Life & Culture

How Arlene Phillips danced from poverty to fame

We meet the choreographer as she prepares an immersive production of Guys & Dolls


During a break in rehearsal for Nicholas Hytner’s hugely anticipated revival of the classic musical Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, I tell the production’s choreographer Arlene Phillips how I once went home with a limp after another of the venue’s productions.

The show was Julius Caesar, the first of the Bridge’s immersive productions. My injury was inflicted when Ben Whishaw’s intense Brutus barged through the throng of Romans (represented by a section of the show’s audience) as war loomed against David Morrissey’s Mark Antony.

Whishaw’s boot landed on a plebeian toe — mine — and as it does, war continued oblivious to the semi-stifled “ouch” that rose into the air. “Oh my God!”, says Phillips.

The choreographer, who became a household name as a Strictly judge, and whose unceremonious ejection from that show caused questions to be asked in the House of Commons about ageism at the BBC, knows the risks of getting too close to the action.

Back in the day when she was a pop video choreographer, one of her dancers split open the head of another while on the set of a Freddie Mercury video. Is there a health and safety issue with an immersive show like this?

“Funny you should ask,” says Phillips, who also served as director of movement for the Bridge’s magical A Midsummer’s Night Dream. “We have been doing our spacing this morning to make sure the audience doesn’t get too close.”

But joking aside there are few bigger thrills in theatre than getting close to the action in a Bridge Theatre immersive production.

For Phillips the fact that this time the show is not Shakespeare but her second favourite musical of all time (the first is West Side Story), was both a reason to do the show and one to avoid it.

“Big traditional musicals are not something that I jump to do. I don’t want to remake something I love unless it’s done in a completely different way. Nick carefully picks everything he does. Nothing is sort of by chance. After Midsummer Night’s Dream we thought about doing a musical. But it had to be a musical that could work in that [immersive] form.”

Lovers of the 1955 movie about Damon Runyon’s gamblers and gangsters, which starred Marlon Brando as high-roller Sky Masterson and Jean Simmons as Salvation Army Sister
Sarah Brown, can expect something very different this time.

The gambling addicts shooting craps in a sewer will not suddenly turn into accomplished ballet dancers who could grace the stage of Covent Garden, as wonderful as that may be.

No, under Phillips’ guidance the moves will stay rooted in character for a show that, she says, has a lot say about “today’s gambling addiction problem”. So no ballet even though the art form was Phillips’ first love as a young girl in Manchester.

“I lived to be a ballerina,” she recalls. “I was never going to do it though for two reasons.

First I was not shaped in a classical physical body. But secondly, when I should have been studying dance at the age of 15 when I was so passionate about it and dreamed of going to London to audition for a big dance schools, my mother passed away and I had to stay at home. Going away was not an option.”

Her mother Rita died of leukaemia and the young Arlene had to help look after her younger brother and sister, to help her father, Abraham, a barber who was also unwell and often out of work.

“We were very, very poor. As I was the oldest girl I had to stay at home. I lost a lot of schooling.”

When she did go back the classroom education was an exercise in humiliation for the teenager. Test results would be read out in class ensuring that her absence from school was publicly punished. Dance saved her. “I had my dance world to escape my home and school life,” she says.

Has that early poverty been a driving force? After all not a theatre season goes by without an Arlene Phillips show being announced or receiving its premiere.

“I don’t know what it is,” she says. “Perhaps it’s that ticking clock. You know, make the most of your life while you’re living, I guess.”

What are the highlights when she pauses to take stock of her career? “Oh there are so many. Starlight Express with Andrew Lloyd Webber was such an outrageous musical.”

That was the show for which Lloyd Webber approached Phillips after he remembered she had roller-skated while pregnant.

She has two grown-up daughters, the younger born when she was 47, 12 years after her older sister. “Yes, that was for a film called Can’t Stop the Music with The Village People. I had to learn to roller-skate.”

Founding the raunchy (for the time) dance troupe Hot Gossip in 1974 was another highlight. It is fair to say the group who performed on The Kenny Everett Video Show in the late 1970s changed the conversation about sex and violence on television.

“Definitely,” agrees Phillips. “It changed the face of dance on television and was brought up in the Houses of Parliament because Mary Whitehouse — self-proclaimed protector of public morals — thought it would damage young people’s minds for ever.

"Violence at that time on television was on the increase and that was allowed. But allowing people to see sensual, sexy dance wasn’t.”

There is no bucket list of shows Phillips yearns to choreograph or direct, to add other strings to her bow, although she’s game to give anything a try, as evidenced by her turn on I’m a Celebrity in 2021 when, at 78, she was the show’s oldest ever contestant.

“I don’t have any ‘I have to do this or I have to do that’ shows anymore,” she says. “I feel very lucky that I will pick and choose. If it excites me I’ll do it.”

Guys & Dolls is at Bridge Theatre from March 3

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