Becoming Bette Davis: Gill Manly on her forthcoming role at Stanley Halls

By - Friday 29th September, 2017

Jazz diva Gill Manly talks about her starring role in the South London Theatre production of Bette and Joan: The Final Curtain at Stanley Halls

Photo by Pizza Express Live, used with permission.

Gill Manly is a familiar figure on the jazz scene, with a number of very well received albums in her musical portfolio. So when I met Gill at wonderful independent coffee shop Smoothbean! and asked about her move into acting, her answer came as something of a surprise.

“I actually trained as an actor, but I moved into music because, in common with many actors back in the day, we couldn’t get our Equity cards. Put simply, you needed proof of work to get an Equity Card, but you couldn’t get that work without an Equity Card. It was an impossible situation back then.”

Gill continued. “So I did more musical training, thanks to a generous sub from my father, and began to pick up gigs straight away, and acting ambitions were put aside.”

So how did her current role, in the James Greaves play, scripted by Sarah Thom and Sarah Toogood, come about?

“It’s like scratching a thirty-five year itch”

“I saw that South London Theatre was doing a production at Stanley Halls called Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale. It’s quite a big production in numbers, so I went along to auditions to see if there were any openings. I’ll be perfectly honest and say that I’d have been happy with a small walk on part. As it was I was offered a small speaking role which I was delighted with. As a result of that audition I was asked to read for the Bette Davis part in Bette and Joan and then was offered the part, which put me in a bit of a position.”

Gill elaborated. “I didn’t think I could do both productions and had to choose. I could take the lower profile introduction as a learning point, or dive straight in at the deep end. Well, I decided to dive in – I’d be mad not to have a go at this. So finally I’m doing what I was trained for. After thirty-five years I’ve been able to scratch that itch,” laughed Gill.

The production features two actors on stage and two who are present in film format, and given that notorious ‘feudsters’ Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are on stage, supported by acerbic critics Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons on film, sparks are guaranteed to fly.

“I don’t want to do anything half-arsed”

Gill Manly gets into character as ’60-a-day smoker’ Bette Davis.
Photo author’s own.

“Helen Chadney is playing Joan Crawford and she is brilliant,” said Gill, adding: “there’s a lot of dialogue to remember and a lot of dynamic moments to handle, so to prepare I had to do some mind training to make sure I could remember the lines. I don’t want to do anything half-arsed. I set myself high standards and I don’t want to let anyone down,”

Gill has another hurdle to negotiate. “I have to sing badly twice, which I found to be the biggest challenge of all – it’s pretty difficult to make it sound convincingly bad when your mind is screaming ‘NO!’”

So, in at the deep end, rehearsals going well… what next?

“It’s definitely given me the taste for it, and I’m looking to do more with some projects pencilled in for next year that are just at the discussion stage at the moment,” said Gill, who added: “people have already been so supportive and I can’t thank them enough. My good friend Ty Jeffries (Miss Hope Springs) is making some wigs for me, which is wonderful. So I just hope people will come along and enjoy the performance and support South London Theatre and Stanley Halls.”

Bette And Joan: The Final Curtain in on at Stanley Halls, Upper Norwood, from 10th to 14th October. To book tickets, click here.

Paul Dennis

Paul Dennis

An award-winning journalist, Paul has worked on angling titles for much of his career, including 16 years as deputy editor of Angler's Mail and 4 years as editor of Total Sea Fishing magazine. He is a regular freelance contributor for a wide array of non-angling-related titles, author of two books on angling and a widely-followed authority on the subject.

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