Dianne Pilkington has an impressive list of credits in West End musical theatre including Eponine in Les Misérables, The Beautiful Game, Taboo, Tonight’s the Night, and most recently The Far Pavilions. She has also played the role of Belle in the national tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and just finished touring Europe as Grizabella in Cats, before joining the London company of Wicked.
Pilkington has also featured on cast recordings of Taboo and The Beautiful Game and taken part in workshops for new musicals such as Urinetown, Zhivago (directed by Des McAnuff), Helen of Troy (directed by Gary Griffin) and Charlotte - Life or Theatre?. She has also appeared with Boy George in concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Wicked tells the “untold story” of the Witches of Oz - popular blonde Glinda, aka the Good Witch of the North, and her spin-victim friend Elphaba – who were both immortalised in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz. The musical has a book by Winnie Holtzman, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. It’s directed by Joe Mantello.
Opened in 2003 on Broadway, where it’s still running, Wicked received its West End premiere on 27 September 2006 (previews from 6 September). In this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, covering the 2006 theatre year, it won Best New Musical and Best Set Designer (for Eugene Lee) as well as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for original cast members Idina Menzel and Miriam Margoyles.
Dianne Pilkington’s role of Glinda was originally played in London by Helen Dallimore, who she succeeded this past July. The current cast also features Kerry Ellis as Elphaba, Susie Blake as Madame Morrible, Oliver Thompsett as Fiyera and Nigel Planer as the Wizard.
Guildford School of Acting.
What made you want to become an actor?
I decided to do professional theatre quite late comparatively to other people. I think I was about 18 when I decided I didn’t want to pursue a traditionally academic career, and I wanted to go to drama college, which shocked my parents a little bit. I’d always done am-dram things but never particularly with a view to doing it as a career. Then all of a sudden I just thought “What am I doing? This is what I am obviously meant to do”. So Guildford was a really great place for me, because at that time – I don’t know what it’s like anymore – the training was very regimented in some ways. There was very little leeway for not turning up to lessons and things like that. It was the first time I’d been away from home, and it was kind of strict and had a really good all-round grounding in theatre. It taught me things I’d never have known, such as stage management. It was invaluable to me. Plus it was close enough to London that I could go and watch some shows and get used to that without actually living in London, which I think would’ve frightened the hell out of me after coming from Wigan!
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I have no idea. I dabbled with the idea of being a journalist at one point. The only thing that I was really particularly good at academically was anything literature-based, English, and French Literature and stuff like that. I think I would have been either a librarian or a journalist or an English teacher.
First big break
I got Les Mis just as I was about to leave college. I spent two years there, running around with a shawl over my head. It was fun. That was a really valuable experience for me, because it was a really well-ordered show. Even then, it had been going for a very long time. You can be part of the ensemble of Les Mis and feel like you’re really working on what you do well, but also stand in the background enough that you can observe other people who have been working longer than you, and learn about your craft that way, which was good for me.
Career highlights to date
I’ve loved doing all my jobs, to be honest. They’ve all been extremely different. I loved doing the beggar woman in Sweeney Todd at the Bridewell. That was a really small, low-budget production, and it was fabulous. We did it in promenade, and playing a batty old hag who’s drunk poison and sent herself loopy was fabulous too! I was only about 24 at the time, so that was amazing for me. It was the most bizarre and fantastic experience that I could ever have. And then again, Beauty and the Beast was one of the most beautiful shows I’ve been part of. They’ve all been different, and they’ve all been valuable and exciting in their own way.
I’ve been hugely lucky to perform opposite the nicest, most down-to-earth people, Kerry Ellis probably being the most down-to-earth person I’ve ever met. She has every reason to be a diva if she wanted to be, but never ever would be. Tim Howar on Tonight’s the Night was just lovely, Alex Bourne on Beauty and the Beast was a really nice guy.
Ben Elton was so much fun. I actually keep in touch with Ben quite a lot. He said he’s coming to see me in the show at some point. I’ve worked with him twice, on The Beautiful Game and Tonight’s the Night. All of the directors have been extremely different. I really enjoyed working with Sam Scalamoni who came over from America to do Beauty and the Beast with us. He was lovely and inspiring. I have to say, one of the most inspiring directors I’ve ever worked with is Gale Edwards, from The Far Pavilions. She was just incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a director who I didn’t like. That’s nice, isn’t it?
