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Meet the Sussex panto stars of this year's Christmas season

Andy Day is always prepared for anything on stage. Jon Rigby <i>(Image: Jon Rigby)</i>
Andy Day is always prepared for anything on stage. Jon Rigby (Image: Jon Rigby)

Christmas isn’t Christmas without taking the family along to see a pantomime and this year we’re being treated to theatres full of West End stars, Children’s TV favourites and seasoned comedians to entertain us over the festive season.

Treading the boards in sequins, satins, petticoats and regal robes is a big responsibility, but it is also a chaotic and raucous blend of rapid rehearsals and bringing the festive magic to the stage.

Sussex Life caught up with six of this year’s stars to find out exactly why they love panto and what to expect when the curtain goes up at a theatre near you this Christmas.

Great British Life: Katie Pritchard has died on stage beforeKatie Pritchard has died on stage before (Image: Katie Pritchard)

‘Doing panto is harder than a marathon!’

Katie Pritchard is playing Fairy Amethyst in Sleeping Beauty: The Pantomime in Worthing

'I started doing Christmas shows when I was ten and have worked every year bar two since then. When I played Tinkerbell one year, the children had to say that they believed in fairies to save me, but one child shouted: ‘I don’t.’ I dropped to the floor, pretending to die. Then I sneakily opened one eye and saw them looking worried before they shouted: "I believe. I'm so sorry.”

Worthing is beautiful, but it's also very windy. On the days I've tried to get ready at home, I’ve turned up at the theatre with my makeup streaming down my face and my hair stuck up on end - not quite the look the producers were going for!

I love getting to the theatre early to say hello to the cast and crew and take part in the vocal warm ups which always include at least one silly song. I sometimes go and hang out in the costume department too and they have to shoo me away to go and get ready.

Fairy makeup takes about half an hour and then my costumes tend to be fairly easy to get on. It depends on how many layers of petticoats I have. Once I had, arguably, way too many, and I got stuck upside down in the dressing room because I’d fallen over and couldn’t find a purchase to get back up again.

I’ve run five marathons but doing panto is sometimes harder on my body. I was playing a monkey in Aladdin one year. After each show, I had to put on my marathon compression tights and socks to do a full stretch. After the first few shows, my legs were so stiff that I was more robot than monkey onstage.

I love seeing people laugh and want them to leave feeling warm and tingly from having such a nice time.'

Sleeping Beauty: The Pantomime at Worthing Theatres and Museum, December 1 – January 1, 2024. From £10, wtm.uk/events/sleeping-beauty-the-pantomime/

Great British Life: Paul Jenkins aka Tucker takes making people laugh seriously. P GurrPaul Jenkins aka Tucker takes making people laugh seriously. P Gurr (Image: P Gurr)

‘I just want to make people happy’

Paul Jenkins, aka Tucker, 55, is playing Potty Pierre in Beauty & The Beast in Eastbourne

'I've worked on cruise ships as a comedian, I worked with Basil Brush; I've headlined at comedy clubs, and I've supported big stars such as Barry Manilow and Gladys Knight. But in a strange way, I've always just been Tucker. I go on stage and I do my stuff.

I'm very lucky that I've been versatile in that way. I started off as a Pontins Blue Coat. I never just wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I always loved the Brian Conley show, as he opened his show with a song; did a sketch; told some jokes and then did some stand-up. Pantomime allows you to work without lots of barriers. One minute you're doing a joke, next you've got props to play with and then you're part of the chorus. There is also quite a lot of ad libbing. It's dynamic on stage.

There is a big responsibility with panto. Eric Morecambe used to worry terribly about the Christmas show he and Ernie Wise did because he would set the tone for families' Christmas. There is that burden of expectation with panto too.

This will be my 27th pantomime. Things have changed in that time. We're probably not saying the same things that we were 20 years ago. As a comedian, you have to be adaptable, topical and relevant.

Working with some of the cast members is like slipping into a well-worn pair of socks. Some of the new cast members might feel nervous as they're walking into an institute of sorts, but everyone relaxes quickly.

As comedians, we're not trying to save the world, we're just trying to make people happy for two and a half hours. I'm a father of three children. People spend a lot of money on tickets and I always think I've got to deliver. I want to make sure that the whole family has a great time.'

Beauty & The Beast, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, December 8 - January,14, 2024. From £15.50, www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk/events/beautyandthebeast2023

Great British Life: There ain't nothing like a dame: Justin in costume. Squashed Robot 536There ain't nothing like a dame: Justin in costume. Squashed Robot 536 (Image: Squashed Robot)

‘Being in a panto is not just a gig, it's a gift’

Justin Brett plays Dame Susie Saucisson in Beauty & The Beast in Horsham

'I started doing pantomimes in my late 20s and I went straight in as a dame. I've never done a panto with trousers on. I've got my makeup routine down to an art now. If I'm running late, I can do it in ten minutes. In those early days, I wanted the audience to go away thinking I was fabulous. Now I just want the audience to go away feeling fabulous themselves.

Everyone who plays a dame has their own version of it. My dame is kind and warm though she does have an edge to her. The job of the Dame is to make the audience comfortable - to know that they are safe in this space. I think if your Dame is doing their job properly, your show can also be 33% funnier.

I learn as much of the script as possible before turning up because there's a notoriously short rehearsal period. Because of the interactive element with the audience and other actors, though, you can do the work, but on the night, anything can happen. You have to be able to think on your feet.

Panto is important because it's sometimes the only time that people go to the theatre. People want to see sparkles; somebody on a wire swinging about the stage and some explosions. They are part of our culture but they also, mercifully, change with the times and update themselves.

