Frock star

James Nickerson as the panto dame in BSE Theare Royal Aladdin

James Nickerson as the panto dame in BSE Theare Royal Aladdin - Credit: © Keith Mindham Photography

Panto season is here – oh yes it is! James Nickerson could be Bury St Edmunds’ favourite panto dame. Following his first appearance in 2002, he’s become a regular fixture and this year’s production of Aladdin will be his seventh production with the Theatre Royal. He tells why he loves being the man in the frock . . .

James Nickerson as the panto dame in BSE Theatre Royal's Aladdin

James Nickerson as the panto dame in BSE Theatre Royal's Aladdin - Credit: © Keith Mindham Photography

Your seventh appearance! What draws you to Bury St Edmunds?

Once you’ve performed in the Theatre Royal, a theatre that feels like it was designed with panto in mind, you’re spoilt really. The close proximity to the audience, the uniqueness of the building and warmth and professionalism of the team behind the scenes all make performing there a special experience. Bury itself is such a charming town – especially at Christmas – that it’s always a pleasure to come back.

Otherwise your CV is not very heavy on pantomime – are your visits to Bury a guilty pleasure?

Not guilty at all! In the acting profession, there’s so little stability or certainty that to return fairly regularly to a theatre to do a specific role is a rare treat. There are so many things in life where the phrase ‘never go back’ applies, so it’s great to find something where to ‘go back’ is not only a positive move but a genuine pleasure!

What’s the appeal of panto?

There are very few other theatrical genres where as an actor you’re given a ‘licence to roam’ in terms of going off script, going into the auditorium, speaking directly to the audience and, in effect, gently mocking the play as it goes along. I’ve always thought the role of the Dame was that of a clown/anarchist/provocateur in the best traditions of those words. It’s important to find the balance between messing around and being a bit ‘naughty’ at the expense of the play and the other characters, while upholding the integrity of the story and the ‘magic’ of the event. I really enjoy the flexibility of that dual role – the discipline of the storytelling and the anarchy of connecting spontaneously with the audience.

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Pantomime tends to be very traditional – the audience expects certain things to happen and certain stories to be used. Is this a challenge?

Traditional yes – but it’s important to keep things fresh and engaging. When you’re telling the same stories again and again, it’s incumbent upon those involved to find new and diverting ways to tell those stories, keeping the ingredients of what makes Aladdin, for instance, a great story while shaking things up and being inventive. When it comes to panto, we love tradition – and to some extent repetition – but there’s got to be creativity and progress as well.

With up to three performances a day it must be gruelling at times – how do you keep yourself sane and healthy during the run?

Flu jabs and echinacea are vital starting points for any panto run! There’s nothing worse than having to do pantomime while feeling like death. Doing two or three shows a day is hard on the voice, especially shouting over an enthusiastic audience, so looking after yourself is really important. The reality of panto for the cast, despite the festive time of year, is early nights and moderation – mostly! The show does go on, barring serious injury or illness, and unsuspecting understudies have been called into action at very short notice to take over from someone who’s woken up with absolutely no voice. I think an (un)healthy dose of insanity is required to do panto in the first place so keeping sane isn’t necessary!

What’s your favourite panto you’ve done?

Well, on January 13, 2014 I’ll hopefully say Aladdin, but looking back I’m really fond of Jack and the Beanstalk, which was the first time I played Dame. I was petrified and struggled a bit to find my ‘inner Dame’, but once I got it I loved it.

Is Christmas a favourite time of year for you? What do you enjoy most?

Yes, I enjoy Christmas but at the risk of sounding a bit of a Grinch, performing in Pantomime is so exhausting and all encompassing that it can pass you by. Christmas Day becomes more about the pleasure of having a day off and a rest rather than all the festivities that go with it. However, wandering around a picturesque town like Bury in the run up to Christmas is always a pleasure and the audiences are always on a real high, which makes the shows really fun to do.

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