At the start of the recent pantomime season Sardines spoke with a host of professionals, some of whom were new to the panto scene, with others highly experienced.
Inside the previous edition, we featured the more recognisable names while, in this issue, we get a chance to hear from the jobbing performers from musical theatre, dramatic theatre, plus the stand-up and cabaret circuits.
Between them we garnered an eclectic mix of opinions and advice that pretty much represents the entire mix of pantomime principals.
- Ricky Jay (Stand-up comedian) | Wishee, Aladdin, Bromley
- Max Fulham (Ventriloquist) | Washee, Aladdin, Bromley
- Yazdan Qafouri (Reality TV – Let It Shine) | Aladdin, Aladdin, Bromley
- James Bisp (Actor) | Prince Charming, Cinderella, Croydon
- Jason Marc-Williams (Actor) | Ugly Sister, Cinderella, Croydon
- Katie Cameron (Actor) | Wicked Stepmother, Cinderella, Croydon
- James Darch (Actor) | Prince Harry of Hampton, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond
- Jason Sutton (Actor/Drag Queen) | Nurse Nancy, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond
- Mia Starbuck (New graduate) | Snow White, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond
- Pearce Barron (New Graduate) | Aladdin, Aladdin, Woking
“I did eight years on the bounce at the Theatre Royal in Norwich; I was either good or cheap, I’m not sure which, ha ha! I then spent a lot of time working in the States and Australia, so I stopped for eight or nine years after that. But since my wife and I had a baby a couple of years ago, and decided we wanted to spend some more time in the UK, I went back into it. I’ve done about fifteen pantomimes now.”
“This is actually my third panto, believe it or not; although I do still feel new to it all, and to the business. But I love panto with all of my heart; I simply adore it. I’m also a massive nerd about it as well. I love the history of it and what it means, the cultural tradition. So I not only passionately love doing it, I also love it as an art form. There’s so much tradition entangled in pantomime, it’s wonderful. I love it when you get a reaction from somebody seeing panto for the first time – and that’s children and adults.”
“I’ve always wanted to do pantomime but it’s been tricky to fit it round other jobs. I finished a year in Phantom of the Opera in September which, this year, was pretty perfect. I’ve even been able to have a couple of months off – or ‘resting’ as the famous phrase has it. I also live in Croydon so I get to have Christmas at home; it’s all been an incredible piece of timing.”
“This’ll be my 10th panto, but my sixth with Alistair [Barron]. This is only the second time that myself and Alistair have played Ugly Sisters because, of course, the Dame role is usually a very likeable character; the ugly sisters are downright nasty. Usually Alistair and I play the dame and comic role which does tend to become a bit of a double act, so the ugly sisters are perfect for us.”
“Oh, I got it straight away. It’s so funny and I hope it catches on in the States because there are so many regional theatres over there; it will provide so much work for everybody.”
“Panto at Richmond this year will be my tenth pantomime anniversary. I can remember my very first pantomime, as if it were yesterday. That was at Redhill and working for a much smaller company; that was where I cut my teeth. I can remember now being stood in the wings and waiting to go on, and the noise from the children was like a football match. I didn’t anticipate that and remember turning round to the chaperone who was in charge of all the children and I said, ‘I don’t think I can go on!’ to which she said, ‘You’ve got to go on!’ And she just shoved me. Of course once you’re onstage it’s all fine, but I will never ever forget that for the rest of my life.”
“This is my first one. I trained at LAMDA in New York and at Bodywork. There definitely wasn’t any training on breaking the fourth wall in America. But I think I’m ready; I’m up for the challenge anyway, and I’m sure there will be a great opportunity to learn on-the-job.”
“I’ve just graduated from ArtsEd where I spent five years of my life. So this isn’t just my first panto, it’s my first paid job since graduating.”
“Where some people sometimes get it wrong is when they look for, and play it for, the humour. You’ve still got to find the truth of the story, it’s vitally important. They have their reasons for not liking Cinderella and it’s essential that they believe in those reasons; you have to play the truth of that situation. Hopefully, we’ll get the right balance; you have to be bad in order for good to triumph over evil, but we don’t want to actually make the children cry – they’ve come to enjoy the pantomime after all.”
