Interview: Ruthie Henshall’s show must go on

Actress Ruthie Henshall. Picture: Contributed
Actress Ruthie Henshall. Picture: Contributed
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She’s been an all singing, all dancing musical theatre star for 27 years, but Ruthie Henshall has always spoken honestly about the tough times. The key, she says, is finding a balance

Ruthie Henshall goes out to the front of the theatre after every performance of her one woman show. The first thing that people say when they see her is: “Ooh, you’re tiny! You look so much bigger on stage.” The second thing is: “Where does that big voice come from?” She giggles. “I don’t know where it comes from. My boots?”

Wherever it resides, Henshall’s voice has been her passport to a 27-year career in London’s West End and on Broadway in New York. She made her debut in Cats at the age of 19, she was Roxie Hart in the first West End Chicago. She’s played Velma Kelly too – in London and New York. She was dreaming a dream long before Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Misérables, and was part of the world premiere cast of Miss Saigon. Henshall is an all singing, all dancing musical theatre star.

At 46, though, raising two daughters on her own, there’s a sense that Henshall is starting a new phase in her career and this time there’s no character for her to hide behind.

“This is just me standing up there, raw and uncut,” she says of her new show, An Intimate Evening with Ruthie Henshall. “I’ve loved it so far,” she says. “It’s so different and very liberating.”

The show combines music, everything from The Beatles to Don McLean, as well as classics from the musicals she’s been in, with stories from Henshall’s life. The evening isn’t ad-libbed, the songs are planned and they often go along with particular stories from Henshall’s life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely scripted. “My pianist just rolls his eyes because I go off on tangents,” she says. “But I’m reminded of things as I talk so it’s very much on the night.”

Henshall is known for her startling emotional honesty. When she was a guest on Desert Island Discs some years ago, she spoke forthrightly about her experience of depression, prompted at least partly by the sexual abuse she suffered as a young child at the hands of a family friend. She didn’t tell anyone about the abuse when it was happening, but decided to speak openly about it as an adult both to her family and in public. She also spoke about the death of her sister, Noel, who took her own life in 2007. Being open and honest is important for Henshall, she says, because it’s a way of connecting with other people. But also she says she doesn’t really know any other way to be.

“I don’t know how to be dishonest. I know that no one has to give away their private life, but I’ve spoken to so many people during my life and they look at people up on stage or in magazines and they judge their insides on that person’s outsides. They think that person has no insecurities or worries. It looks like they have a lovely life, but we don’t know the half of what’s going on for other people. We’ve all got our stuff. This life is absolutely incredible and it’s also incredibly painful. There are ups and downs and if we can all be a little bit more honest with each other then maybe we don’t feel as alone when those bad times come along.”

It’s one of the joys, she says, of doing her show in small venues, where she can have a real sense of the audience. “Unless someone comes to the stage door in London, you’ve got no idea how what you’ve done has impacted,” she says. “It’s really fascinating. I’ve always thought listen we’re not saving lives here so let’s not get too far above our stations in this business. I’ve never really seen the effect that something can have on maybe just one person. At a concert recently, a guy came up to me and told me that his son had died and I sang this particular song and it had always been associated with his son’s funeral and now it was associated with something happy and he thanked me for that. It’s such a privilege to do what I do.”

Henshall knew from a very young age that she wanted to be a performer. The youngest of four girls, Henshall’s parents, David and Gloria, a newspaper executive and a drama teacher had a volatile marriage and their youngest daughter took it upon herself to try to keep everyone together by making them laugh. She was performing long before she became a performer. Couple that to huge ambition and unstoppable drive and what you get is someone who can not only hack the pace of musical theatre – eight shows a week, six days a week – but someone who thrives on it. Still, there was a downside.

Henshall has described her life as “like an express train” that she couldn’t get off. There have been incredible highs and she’s being honest when she says that at times she’s not been able to believe her luck, moving from one hit show to another, garnering rave reviews and award nominations. But in her personal life, things have not been easy. At the height of her success on Broadway, Henshall was feeling suicidal. Going into therapy and facing up to the issues that were troubling her, helped Henshall through. In recent years, her children have helped her to find balance in her life.

“You do get to the stage when you’re a bit burnt out and I don’t know how to slow down,” she says. “My children [Lily, 10, and Dolly, 8] have helped me to do that because they are my priority so I have to plan, I have to say no.”

Henshall married singer Tim Howar in 2004, they’d met in 2001 when they were both starring in Peggy Sue Gets Married. Before the couple divorced in 2009, they were both trying to hold down careers in theatre while raising their daughters. It wasn’t an easy task.

“I was seeing them for an hour in the morning before I took them to school and sometimes I wouldn’t see them at all when they came home from school depending on what was going on. If I did see them, it was for half an hour before I got the train into London [Henshall lives in Suffolk]. I’d get home at about 12:30am and by the time I’d sort of come back to earth I’d be in bed at about 2:30am and then I’d be up with them for school. Really I only got Sunday with them.”

