There is nothing like a Suffolk panto dame

Actors Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting, appearing as the Ugly Sisters at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

Actors Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting, appearing as the Ugly Sisters Kylie and Miley Grizzle in Cinderella at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Tony Kelly

Actors Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting, appearing as the Ugly Sisters Kylie and Miley Grizzle in Cinderella at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, explain the appeal of frocks, make-up and a healthy dollop of risqué humour

What do you enjoy about performing panto?

Chris: Panto is by far and away the hardest job in my calendar every year, but it’s inevitably the most fun, too. I love a live crowd when I work and panto not only gives me the opportunity to play to one but because of the type of role I play I get to interact with them, too. In my head, at every show I go out to make 349 friends and one ‘special friend’ somewhere on the front row. This year will be slightly different to that, though, as the Ugly Sisters are the only baddie dames so instead I’ll be after lots of boos (or should that be booze?). 

I have to add that another thing I’m looking forwards to is staying with my partner (hi Laura!) as she lives in Bury. We met when I was working on Sleeping Beauty. Our first date was after a show in the One Bull and even though I’d showered I still had eyeliner on – doh! So it’ll be great to spend a decent chunk of time with her over Christmas.  

Craig: Our enduring love of panto, I think, strikes a similar note as to why we love fairly tales as children: full of magic, romance, goodies and baddies, they can reflect our lives back to us, and encourage us to dream big. Humans have told stories for millennia to entertain, strengthen bonds and steer ones moral compass, and panto is no different to my mind. Children and young people are such honest audiences, they’ve often not yet developed the filter that stops them from shouting out that they’re bored, so it feels great when they’re really connected with you as an actor and following every breath of the story. There’s no greater feeling when an audience of children and grown-ups are on the edge of their seat willing the good fairy to do some magic or laughing and booing as the baddie fails time and time again.

Did you go to see panto as a kid? 

Chris: I did. I remember going every Christmas growing up and I vividly remember my grandma watching both mine and my cousins’ reactions to the panto more than she watched the panto itself! I can’t remember the first one I went to but I know I looked forward to it each year. I also have a vivid memory of the baddie (Abanazer I think) leaving the stage and then worrying that they might bump into the heroes in the wings – I was captivated! 

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Craig: I believe the first panto I saw was when I was three years old. It was Jack & the Beanstalk at Birmingham Hippodrome, with the then popular Irish comedian Jimmy Cricket telling jokes, and Cilla Black playing the principal boy, Jack. Being so young I don’t remember much of the detail, but the colours, music, dancing, and boys being girls and girls being boys, blew my mind wide open. I didn’t know or understand the - seemingly hidden - rules of, “oh no you won’t” and “he’s behind you”, but that feeling of being part of a collective audience, cheering for Jack and booing the baddie, is something that has coloured my life and brought me back to panto time and again.

The dames go shopping - Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting.

The dames go shopping - Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting. - Credit: Tony Kelly

What are the challenges of panto for an actor? Does it require special skills?  

Chris: Probably the main challenge is that of being physically and mentally capable of completing the run. Two shows a day, six days a week (with some three-show days thrown in) is extremely tough on your body, your voice and your brain. Having the stamina to keep performing at a high level for seven weeks during the time of year when coughs and colds are rife is tricky.

That aside, other skills that you might need are more relevant to the role you are playing. If you’re the comic or the dame then you need to be good at comedy. The prince and princess are normally excellent singers, and the baddie needs to be able to hold their own against 350 screaming kids. Everybody needs to be able to dance and sing harmony lines. Plus, you need to remember that as a company we also spend a lot of time together offstage, particularly as most cast members don’t live in Bury and therefore have any social circles outside the theatre. The most important skill in my opinion is being able to get on with everyone else who you work with eight hours a day and then go to the pub with them afterwards. Sounds silly but it’s true!

Craig: There were times at the start of my career, when some of my peers would be rather snooty about panto, considering it a lowbrow art form with little skill needed to do it. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Performers in panto have to be athletes, doing two and sometimes three shows a day for weeks and weeks, often with only one day off in seven. You have to look after yourself, particularly at this time of year when everyone seems to get coughs and colds.