“The stepmother is the real evil force behind the ugly sisters who, in essence, are really just carrying out her plans. Having the evil stepmother allows the ugly sisters more room to be stupid and, of course, funny. The Stepmother is evil while the ugly sisters are just nasty. That said, the Stepmother is wicked, but also fabulous. The most important thing is probably to play it for real and not ‘ham’ it up. And we’re looking forward to being booed more than in any other show. If we don’t get the boos then there’s a real problem.”
“It’s very interesting. You have this phrase: ‘Ventriloquism is a dying art!’ which gets bandied about quite a lot. But it goes in waves, and not necessarily regular or predictable waves. And it doesn’t really matter anyway because as long as I’m doing my thing, bringing my art form to the audience and having a great time then I’m happy because I’m doing what I love to do. But people like Paul Zerdin winning America’s Got Talent has done a lot for ventriloquism. They’ve actually had three ventriloquists win the show now, which is a little bit insane. Also over here, Steve Hewlett coming second on BGT was wonderful. Not only is he the nicest men you could ever hope to meet, he’s also been massively responsible for supporting me as well as other young ventriloquists, and he’s a great friend.”
“Things have moved on over the years and they will continue to do so I’m sure. We used to have the principal boy being played by a girl of course. You get it now and again but broadly speaking it’s faded out, especially in commercial pantomimes. I do hope we don’t lose the tradition of the dame because that character, I think, is vital to the humour of pantomime. Everybody knows it’s a bloke in a dress and we never pretend otherwise. There’s so much freedom in that role, where you even take the mickey out of yourself. I really hope nothing happens to the Dame: one… It would ruin panto forever, and two… I’ll be out of a job!”
“I think because it’s such an important part of our tradition – and also because it is controlled through the script – then it’s safe. If you were to ask me about the drag circuit, then yes, I think that genre definitely is going to change. I’ve said things in my act there on stage that I’ve been saying for years and lately I’ve received complaints about them. So we’re all having to become far more aware of what we’re saying and how are we’re saying it. But the pantomime dame is, I think, as sacred as pantomime itself. Pantomime means Christmas doesn’t it, and I think it will always be there.”
“It’s amazing to think that you’re in Phantom of the Opera in the autumn and a few months later, pantomime. Variety. That’s why I’m an actor, because I like variety and creating different things. I’ve always wanted to play Raoul in Phantom and I’ve had a very close relationship with that show for years – but, you can’t get your jazz hands out in Phantom!”
“I think my role, essentially, is to keep the energy up for the show and that starts as soon as I come on. I am immediately trying to create energy in the room. It’s important for me to do that and keep that energy up so that the important people in the show – who are carrying the plot – can get the story out. So if there is a pressure, I think it’s to get the buzz and the energy going.”
“We are very colourful characters; it’s all a bit zany and mad anyway, which is exactly what the kids like. I’m a hefty bloke so when I’m dressed up as a woman, coming onstage on a bicycle is a bit of a spectacle in itself. Plus the costumes are also colourful and very over-the-top. When you add that to the fact that the kids there to buy into it anyway then you’re halfway there already – hopefully, they’ve all had their tickets waiting on the wall at home for some time and have been getting excited about the trip anyway.”
“I also get to break the fourth wall down because I’m always interacting with the audience. Of course, with my normal job as a stand-up comedian, that’s what I’m doing all the time. There, the audience is an essential part of the act.”
”That’s the wonderful thing with comic roles in panto; you have the ability to talk with the wonderful audience. And, of course, as a ventriloquist all my shows are spent talking to the audience. It’s never passive; it’s always involving them and having fun with them.”
“Just working in front of live audiences is an amazing preparation for pantomime. When I worked the cabaret circuit, you’re a lot freer and I’m totally unscripted which enables me to work with all the people around me and in the audience. When you’re in a panto, obviously you are tied by the script and if you don’t deliver it in the correct way then you won’t give people the right cues, which means it can all go a little bit tits up! But certainly working on the live circuit – and especially in genres like cabaret – is an enormous help for things like pantomime.”
“I’m quite heavily involved in developing the script, so we work quite closely on it prior to rehearsals, and then when we get going things evolve in the rehearsal room – and during the show as well. Thankfully, the comic role has got a bit of a free rein, so if something happens in the show then I can jump on that… and would be expected to.”
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO?
“Obviously the audience reaction is a fantastic part of what we do. The laughter and the special effects especially. In fact I often go out and have a little peek through the curtains at the kids’ faces when the carpet flies. To see how much they believe in it is wonderful to watch.