Favourite musical writers
I like anything by Stephen Sondheim. I ache to do another Sondheim. Sweeney Todd is always going to be one of my favourites. I just think it’s such a fantastic piece. I did it at college as well, and then at the Bridewell, so I think I’ve got quite close to it. Believe it or not, for a long time my burning ambition was to get into Wicked, because when I first read the book I was so into it and I love the music of Stephen Schwartz. I remember reading on the internet that they’d got him to write the music for it. One of my favourite composers with one of my favourite stories – this is a big highlight for me.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
The Drowsy Chaperone. I’m absolutely gutted and mortified that it closed. A friend was in it, and it was one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. I really am stupefied – it had so much in it.
I’m halfway through Harry Potter right now. It is about a wizarding school, of course - but that’s not intentional! If anyone spoils it for me, they’ll feel the brunt of my wand!
Favourite holiday destinations
I’m actually planning to go with my other half and his son to EuroDisney. I’m in the process of booking that now. I’m clearly going through this whole magical thing right now! I think my favourite holiday destination would be anywhere that I could go on safari. I love it.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Ooh, that’s an interesting question. You know what, I’d have to swap places with Marilyn Monroe. Obviously not to commit suicide or die, but just to find out a little of what was going on in her mind.
How are you finding working on Wicked?
I’m absolutely loving it. It’s hard work and I’m tired - it’s always like that when you’re in a new show. There are so many things you’ve got to find, it exhausts you. But I’m having a ball. I think this show has got something for everyone, really. If you want to look for the clever little rhymes and the clever little musical motifs and things like that, and the clever bits of story that relate to The Wizard of Oz, you can find them - they’re all there. But if you just want to go and sit there, and see a great spectacle and be entertained, it’s that too.
Do you find it hard having to fit into an existing production?
I think that there are pros and cons for all of it. Obviously, you’ve got the advantage that if it’s been running for a while, it’s got a certain smoothness and slickness in the general running of the show, so that’s great. Nobody’s been particularly stifling with me on what I want to do with the character. I think I’ve been very fortunate in fitting in nicely.
Tell us about your character.
How best to describe Glinda? She is originally written as a kind of Legally Blonde pageant queen, and from my point of view she’s extremely naïve and unworldly. She genuinely means to do good for people, and she’s a generally nice person, but she seems to go about it in a way that is oblivious to the trials of others, shall we say. But like I said, she’s got a heart of gold. Everything she says and does comes from a good place. It’s just that she seems to do the most atrocious things in the name of goodness!
How much of The Wizard of Oz do you bring to this role?
I’ve tried to bring a little bit of the The Wizard of Oz Glinda into the public-figure side of Glinda. I think we all remember when she arrives in the bubble in the film, she’s so serene and lovely. She takes care of everyone, and I’ve tried to try and remember that while I’m doing this. It’s easy to run away with the funny, snippy side of Glinda and forget that she actually is a very, very good, warm human being, who can calm people down quite easily. In Gregory Maguire’s book, Glinda is not very nice, she doesn’t have many redeeming qualities at all. In the musical she has, not a dark side, but human frailties. She has a lot more to endear her to people as a character. So it’s good fun looking at someone who is so flawed, but hides it under a mass of blonde hair!
You descend onto the stage from quite a height. Is it as scary as it looks?
You know what, it kind of is! However, I’m well harnessed in. I’m very safe up there I think, touch wood. I’ve just come back from doing Cats, so I’m used to going up high, and I think I got over my fear of heights at that point. It just seems obvious now – “Of course I’m going to be flown up into the rafters of the theatre, that’s what I do!” I think I’d be really confused if I had my feet on the ground all the way through!
Is it nice to be back in one place now after touring with Cats last year?
Oh God, yeah. I love it. I’ve been based in London for 11 years now. I originally came from up North. It really is so nice to be at home. I’m not very good at living out of a suitcase, and while I enjoyed Cats and the whole experience, it’s definitely a bonus to be at home with my flat and my boyfriend.
What’s the funnies/most notable thing that happened during your rehearsals/run to date in Wicked?
Oh, good Lord! Well, I fall over a lot… I’m very clumsy, but mostly I’ve managed to contain that within rehearsals. I had a great rehearsal period. It was very hectic, but I don’t think there was anything completely bizarre that happened. I’m very friendly with Kerry Ellis anyway. I’ve done a workshop with her before and we have the same agent, so we’ve known each other for a while, and we do tend to get the girly giggles sometimes.
What are your future plans?
I really don’t know. I would like to do some straight theatre, and I’d quite like to do some telly. But I’m really happy doing musical theatre at the moment, and if this is what I carry on doing then I’ll be a very lucky girl!
- Dianne Pilkington was speaking to Ryan Woods
Wicked is playing at the West End’s Apollo Victoria.