From what I remember, there wasn’t any specific panto training at drama school. I suppose the skills needed to perform in pantomime are so varied and different from job to job, that it would almost be impossible to cover everything. I did, however, receive a lot of training in movement and physical character work, studying panto’s earliest roots, Commedia dell'Arte, which is exploring stock characters who all delight in mischief and mayhem. Plenty of singing and dancing lessons have also stood me in good stead, along with a strong sense of professional discipline, instilled in me from my training and subsequent experience.

What do you like about playing a dame? 

Chris: I started out from drama school playing the prince role, way back when, and since then I’ve played sidekicks - Dandidi, for example -  comics like Wishy Washy and Silly Bill, a couple of kings and also plenty of dames. Comic and dame are my favourite two roles to play, but although they’re both comedy roles they’re played very differently. I’ve loved being the dame in Bury and the theatre have always been very kind in letting me shape her how I feel is right. In many ways I tend to play roughly the same character each year as that is both what the role requires and also the audiences tend to want. Familiarity is a comfort, so knowing roughly what you’re going to get can be a big selling point for the theatre but also it’s comforting for the audiences. Like I said, I like to try to make friends with the audience and if those guys come back, well, I’m as happy as can be! 

In terms of how I play her there are two extremes of dames - obvious bloke in a frock (like Les Dawson), and almost drag-queen-esque (like Lily Savage). I don’t fit into either of those categories - physically I’m not tall and skinny or short and fat, just average. Because of this I just try to play them as a genuine woman but with plenty of risqué humour to keep the adults entertained. 

Craig: Playing Miley Grizzle at the Theatre Royal this year will be my first dame. For many years I’ve played baddies in pantomimes, and so the Ugly Sisters definitely fall in to that category and are familiar territory. When I’m creating any character, I always like to consider what they want to achieve within the story and what’s at stake if they fail. Miley and her sister, Kylie, want to be the ultimate pop stars. If the audience is going to boo them, as Ugly Sisters they have to believe that they are the most beautiful, talented girls on the planet, destined for stardom. Even in these pantomime stories that are fantastical, I think the characters need to be driven by their intentions. The comedy then comes about from the way in which the character tries to achieve success. With truth at the heart of storytelling, an audience can feel genuinely sad that the ugly sisters, (seemingly) have stopped Cinderella from going to the prince’s ball, which in turn makes the audiences’ joy and happiness all the greater, when the fairy godmother lends a helping hand.

Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting as the Ugly Sisters in this year's panto at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds.

If the shoe fits...Chris Clarkson and Craig Painting as the Ugly Sisters in this year's panto at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Tony Kelly

How do you create your dame's physical appearance? 

Chris: As an actor I’m essentially a walking, talking mannequin. The wardrobe designer along with the director tend to have the most input. I don’t mind what I wear as long as I can physically do everything I need to in it. In terms of make-up I’m generally given a rough idea of what they’d like and then I play around a bit. To be honest I’m rubbish at the make-up side of things so to a degree they get what they’re given.

 Craig: Pantomime is definitely a team sport. I’ll be working with panto director and artistic director of Theatre Royal Owen Calvert-Lyons to create Miley, alongside Chris. It’s vital to remember that playing an ugly sister is different to a normal panto dame because it isn’t a lone role - you’re part of a double act. It can sometimes be a little lonely playing the baddie, coming on from stage left to give a wickedly devious monologue about something or other, so I’m excited to have my sister to play and bounce off. Together in the rehearsal room we’ll discover the similarities between Miley and Kylie, as well as what makes them different, all the time ensuring that those decisions complement one another when you bring them together as a deliciously dastardly pair. That’s before you’ve even added fabulous and silly costumes that the designer has spent hours creating and that wardrobe have spent hours sewing. Many hands make a pantomime the spectacular show it is!

Why do you think panto is still so popular? How important is it to theatres? 

