s got clear blue seas!
What shows have you seen recently that made an impact on you?
I saw Guys and Dolls and the dancing in it was phenomenal. I had a great night out and thought it was fabulous. I also recently went to see the Australian ballet and the lead woman was just wow! Completely took my breath away.
What made you want to accept the title role in Annie Get Your Gun?
I knew the show before. I’d done it amateur-wise and my mother played Annie so I love it for obvious reasons. I really wanted to get the part. I missed my audition, it was the first time I have ever I missed an audition. I thought it was the following week, and I was meant to be there in the morning, but luckily I had the script with me and everything so when I got the call to say “where are you”, I asked if I could audition in the afternoon instead, which luckily worked out. I was absolutely mortified, but the director was so lovely. The thing I like most about the show is the music, it’s just fantastic. Annie’s bold at the same time as being shy, which is quite weird. She’s a contradictory kind of part. She’s confident with shooting, but when it comes to men, she’s useless. She’s a very loving character and feisty. I’m bit of a tomboy so running around with a gun and doing that kind of thing is great. I’ve done clay pigeon shooting before - I did that on my honeymoon actually!
What are the main challenges of being on tour?
I haven’t toured since 1994 and I love seeing the whole of the country, I don’t mind the fact that we’re doing a week in each place. Touring brings something to the piece as you have to adapt slightly for each venue so it fits the space and audience, and so it stays fresh.
You also do cabaret shows. How did that first come about?
I wanted to do it for ten years but never had the guts to. I used to think cabaret was like getting up on stage and saying “hi, look at me”, but it’s not. It’s more like “hello, I’d like to sing these songs for you, please.” It’s very hard. I’ve only done a few, but it’s really hard because there are so many songs I really love. I couldn’t possibly sing them all or the poor audience would be there all night! I don’t think it’s possible to do the perfect cabaret because there will be some people who don’t like the songs you’ve chosen, but at least if you have a good mix hopefully everyone will like something!
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that happened during rehearsals of Annie Get Your Gun?
Steve (Houghton, who plays rival shooting ace and love interest Frank Butler) fell off a table, but he’ll probably kill me for saying that! I managed to hit the choreographer with the gun and she thinks I’m out to get her! The choreography is wonderful. Without giving too much away, we’re doing it as a show within a show, set in the 1940s and it’s basically putting on Annie Get Your Gun for the troops. Tim (Sheader, the director) has some really good ideas. We have added some new music in a different style to take the show into the 1940s, and it has brought it more up to date in a sense.
What are your plans for the future?
If they offer me Chicago on Broadway I’d take it. I would love to go to Broadway before I have to have children. I’d also love to play Eva in Evita. I’d leap at the chance to do that if I was offered it. But no, nothing definite planned yet.
- Rebecca Thornhill was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Annie Get Your Gun opened on 26 August 2005 at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre and continues on a UK-wide to 14 further venues until 10 December 2005, with further dates to be announced.