Mr Panto

Richard Gauntlett

Richard Gauntlett - Credit: Archant

For more than a decade he has brought Christmas joy to countless families across Norfolk as the writer, director and often star of the Norwich Theatre Royal’s annual pantomime – and despite having little time left to celebrate the festive season himself, Richard Gauntlett loves every moment of it.

As rehearsals begin in earnest for this year’s panto, he says he hopes children in the audience will be as mesmerised by the magic of the theatre as he was as a wide-eyed child waiting for the curtain to raise for the very first time.

“I can remember my first trip to the theatre and it was to see Cinderella, I always remember Mr Pastry for some reason. I remember so clearly the moment the curtain went up and the fantastic anticipation and magical experience,” says Richard.

“Pantomime is such a wonderful way of igniting children’s interest in the theatre as it is a great introduction to the stage. It is also such a wonderful part of family tradition. People can remember seeing me in panto when they were kids and now bring their own children which is so lovely.”

This year it is Cinderella - and as always it promises to be packed with plenty of laughter, song and dance, as well as some amazing special effects.

“I am playing Buttons not the Dame, so it will be nice to be in trousers for once,” he laughs. “I thought I wouldn’t need to change costume so much during the performance, but then I realised I get wet at one point and there is also a lot of ice cream flying about, so actually I don’t think things will be any different.”

Although Richard lives in Surrey, for much of November, December and January his home is a rented house in Norwich close to the theatre.

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“I have lots of great friends in Norfolk and it is very dear to me. I think doing panto really makes you feel part of something special at Christmas time.”

With more than 60 performances ahead of him, there is little opportunity to enjoy Christmas with family and friends, but he makes the most of the time he does get off.

“I am the cook in our house, so I drive back straight after the show on Christmas Eve, start prepping the food, have a glass of wine and then wake up on Christmas Day to enjoy my one day at home. Then I get straight back on the road on Boxing Day morning. Over the years you just get used to it, and also I get to be a big part of other people’s Christmas celebrations, which is a really special thing and certainly gets you in the festive spirit.”

Richard’s career has seen him tread the boards of many of the country’s most famous theatres in some of the most critically acclaimed shows of recent times, while securing a reputation as a leading pantomime script writer – but his first time on stage was not quite so glamorous.

“Me and my twin brother played two asses in a stable in the school nativity,” he laughs. “I still remember it today.”

While studying at drama school a part in a major stage production came up and his career was launched.

“Working on the stage was really the only thing I ever wanted to do. When I got offered a role in the musical Barnum with Michael Crawford it was an incredible moment for me.”

After appearing in the show at the Opera House in Manchester, it was followed by a long run in the West End and a BBC film version. He then went on to star in countless shows, including Sweeney Todd, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Lion King and Beauty and The Beast.

While performing for a season at the Pavilion Theatre in Cromer he was approached by Norwich Theatre Royal about a role in the pantomime - and the following year he took over as writer and director.

“I absolutely love coming back to Norfolk every year. It is an amazing theatre with incredible facilities and a fantastic team behind the scenes.”

He says coming up with new ideas to reinvigorate the traditional pantomime stories can be hard, but advancements in technology and special effects mean it is incredibly exciting.

“It is essential to give these wonderful traditional stories a modern update and to keep the performance fresh. I like to set the panto somewhere slightly different every year – this year Cinderella is in Norwich-next-the-Sea. We have also got a very special coach and horses and with it we are attempting to do something that has never been done before. Hopefully it will be absolutely amazing.”