October 2005 Sunday Times

FREUD would have had a field day. You'd think it was enough for the Citizens' Theatre to put on a musical adaptation of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, one of the darkest – and campest – studies of sibling rivalry ever put on screen. But the Glasgow company has gone one step further by casting real-life brother and sister Julie and Johnny Austin as the married Mr and Mrs Hudson, the parents of the degenerate ex-child star Baby Jane and her talented sister Blanche.

"I decided before rehearsals that they'd definitely not had any conjugal relationship since the children were born," jokes Julie, 29, smiling fondly at her brother, 26, over a lunchtime sandwich in the theatre's rehearsal room. "I've decided they're austere, mid-western people – for the children, no kissing . . ."

"They don't even shake hands," adds Johnny.

Except it's not as simple as that. As well as acting, Julie is also the show's choreographer and she's just spent the morning guiding Johnny beat-by-beat through a lewd sex act with Andrea Miller's aging Baby Jane. "It's a very camp, Vegas-style number," says Julie, describing the libidinous moves in the second-half dance routine. "It's the sort of conversation I thought I'd never have with my brother."

But in all the world's theatrical dynasties, no two actors can ever have seemed less like a Freudian case study. Julie and Johnny are secure, uncompetitive and as comfortable in each other's company as the oldest of friends. Far from being sibling rivals, they are instinctively protective. "As a family we are very close and we support each other," says Johnny. "Working in something your family is involved in means you can keep that closeness because you have a shared language. We've been lucky to be able to keep those relationships strong."

As they describe their upbringing in Glasgow and Paisley, living with their bank manager mother, fireman brother Paul, 24, and 13-year-old sister Jane, it suddenly strikes them about how impossibly idyllic it sounds. "We all speak to each other every day," says Julie, wife of award-winning Tinsel Town screen writer Ed McCardie. "That sounds a bit like The Waltons, doesn't it? I don't know if that's freaky or not – maybe we're all too nosy about what everyone else is up to."

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Encouraged by her parents to follow her passions, Julie took dance classes from the age of two, moving on to a drama group and graduating to Scottish Youth Theatre. "My mum encouraged us to do all these activities so that when we hit the drinking-cider-on-a-street-corner stage, we'd be too busy to notice it," she says, admitting that their teenage years were relatively trouble-free.

An authoritative, sometimes scary, presence on stage, Julie's professional career has included powerful performances in the Royal Lyceum's Sleeping Beauty, the Citizens' Vernon God Little and the Tron's Love Freaks. On screen she has appeared in The Crow Road, The Magdalene Sisters and Braveheart.

Next year, she'll be seen alongside Billy Boyd and Brian Cox playing Jonny Lee Miller's mother in The Flying Scotsman, Douglas Mackinnon's film about champion cyclist Graeme Obree. "It's epic and moving like Chariots of Fire," she says. "You just can't believe everything he's gone through. He's a remarkable man and an incredible story."

As a boy, her kid brother Johnny wasn't drawn to dance, but tagged along with Julie when she joined a drama group at the now-defunct Glasgow Arts Centre. He too was smitten. Before long, he was playing the leads in Hamlet and Macbeth at Scottish Youth Theatre, then turned professional.

Later this month you can see him in the hotly anticipated Scottish sci-fi comedy, Gamerz, being given an early preview screening at UGC cinemas. "It looks fantastic," he says, describing Robbie Fraser's film about a fantasy role-playing game that gets out of control. "It's got a quirky, off-the-wall sense of humour, then on top of that it's a fantasy film. It's like a cross between Gregory's Girl and The Lord of the Rings."

"I've seen it and I thought it was great," adds his sister about the film, which was greeted enthusiastically at its premiere at Glasgow's World Science Fiction Convention in August and is in the running for a BAFTA Scotland award. "It's so refreshing to see a Scottish film that is not like every other Scottish film before. Everyone is not getting smacked off their face on drugs. It's got a light, gentle sense of warmth about it."

The two films are expected to get full releases next year. First, Johnny and Julie are delighted to be able to perform together professionally for the first time in director Kenny Miller's opulent staging of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.

The chamber musical is based closely on Robert Aldrich's 1962 cult classic melodrama in which Joan Crawford and Bette Davis – who had never previously acted together and were considered well past the peak of their Hollywood fame at that point – were brought together to play aging sisters, one crippled, the other psychotic. Baby Jane (Bette Davis) is an alcoholic former child star who was briefly popular but never talented. Many years later, she is still trying to get over her fall from grace. She deeply resents her wheelchair-bound sister's subsequent movie career and takes out her jealousy in a series of increasingly gruesome and violent acts.

The low-budget film was shot in a down-at-heel studio at the same time that the high-prestige musical Gypsy, another backstage drama about the psychological hazards of theatre life, was being filmed in the main Warner Brothers lot. By coincidence, 43 years later, Dundee Rep's sparkling staging of Gypsy is ending its run just as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? kicks off at the Citz. "It's quite bizarre in a small place like Scotland that they're happening together again," says Julie.

Seen only as a workshop or concert performance in Britain, but with a London staging rumoured to be in the pipeline, the musical version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? had its premiere in Houston three years ago. The score is by Lee Pockriss, the lyrics by Hal Hackady and the book by Henry Farrell, who wrote the novel on which the film was based.

"The show is a big feast of camp entertainment," says Julie. "Andrea Miller and Karen Mann who are playing the older Baby Jane and Blanche are jaw-droppingly good."

"It's massively over-the-top but very dark as well," says Johnny.

"We're keeping true to the feeling of the film, because we don't want to disappoint fans, but we're making an original piece of theatre as well," says Julie. Admirers of the original should be reassured that director Kenny Miller is a die-hard fan himself and his staging is a labour of love.

It's impossible to imagine this brother and sister team ending up in the destructive mess in which Baby Jane and Blanche find themselves but they are happy, momentarily, to entertain the idea. "Would I knock him down and put him in a wheelchair for 20 years?" laughs big sister Julie, stretching out a hand to Johnny. "I suspect he's more Blanche and I'm more Jane in that respect."

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, October 21–November 12

© Mark Fisher 2005/2009

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