We’ve all grown up with Bonnie Langford, haven’t we? It feels as though she’s been famous forever – and she’s certainly been on our TV screens for as long as I can remember. Most recently, I watched her perform in ‘9 to 5’ – and she was phenomenal.
Richmond’s 120-year-old theatre has just re-opened – and Bonnie described herself as “blessed and privileged” to be the first actor to reappear on its stage, not least because she made her acting debut here aged just three months old. She kicked off the evening with renditions of ‘This is Me’ and ‘Raise the Roof’, sashaying on to the stage like a 20 year old (seriously, this woman never ages).
Following those with ‘Let Me Entertain You’, Langford explained that she sang that song as Baby Jane, in ‘Gypsy’ – performing, aged eight, alongside Angela Lansbury. That hugely successful production went from London to America, where the cast performed in 14 cities before transferring to Broadway. Bonnie loved being part of a theatre family and adored Angela Lansbury: “Magnificent, and as much a legend off the stage as on”.
Chaperoned by her mother, Bonnie missed her father and two sisters, who came to visit when they could (“I found it very hard to say goodbye to them”). Of some consolation were the “extraordinary” people Langford met on that tour, including Debbie Reynolds and Muhammad Ali.
Another incredible opportunity soon followed, in the shape of Rhett Butler’s daughter at the Drury Lane Theatre, in the first-ever stage production of ‘Gone with the Wind’. Noel Coward and Princess Anne attended its premiere. Coward, of course, was known for his sharp tongue which, according to Bonnie, “He did not leave at home that night”. At the post-show party, upon hearing one of the child actors sing ‘Why Must the Show Go On?’, Noel declared: “Cut the show – and the child’s throat”.
This brought us on to ‘Hit Me with a Hot Note’, which Langford performed for us draped across a piano, à la Michelle Pfeiffer, to the delight of all the men in the audience. “I love Richmond”, she crooned, confiding that she will forever associate the town with Christmas, having performed panto here many times. Her family’s connection with the theatre began long ago; her mother was employed to look after the different casts’ children back in the days when the theatre remained independent; Bonnie used to come to work with her and grew up watching all the panto greats.
This is where Bonnie played Aladdin, to Bernard Cribbins’ Widow Twankey; she has also played Peter Pan: “I love the magic that kids choose to believe”.
At this point, Bonnie broke off to introduce a very special guest, Mark Curry, with whom she starred in ‘Bugsy Malone’, in 1975. The pair already knew each other from appearing in ‘Babes in the Wood’ with Little & Large. Reunited, they sing ‘There May Be Trouble Ahead’: a fantastic moment.
After opening the second half with ‘All That Jazz’ (Langford played Roxie in ‘Chicago’ both in the West End and on Broadway), Bonnie paid tribute to three “very special” British singers: Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark and Cilla Black – all of whom, she told us, have been a great influence on her. I loved her rendition of ‘Downtown’, which left everyone around me visibly moved.
Continuing on the subject of theatre, Langford reminisced about being in the original cast of ‘Cats’, back in 1981, aged 16, alongside Wayne Sleep and Paul Nicholas – and of the “trials and tribulations” during rehearsals. Poor Judi Dench snapped her Achilles tendon – “I’ll never forget that sound” – and was replaced by Elaine Paige who, incredibly, managed to learn her part in just three days.
Bonnie Langford has been equally successful on TV. Notable parts include Melanie Bush in ‘Dr Who’, alongside Sylvester McCoy: “a terrible dancer!” (the pair both starred in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’).
And, of course, she spent three years in ‘EastEnders’. “I was only meant to be in eight episodes – but I stayed three and a half years, and I loved every minute”. Now, Langford told us, she has huge respect for everyone who works in soap, having never previously appreciated how much hard work it is. Best of all, Bonnie told us, “I got to see the world through a young person’s eyes”. In the show, her youngest son, Shakil, was murdered in a knife crime attack: “It’s happening every day.” At this point, the actor who played her murdered son, Shaheen Jafargholi, joined her on stage and together they sang ‘Baby I Love You’.
Ending a blissful evening of music and reminiscence, Bonnie Langford’s daughter, Biana, came on stage to duet with her in ‘Because I Love You’: a great way in which to end a highly enjoyable evening with this doyenne of theatre.
A fabulous night out.