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2019 Panto Special – National Treasure Claire Sweeney

2019 Panto Special – National Treasure Claire Sweeney

Above: Claire Sweeney as Carabose in Sleeping Beauty for UK Productions at Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of UK Productions

We kick off this year’s Panto Special with a star interview with national treasure, Claire Sweeney, who has been performing pantomime for thirty years. Paul Johnson caught up with Claire as she was about to entertain Assembly Hall Theatre’s matinee audience in Tunbridge Wells in December for UK Productions’ family-friendly Sleeping Beauty.

How has Sleeping Beauty been going for you this year? …We gave it a healthy 4-star review by the way.
“I’ve love it, and I also love Tunbridge Wells. Plus the schedule this year is fantastic as some days we only have one show, which means I’m able to go home early. I took my little boy to nursery this morning, we have a 2.30pm show and then we’re finished in the afternoon so I can pick him up too. So not only is it a lovely show, everything about it is brilliant.”

UK Productions heavily focus on children and keeping panto tradition alive. Are you a fan of the more traditional elements?
“I am I suppose. For instance I think the song-sheet, where children come up onstage is wonderful and kids love it too. The proudest moment for a parent is to see your little kid up there.”

I remember seeing you in Sleeping Beauty at The Churchill Theatre Bromley a few years ago. How many pantomimes have you been in now?
“I’ve been in panto for nearly thirty years now. The first one I did I was playing principal boy, which I don’t think they even do these days. This year was the first time they asked me if I wanted to be good or bad, and for me it was a no-brainer. ‘I wanna be bad,’ I said. I call it the three ages of panto: the first is principal boy or principal girl; then comes the evil Queen, Stepmother or Witch; then, you know when you’re starting to get older when you’re offered Fairy Godmother.”

Of course, this year you get to play alongside Quinn Patrick, who I’ve interviewed in the past, and is probably my all-time favourite dame in the business…
“He’s wonderful isn’t he? He’s sharp, he can sing and you know what, it’s a real art being a good dame… And he’s nailed it. On top of that he’s a good company member, and that’s so important. We had a bit of a laugh on press night when he almost forgot the name of the charity after the curtain call. I …kept winding him up and telling him the wrong name, so when he came to announcing it to the audience he looked round at me because his head was so mixed up. Ha ha!”

Who has been your favourite person to work with in panto so far?
“I’m not just saying it but I absolutely love this company, UK productions. Working with George Sewell does stand out. I was seventeen and it was in Nottingham for one of my first panto appearances, and he was so kind to me, him and his family. My first pantomime ever was at the Liverpool Empire with Peter Howick – that was back in his Bread days. Wow! That was a long time ago now.”

Is playing the baddie where you feel most comfortable?
“Yes! At the moment playing the baddie’s wonderful. I love it and the more boos and hisses I get the better. My four-year-old son came last week, and he’s seen me do three pantos now, but when I ‘Face Timed’ him in the interval he was crying and couldn’t look at me. I think he suddenly realised that people didn’t like his mummy. So when I took him to nursery this morning and we were chatting I said, ‘Jackson, are you scared of Mummy?’ And he said, ‘No, I wasn’t scared of you. I was upset because I thought the Princess had died.’ And that’s a bit of an insight because the young children absolutely believe everything they see on stage. That’s why we have to play the truth of it, which is what I do. But that did freak me out a bit, knowing I’d upset my son. He knows I’m pretending and he still believed it. It’s a very fine line that you have to get as close as you can to without stepping over it.”

How does appearing in panto compare to being in one of the many musicals you’ve starred in?
“Well, for a start, with two shows a day the schedule is usually a lot harder in a panto than it would be for a musical. But I think this year it’s about as close to a West End musical as you’re going to get because of the people in it. There are no laggers in this production, they’re all sensational and could easily be placed straight into any show.”

Your appearances on Strictly, Celebrity Big Brother, Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and Loose Women, gives us a glimpse of the real Claire Sweeney. Does panto also do this?
“There are moments when I feel like dropping out of character and let the scouser out. I did it once but I’m not so sure it would translate down South.”

You come across as a down-to-earth grafter, happy to mix your career with lots of genres. Do you love everything equally or is there one particular genre which is your true calling?
“I love musicals. Musicals have been my absolute passion since I was a kid singing in the clubs and doing am-dram. The dream was to always be in the West End. I performed with Southport Youth Theatre, where also I auditioned for Chicago – and didn’t get the part, but got to play it in the West End years later, ha ha! I did all that because I was earning a living singing in the clubs at the age of fourteen. I knew I wanted to do musical theatre and thought, ‘I’ve got to get experience in playing these parts.’ So I joined Southport. I also performed with Birkenhead Operatic Society, which was where I did my very first show at the age of eleven. In Oliver! I even had a solo line: ‘Cold jelly and custard.’ I’m now patron of Birkenhead Operatic Society, which I’m very proud of.”

How important was professional training to your subsequent success?
“Very important, and I’ll tell you for why. I went to a stage school in Liverpool where I was a big fish in a small pond – singing in the clubs on the side. Then, when I came down to London and went to Italia Conti, where there were girls better than me; prettier, skinnier, more experienced. And it slapped me down back into the real world with a bang! I thought, ‘My goodness, I need to really work on my craft to get by because there are some fantastic girls here.’ It was a real eye-opener. So I had to raise my game big time.”

Can you give any advice to the 1000s of panto baddies who are planning to take to the stage in amateur shows around the country?
“Play the truth of it and believe what you’re saying. You don’t need to ham it up, although it is good to have a level of interaction with the audience.”
[At this point the company manager comes in with Claire’s 5-minute call and a flying harness to fit onto the show’s star ahead of Act1, Scn1]
“Come on, we’ll do it now. Darling, you don’t mind me doing this do you, Paul? I’ve got big pants on. If you haven’t seen a pair of cycling shorts you haven’t lived!
“…Where was I …Oh, yes. That’s the wonderful thing about panto; you can break the fourth wall.
“Also you need to look for the humour so there’s plenty of light and shade in your performance. It’s easy to play a one-dimensional baddie… so, humour, truth and try to connect with the audience. It’s important to find those moments where you need to pull back and play the truth, like in the scene where I’m Carabose but disguised as the old lady; I play that completely for real. But there are also moments while I’m up on the tower, right over the audience, where I totally interact with them.”

Strictly or Big Brother? “Strictly.”
Everton or Liverpool? “Everton.”
Hairspray or Legally Blonde? “Hairspray.”
Brookside or Hollyoaks? “Brookside.”
Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? “Snow White.”
Loose Women or This Morning? “Loose Women.”
Panto or Pinter? “Pinter… no, Panto. Ha ha!!”