My daughter was born at the beginning of rehearsals last year. She'll come along this year and it will be funny to see what she'll make of it. Being in a panto is not just a gig, it's a gift to be able to do it. Even if you're desperately tired, or if your baby has been awake all night, you have to step up and make the audience feel great because they've all paid their money. If they leave thinking, “I really enjoyed that, I'll go next year” then that's your job’s done.'

Beauty & The Beast, Capital Theatre, Horsham from December 1 - 31. From £20, https://www.thecapitolhorsham.com/whats-on/all-shows/beauty-and-the-beast/20328/

Great British Life: Kane Matthews is beyond (Prince) Charming. Sam CartwrightKane Matthews is beyond (Prince) Charming. Sam Cartwright (Image: Sam Cartwright)

‘You can’t corpse when something hilarious happens on stage’

Kane Matthews is Prince Charming in Cinderella in Brighton

'I was in a community pantomime when I was around eight. I had a small part but it really fuelled my desire to perform. My mum’s friend was in the production and really stole the show as one of the supporting characters. I remember her putting Black Jack sweets on her teeth to make her seem toothless. It was mesmerising and hilarious.

The first panto I remember seeing was to watch a friend of mine, who was starring as Aladdin at The Pleasance Theatre. It was a great production and very funny. The audience were fully engaged and my pal did a great job. Panto is such a fun style of show and the freedom that the actors have is exhilarating. I enjoy this fluidity as you have to think quickly and not corpse when something hilarious happens

Before going on stage I like to warm up and run through a few things in the show that might be quite intricate. After that I’ll prepare mentally. This is my first pantomime in a lead role, so I’ll have to get back to you as to how it goes. It will be busy. I do also have a few Christmas events that I’m hoping to squeeze in. I love the joy of Christmas and will be celebrating on my day off with my friends and family.

Panto is different from other shows I’ve been in. I’ve toured the UK and Ireland with Dreamgirls and starred in the UK tour of Motown the Musical. I also sing in a band Soul & Motown Band Soul Supreme and have played across Europe.

I love the diversity I have in my career. Every job is a new challenge and I’m thankful for all the opportunities that I have.'

Cinderella, Hilton Brighton Metropole, December 20 – 30. From £8.83,www.brightonfamilypanto.com

Great British Life: Boo! Carrie is playing a villain for the first time. Jon RigbyBoo! Carrie is playing a villain for the first time. Jon Rigby (Image: Jon Rigby)

‘I can’t wait to play a villain!’

Carrie Hope Fletcher, 31, as Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty in Crawley

'I’ll be seven months pregnant by the time we do the show so my costume is slightly different from usual. It’s like a crazy mix of Halloween and Christmas because I’m playing a villain. It will be a case of getting on the costume and off we go.

On the first day, you panic a little, cross your fingers, close your eyes and step out onto the stage. There’s a lot less rehearsal for pantos. But it’s not like a normal show when the plot is centred on one or two characters - everyone gets their moment on stage to shine.

The whole point of panto, though, is the audience and gearing up to Christmas. It’s all about them being able to participate and just have a laugh.

Last year was my first panto. I wasn’t busy during Christmas for the first time and I asked my agent to find me a part. I played in Canterbury. It was amazing to speak to people who had been coming to that production for years. It’s shared across generations and I think that’s magical.

There are aspects of panto that the children love like the costumes,the fairy tale story, cheering for the heroes and booing for the villains, but then you also have some jokes that go over the children’s’ heads.

For me, it’s so different experience from being on stage singing an original song that people might not have heard before. Instead, you have Disney or pop songs that everyone knows, and they are allowed to sing along. It makes a superb atmosphere. It's wonderful seeing people get involved in theatre. I think that's the thing that excites me the most. If there are kids in the audience joining in, they might think that perhaps this is something that they might want to do one day.'

Sleeping Beauty at The Hawth Theatre, Crawley, December 8 – 31. From £27, https://www.parkwoodtheatres.co.uk/the-hawth/whats-on/sleeping-beauty

Great British Life: Andy Day is always prepared for anything on stage. Jon RigbyAndy Day is always prepared for anything on stage. Jon Rigby (Image: Jon Rigby)

‘Panto feels like a secret everyone’s in on’

Andy Day is playing Jangles ,42, in Sleeping Beauty in Crawley

'I have performed in nine or ten pantos to date. Most of them have been Evolution productions so I’ve been able to work with the same people two or three times, which is lovely.

My character is always pretty similar - usually Jangles but sometimes Buttons – and their role is to drive the story along. He entertains the kids. On TV, I have been part of the CBeebies’ pantos, which are full of jokes and fun. They’ve become a bit of a national treasure.

Panto feels like a secret that everyone’s in on. The audience know what to expect. You have to prepare, though, for the fact that, as actors, when you get on stage, everything might be completely different from what you were expecting. You want that, in fact, as it makes everything more spontaneous. There will usually be an audience member taking part or children who come on stage. You never know what you’re going to get. You have to go along with it. If things do go wrong, the audience loves it and you include them in the chaos.

I got into pantos in my late 20s. You do a feel a sense of responsibility because you don’t want to disappoint anyone. A lot of people book for Christmas every year. It’s part of their family tradition. People aged one to 99 years old can enjoy a panto, which is what I love about it.

For me, I have one day off this year during the performances and we will be relaxing. We are expecting our third baby just after the run comes to an end, so January is going to be busy, too.'

Sleeping Beauty at The Hawth Theatre, Crawley, December 8 – 31, From £27, https://www.parkwoodtheatres.co.uk/the-hawth/whats-on/sleeping-beauty



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