Now that Henshall is raising her daughters alone, she says that she’s picked and chosen roles “brutally” because she realised that her daughters were being brought up by a nanny and neither they, nor she, wanted that. It’s also the reason why Henshall has started a production company, Three Pin Productions, which is behind both her concert tour and her new album. She hopes it will give her some more control over her own career and allow her to continue to perform in a way that is compatible with her family life.

“I’ve only been able to really concentrate on that recently. I mean I’ve taken time out to be with my girls before, but it’s very hard to turn down work as an actress because you never know when the next job is going to come, there’s no stability whatsoever. But this year really has been about forging that solo concert career. So far so good.”

The only thing that’s tricky is childcare.

“I mean how do you find somebody to look after your children when it’s literally two days here and four days next month?” she says. “It’s quite difficult. If you get a nanny they’ll want to know what their hours are, whether they’re part time or full time, and I can never tell them. It is a challenge. It’s family and friends who step in at the moment.”

Henshall says that she knows she’s got to balance her life and career to avoid resenting her job. But also there’s no denying that performing is hugely important to her. She’s done it all her life, as she puts it, the theatre is much more than just a job, it’s “my church”. So it makes sense that scaling things back isn’t easy, no matter how necessary that might be. Henshall, though, is pragmatic.

“At least I’m still doing it,” she says. “At least once or twice a month I’m doing concerts or what not. I’m still getting my fix. I definitely miss being part of a company. I love being part of a show. But this is scratching the itch. It’s rather gorgeous. I will do eight shows a week again. When my children are a bit older they won’t care whether I’m around or not, their friends become more important to them, don’t they?”

Henshall may have always known that she wanted to perform, but she also knew that in pursuing a career in musical theatre she was fulfilling an ambition that her own mother, Gloria, had cherished.

“I definitely think I’m doing what she wanted to do,” she says. “I think she’d be the first person to tell you that, but it just didn’t happen for her so she became a teacher. I mean they just didn’t have the money for her to pursue that kind of career. She’s done it the other way around, lifting other people up.

“I was definitely aware that she got a huge kick out of what I was doing and coming to opening nights and all that. But I never felt I was doing it for her.”

As far as her own daughters are concerned, there are no signs that they share their mother and grandmother’s interest in being on stage. “I’m not desperate for them to go into the business at all and I never have been,” she says. “All I want them to follow is their passion. At the moment, Lily’s passion is art, and her other passion is animals. So right now, at 10 years old, she wants to be a vet. Dolly’s more interested in athletics. I love that they know their own minds.”

She is proud of her daughters, and for all the openness about the dark times in her own life, there’s also a sense that she’s come to a kind of acceptance of what she’s been through and she’s ready to take control of what comes next. But that’s not to say that she hasn’t been changed by her experiences.

“Something like losing my sister,” she says, “I’ll never get over it but I’ve learned to live with it. It can still totally floor me now. I can come across something of hers, or I just have moments when if it’s appropriate I just have to cry. The difficult thing now is watching my children grow up and knowing that they’ll never know her. I don’t know how to not feel that.

“But we’ve all got sad stuff in our lives. That’s what I try to remember. We lost my sister and that’s terribly sad but none of us is living with anything awful, we’re healthy. My children are healthy, they’ve got a daddy who they adore and he adores them.”

She says that the break up between herself and Howar has been “incredibly amicable”.

I tell her that I think that’s impressive, but she bats away the compliment.

“You have to put your personal feelings aside,” she says. “I’m sure there were times, many times, when Tim and I have swallowed whatever we’ve wanted to spit at each other because the girls are there.

“The perfect scenario is that parents stay together. I don’t know anyone who stays blissfully happy for their whole marriage, you have ups and downs as you grow, but without a doubt staying together is the ideal. Divorce is not what you want for your children, it’s not what you plan – you don’t go into a marriage thinking oh well I can always get out of it if I need to, you totally believe you’re going to be with that person. But you can’t have a tantrum – you have to be the grown up.”

Choosing songs and writing the words for her new show has given Henshall a chance to look back and take stock of her life. She says that although there are moments when she’s almost amazed by what she’s achieved, she’s only really interested in looking forward and thinking about what might come next.

“You always feel there’s something more you could do, or you’ve never really quite reached your goal. Someone asked me if I’d write my autobiography, or let someone else write it for me. But I said no because I don’t even feel like I’m half way there.”

An Intimate Evening with Ruthie Henshall is at Rothes Hall, Glenrothes, 6 June, Aberdeen Arts Centre, 7 June, The Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 8 June, Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, 9 June and The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 11 June, for tickets, £22 (£20 conc.), see; I’ve Loved These Days is out now, £11.99.