“I also look forward to having a cup of tea and a cake with Biggins in the interval; we’ve never missed one yet. He’s even got a bed in his room and has a little sleep between the matinee and the evening performances. I don’t get a bed; I’ve got a blow-up mattress on the floor. Maybe you get a bed when you pass 40 pantos, ha ha!”
“Apart from the run itself, I’m looking forward to being in a group of strangers all getting together, and within a fortnight of rehearsals you’ve got to come up with the show. It’s quite amazing from that first day how it all starts to fall into place. Sometimes you think, ‘Christ! This ain’t gonna be ready.’ Then, all of a sudden it’s like a collective penny drops. I enjoy the rehearsal period far more than the performance actually, and you look round and think, ‘Yeah, this is what it’s all about!’”
“I can’t wait for the bits that are bound to go wrong. It’s so exciting being on the other side so I can find out which parts people are genuinely laughing at and which are maybe a little bit scripted and even rehearsed.”
“I get nervous, of course I do, before opening night, press night, and even rehearsals. A long run makes you nervous too because you don’t want to muck up. Essentially, I’m doing a double-act by myself, so I really don’t want my monkey to muck-up. The nerves do turn to excitement, which is where the adrenaline kicks in and that’s great, it’s the most incredible thing. When you’re doing the very first show in front of an audience, you get a fight or flight moment which really builds up. You just have to go on and do it; at the end of the day the audience is there to have a good time and there’s a strong sense of collaboration with the audience, which helps, obviously.”
“I’ve always wanted to be an actor, from a very young age. Actually, while I was doing the auditions for Let It Shine I was auditioning for drama school. I was rejected from my first round at RADA but had recalls from Guildhall and Oxford School of Drama. I would never demerit drama school, but that’s just not the path I’ve taken so far; I’ve probably done things quite similar to the old-fashioned rep theatre process and learned on the job. In the book True and False by David Mamet, he says that ‘the only way you can learn is by doing.’ And he talks about the ‘fires’ of an audience, and it’s only in front of an audience that you know you’re doing the right job. You can do a million exercises in drama school but it’s only when you get in front of an audience that you’re really tested.
“Something else you don’t get at drama school is working with such experienced actors, and it doesn’t matter which genre you’re performing in, the experience that Christopher Biggins has got is priceless. Even at our launch back in September, during the twenty minutes I was around him the first thing you realise is that he’s not afraid to take risks.”
“Professional attitude and technique is the great thing about training, and the fact that it gives you a route into the industry. If you were trying to get into the pop industry, there is no specific formula laid down to do that, whereas in musical theatre there is – and it allows you to be the most prepared you can be.
“I feel as prepared as I should be but I think it’s true when people say drama school will teach you in attitude and the technique of being a professional but there is a certain amount of inward talent that you need naturally to make it in this industry. Drama school also teaches you how to be versatile which is a great quality to have. Both myself and Misha [Princess] went to the Sylvia Young school when we were younger and that helped a great deal too in that respect.”
THE STRAIGHT ROLE
“I always think of the Prince and Snow White as being the driving force of the story, and we let the other guys have a play with the audience. Keeping it together and driving the story is half the challenge for us; that’s our jobs. It’s quite a compliment, I guess, that they constantly try to make us laugh and test us to see how far they can take it.”
”You’ve got to take it seriously. You do want to laugh and get involved with all the silliness as well, but you’ve got to stay strong and keep it together. It’s a very responsible job that we’ve got. You’ve got to live up to the expectations that the youngsters have. If you burst that bubble for them it would be so sad. So you want them to believe as much as they possibly can that we really are Snow White and Prince Charming…”
“… and that’s our job isn’t it. When you go to the theatre and you’re five, six, seven years old, I don’t think you even understand properly that there are actors on the stage. You sit there in the theatre and as far as you’re concerned, what you’re watching is really happening. So we do have to be serious about our story just to keep that going. You cannot forget how important the story is within a pantomime.”
“… and they need to get really upset when I bite into the apple, and then sit there wide-eyed as the Prince kisses me.”
“I grew up on the amateur scene in Buckinghamshire doing pantos is every year, then I did youth theatre in High Wycombe and with the National Youth Theatre – and that’s when I decided that this was the career I wanted to follow. There’s nothing like being in a production, in a cast, and being in a cast of hilarious people is a massive bonus.”