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On the Road - Julia McKenzie, 82. By Louise Flind

Blog | By Louise Flind | Nov 29, 2023

Do you travel light?

Generally, yes, but because I’m away from home for seven weeks this time, I’ve overpacked. But, as it’s all rehearsal for Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends,[which McKenzie is co-directing] I hope nobody asks me out anywhere posh. I haven’t brought anything posh with me.

What’s your favourite destination?

I come to London for holidays now, as I live on the south coast.

What are your earliest childhood holiday memories?

Money wasn’t running around too much back then, so I think the biggest thing was the Isle of Wight. That was exotic for us.

Did you always want to be on the stage?

I did, but I didn’t know it really. I was extremely fortunate. I had a voice when I was a kid, so I used to get solos. There was a night that changed my life. I was singing the solo at a school concert and a county music adviser came round afterwards and said, ‘I will give you a scholarship for four years to study opera at Guildhall.’ I didn’t know anything about music – I couldn’t read it – and I was hoping to be a French teacher.

Did you come from a musical theatrical background?

Not at all. My dad was an office manager and my mother worked in various shops – but she had a voice, an absolutely glorious voice, and when she put the vacuum cleaner on, she would sing, and I would sit on the stairs and just listen.

What happened after the Guildhall?

Operetta, and then I worked my way into musical theatre. The big moment was hearing Stephen Sondheim. He’s made me a much better performer. What was Stephen Sondheim like?

He was a lovely chap. I loved him. What was your first big break? I was not a star overnight. I suppose the first thing was a touring production of Rosemary in the mid-1960s and I was cast as the second understudy. I looked at the show a couple of times and, blow me, Rosemary was off, her first understudy was off and I was thrust on and I thought, ‘Whoopee, I’ve made it!’ I was just a working actor, really, until my friends Millicent Martin and David Kernan decided they’d put a little evening together called Side by Side by Sondheim. We were all in other shows, but we put on this review on Sunday evenings at various places.

Cameron Mackintosh came along and decided this had something, and put us for six weeks into the Mermaid Theatre.

Then it transferred into Wyndham’s Theatre – but not with us. We’d gone to New York to open it.

Who’s been your favourite director?

I would be a fool if I didn’t say my current director, Matthew Bourne. He’s working in conjunction with Stephen Mear on the choreography. It’s a wonderful team to work with.

Do you prefer theatre to television and film?

Vastly – yes, it’s alive. Film and television are nice, but there’s a lot of sitting about.

What was it like being on Broadway in the 1970s?

Incredible. I was terribly nervous, though, because we were taking American material to New York.

What’s the most exotic place you’ve ever filmed in?

We did an episode of Marple in Cape Town, trying to pretend it was the West Indies.

And the least exotic?

Hammersmith. Whenever I did anything and there was a choice of two places, I would always go to Hammersmith. Somebody else would go to Pakistan... The furthest I’ve been is New Zealand, where my husband and I went because I said, ‘Look, I’m going to be 70. I want to get as far away from that as I possibly can.’ It didn’t make me forget my age because the phone call to play Marple came through while we were there ...

Where were the Marples generally made?

Always about an hour’s drive from central London. You’d be picked up at 5.30am and arrive at 6.30.

Where do you live now?

In Devon, by the sea, and I often have people down with their families, and grown men will run along the front holding their arms out shouting, ‘Gangster Granny, Gangster Granny ...’

What’s your favourite musical?

Anything by Sondheim, really, particularly Pacific Overtures.

You were a hit in Guys and Dolls, now back on stage. What is your favourite song?

The duet with Bob Hoskins, Sue Me.

Will you go on working for ever?

I’ve come out of retirement for this... If you’ve got to retire, have a fantastic scene, hear the applause, close the door and that’s it. I think most of us would like that – but I retired seven years ago when my husband got ill and, you know, I’m very happy.

Where did you go on your honeymoon?

I don’t think we had one. I got married when I was in Company in London. The corny statement is our whole marriage was a honeymoon.

Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends is at the Gielgud Theatre until 6th January