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Dianne Pilkington on Wicked Memories and the Fun of Singing ABBA in London's Mamma Mia!

Dianne Pilkington on Wicked Memories and the Fun of Singing ABBA in London's Mamma Mia!
Dianne Pilkington in 'Mamma Mia'
'I have been listening to ABBA songs my whole life.'

London stage favorite Dianne Pilkington spent three years on the West End as Glinda in Wicked and was one of Tyne Daly’s students in the London transfer of Master Class early last year. Now, the actress-singer has stepped into the Spandex-wearing lead part of Donna Sheridan in the ABBA-scored Mamma Mia!, for a year-long run at the Novello Theatre. caught up with the delightful performer during rehearsal to talk about takeovers, tans and being a new mum.

You’ve done your share of West End shows, but never Mamma Mia!—until now. How does it feel to be stepping into this particular long-runner?
It’s great! I feel as if I’m moving into grown-up parts now, so it’s perfect timing. And it’s nice coming into a show that is adaptable and so not set completely in stone as to how they want us to play it. I’m finding different things all the time, which is lovely. Obviously, the songs are huge and very well known, so there’s a certain caretaking that has to go on, which means we have a whole week [of rehearsal] devoted to the music. ABBA is such a specific sound.

At this point in Mamma Mia!'s prolonged life, you must have known the show, not to mention the Meryl Streep film.
Absolutely, though I tried not to see the show during rehearsals until I had made my own decisions. I saw it a few years back when my friend [fellow Wicked alum] Harriet Thorpe was in it and really enjoyed it. I’ve avoided re-visiting the movie because it’s very different. But I have been listening to ABBA songs my whole life, and that is the biggest source material that you can go with, whether you’re the first cast or this cast.

How are you getting along with the body-hugging Spandex required by the role?
[Laughs.] Well, it’s pretty revealing, especially given that I had a baby boy five months ago! I’ve really had to put in some gym time, but I think we’re all good now.

Congratulations! Maybe you’re looking at a once-and-future Sky?
You never know! Hugo does have show-biz parents [Pilkington’s husband is French performer Claude Pelletier]. I’ve been singing ABBA to him and he seems to like “Slipping Through My Fingers” and he loves [the song] “Mamma Mia!” but he doesn’t like “The Winner Takes It All”; it’s too loud for him.

Is there the risk that a show like Mamma Mia! devolves into a massive sing-along with the audience?
That might happen, I suppose, but I think the longer the show has been going on, the more people are aware that it comes with a big story as part of it. They do join in at the end, and that’s as it should be.

What sort of sing is this for you, in terms of the vocal demands?
Completely different! I’m going back to my roots as a belter. The last three things I’ve done [Master Class, She Loves Me, Wicked] have asked for a massively high soprano, but I very much started out as a mezzo belter, and this is more poppy, which is fun; it’s challenging in different ways.

It’s also such an upbeat show, which must be especially welcome at the moment.
This does put you in a sunny mood: I’ve definitely been extremely cheery doing this one.I f you’re doing an uplifting show, you do go home feeling uplifted, which is nice not just for you but for everyone around you!

Plus, Mamma Mia! is set on an island in Greece—presumably not a bad place to go on a cold or wet London day.
Tell me about it! I get to be tanned all up and down, whereas anybody who knows me knows that I’m a traditional “milky Pilky” so [the makeup team] has got their work cut out for them there!

How do you keep your energy up with respect to the demands of being a new mum?
You know, so far that’s been really good; I think I’ve lucked out. Hugo sleeps very well, otherwise I couldn’t do this. The truth is, I didn’t know until after we had him whether I would be able to come to work.

You’re used to taking over in productions, from Wicked to The 39 Steps and now this, but you’ve also originated parts in London, like Sophie in Master Class. Which do you prefer?
They’re different. With a take-over, there’s a different pressure which has to do with putting a show on for an audience and not, dare I say, for the critics. Besides, there’s the feeling that “everyone is a critic” anyway, so you do get comments all over Twitter and Facebook: reviews don’t have to come from a newspaper! But whatever the show, I have the same intention, which is to that you want the piece as a whole to be well-received. The job is about delivering that.

Wicked, in particular, must be a landmine, with people comparing Glindas and Elphabas from here to eternity.
They do take sides, don’t they, or you’ll have people who are on Glinda’s side or Elphaba’s side, but that’s probably because of the nature of the show. But I think what you’re describing is maybe 10 percent of the fan base. The other 90 percent love the show and are actually interested to see different people and different interpretations.

Speaking of Wicked, are you surprised that onetime Glinda Louise Dearman has swapped roles on the West End and is now playing Elphaba?
Not really. When I was in it, we used to joke about doing a bit of a swap. I think you should be able to act both roles, but the singing is a different matter, and I take my hat off to Louise that she can do both, But it makes sense: When you go for auditions, it’s not always clear which one of the girls you are right for.

Are you saying that you, too, have an Elphaba in you?
I think we all have an Elphaba in us!

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