In a striking biographic play with live music celebrating the extraordinary life of Wilko Johnson, Jonathan Maitland’s new play Wilko open at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch in February. A name that resonates with rock music enthusiasts and beyond, Wilko Johnson, the iconic rock star and co-founder of legendary band Dr Feelgood, was told he had one year to live in 2012. Refusing all treatment, he decided to spend his last months living meaningfully: seeing the people, places and things which meant most to him during his remarkable life… until a miracle happened. We spoke to lead actor Johnson Willis about portraying Wilko’s iconic life.
Can you tell us a little about you and your work as an actor?
I’ve been lucky as an actor because I came into the business when repertory theatre was still fully functional. I was able to be part of a permanent company of actors doing a long season of plays with a variety of different roles. My rock music background came in very useful with the emergence of Actor/Musician productions, an early example of which was ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’ by Bob Carlton.
What first intrigued you about playing Wilko Johnson on stage?
I felt as if I knew Wilko. We had travelled a similar path at a similar time and looking back at him was like looking back at myself.
What have you done to prepare for portraying Wilko Johnson and capture the essence of his personality and experiences on stage?
There’s a wealth of material online about Wilko Johnson and he wrote a great biography so reading that was the first step. I’ve watched a lot of interviews and the film The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. That film led me to another classic, The Seventh Seal which has resonances of his journey. Wilko and I both worked with the same drummer at one stage and so I look forward to some first hand accounts of his Rock and Roll life.
As an actor, how do you find a balance between staying true to Wilko’s real-life persona and bringing your own interpretation to the part?
That is the quest. Wilko Johnson’s real life persona is something I can never be sure of because I wasn’t there. Most of what I know of him is what he chose to reveal in performance. How he was or what he thought when in his own world and how I take that on is down to connection and the stars. If that sounds a bit Zen, it is and so was he.
Dr. Feelgood played an important part in Wilko’s early career. How have you immersed yourself in that music and era on stage?
Well, as I was around and playing music at that time it just comes naturally.
Music plays an important role in both the show and Wilko’s life. What role does music play in your own life and do you find there are similarities between yourself and Wilko?
My brother bought me my first guitar when I was fourteen. He said, ‘If you’re still playing in a years time I’ll buy you a better one’. I was still playing and he fulfilled his promise.
It made me laugh when I read in the script that Wilko had a Watkins Rapier guitar because so did I, together with a Watkins Amplifier which I had swapped for my old LD motor scooter. He also had a 1962 Fender Telecaster. I have a 1972 Fender Telecaster. So music is my meditation and I reckon it was his too.
Is there anything you are hoping the audience will take away from the show?
I hope they will feel as though they have journeyed with a man who wrote some fantastic music, showed extraordinary courage, and finally defeated the demon within and without. Most of all I hope they will be moved.
Wilko plays at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch 1 – 24 February 2024, more info and booking here https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whatson/wilko/