Chris: Let me share three press quotes with you. ’Pantomimes are not what they were’, ‘Pantomime is no longer what it used to be. They have had their day’ and ‘Pantomime seems at present to hold its own, I do not see how it can continue to do so’. Have you read that sort of thing before? Or heard people say it in passing? Well those quotes are from 1831, 1846 and 1882 respectively!

Panto is popular because it’s a known unknown. We’re all aware of the story lines and we all know they’ll all live happily ever after. However, the beauty of panto is that we don’t know how we’re necessarily going to arrive at that point. Scripts are modern, contain references to what’s going on in the news (regularly updated even on the day of the performance!) and constantly raise the bar in terms of technical spec of lighting, special effects or sets. But convention is also an important aspect of panto. For example, the baddie enters from stage left (that’s audience right) and the goodie from stage right, and the final lines of the panto (called the rhyming couplets) shouldn’t be rehearsed and should be spoken out loud for the first time at the end of opening night. When productions break away from these conventions, and countless others I could list, that’s when a panto stops being a panto. So, in summary – it’s popular because you know what you’re getting, but not necessarily how you’ll get there - and that’s the fun part. 

Chris Clarkson as Dame Winona Whittington Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds

Chris Clarkson is a familiar panto performer at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Here he is as Dame Winona Whittington. - Credit: Tony Kelly

Panto is incredibly important every year for theatres as it’s their biggest money maker. That’s not to say theatres are greedy, but panto often financially supports the work that a theatre puts on for the rest of the year. The one thing theatres do best is serve their communities. Theatre and the arts in general aren’t just about making money, they are a service that help people with a bit of escapism, a break from the norm, a chance to laugh or cheer in a safe environment. Money is of course important - it’s my livelihood after all, not my hobby - but I think this year’s panto is more important for the people of Bury St Edmunds and the county beyond. Laughter is the best medicine, and when it’s served with a healthy dollop of friends and family close by it goes down a treat. 

Craig: Panto is so vital to the UK’s theatre industry - exciting and inspiring the next generation of audiences. It can often be a child’s first taste of live theatre, or maybe even the first time that a child becomes aware, in this screen-driven world, that theatre exists. That is so incredibly special to be part of.

Panto gives us all an opportunity to come together with family and friends in the dark, cold, winter months, and share a collective experience - much needed after the social isolation and fear of the last eighteen months. Theatre’s are doing all they can to operate in a COVID secure and safe way, and I really hope that bums on seats this Christmas, translates to some financial stability for our much loved theatres so that our tradition of pantomime is strong and sustainable.

Just think how many thousands of school children will be arriving by coach to the Theatre Royal this year - the future’s nurses, doctors, teachers, actors. How fabulous to think that in years to come they may make watching live theatre an integral part of their own social lives, or take their own children to a pantomime, or because of that school trip, dream of becoming an actor.

Tell us a panto anecdote...  

Chris: I have got panto anecdotes coming out of every orifice but I don’t think any of them would be appropriate to print anywhere! If you want to hear some then come and find me after a show and I’ll tell ‘em all for the price of a G&T... 

Craig: Several years ago, whilst playing the baddie in Jack & the Beanstalk, midway through the run we all went out for a company meal to a rather dubious Chinese restaurant. Needless to say, I got food poisoning and spent the entire night being sick. By the morning, I’d been so unwell that I’d burst a blood vessel in my right eyeball, making it look like it had been heavily splattered with blood. I guess I was lucky to be playing the baddie and not the prince.

At the theatre I lay exhausted on the green room sofa for the 10am performance, awaiting my scenes and crying blood from my eye. The stage management dutifully came to fetch me for each scene, helping me to my feet on my wobbly legs and pushing me on stage at the right time. The show must go on, eh? With buckets in each backstage wing and a large helping of Doctor Theatre, I managed to get through both shows. These days I’m very choosy about where and what I eat. 

Cinderella is at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds November 26 - January 16. Family saver tickets and relaxed, signed and accessible performances available. 

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