Drawing: Ruthie Henshall in Billy Elliot The Musical

Autographed drawing of Ruthie Henshall in Billy Elliot The Musical at the Victoria Palace Theatre on London's West End

Ruthie Henshall’s illustrious theatre career spans four decades, beginning with her West End debut in CATS in 1988, making appearances as Jemima, Demeter, Griddlebone and Grizabella after completing the UK tour of A CHORUS LINE. She is currently back on the London boards in the revival of CHICAGO at the Phoenix Theatre.

It’s a show she knows well. Having played Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly on a few occasions on the West End and Broadway, she is now the prison warden, Mama Morton, which makes her the only British actress to have played all CHICAGO’s leading female roles. She originated the role of Roxie in the 1997 London production, a performance that earned her one of five Olivier Award nominations. She won two years earlier for her portrayal of Amelia Balash in the revival of SHE LOVES ME.

Prior to this year’s CHICAGO, Ruthie joined the cast of BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL as the straight talking dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson for the last 18 months of it’s eleven year run at the Victoria Palace Theatre. I drew this drawing of her, which she signed for me at the Phoenix stage door on Saturday and remarked on the impressive sweater she got to wear, which, by the way took me longer to render than the rest of the sketch and she said it was and she should have kept it.

Drawing: Alison Steadman, Ruthie Henshall, Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst in Blithe Spirit

blithe spirit001

One of the classic stage doors is the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue (not the stage door, the theatre. The stage door is round the back in Archer Street). It’s opposite the White Horse pub and the home of 6 million pigeons (someone keeps feeding them). It is quintessential West End, flanked by the Gielgud and Lyric Theatres bordering on Soho.

A revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit had transferred there after a regional tour in 2010. Alison Steadman had signed the single sketch for me a couple of weeks earlier and I left her a copy. She was talking to the guy who feeds the pigeons, so I asked if she could sign the cast sketch. She was more than happy to, saying “we all really love your work, it’s excellent, thank you,” which was nice to hear.

Ruthie Henshall was already in… in fact, if I went to the first floor of the White Horse I would be on the same level as her dressing room and could get her attention… but no, that could lead to a conviction. Ruthie, apart from being a West End and Broadway star, dated Prince Edward “solidly for two years, on and off for five years”. Because it wasn’t public knowledge she was often ‘smuggled’ into Buckingham Palace. The relationship ended because she didn’t want to give up her career, but she did attend the Prince’s wedding to Sophie Rhys Jones in 1999.

TV star Hermione Norris was on her phone to a family member (I guessed), so I waited, but she multitasked and signed while she was still talking. I apologised, but she said, “not a problem,” and went inside. Very nice lady.

Her Cold Feet co-star Robert Bathurst is usually the last… and late. “He bikes,” said the stage door manager. Now, that’s running a few gauntlets at that time of night in the heart of London. But his understudy was reprieved again and he arrived in tact. He duly signed and wheeled his bike into the theatre.

Since it was a very pleasant May evening I ensconced myself at the White Horse to partake of their hospitality until the show ended and Ruthie left in the conventional manner (not needing to employ the covert operations of her royal courtship days). I got her coming out, so to speak, to complete the set.

Alison Steadman001