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The Sussex pantomime stars of 2017

PUBLISHED: 10:24 12 December 2017 | UPDATED: 12:39 02 January 2018

David Hill as Ugly Sister Donaldina (Photo by Nick Ford Photography)

David Hill as Ugly Sister Donaldina (Photo by Nick Ford Photography)

Nick Ford Photography

As pantomime season approaches a select group of actors will be donning dresses and fixing their falsies to carry on a fine British theatrical tradition

Martyn Knight as Sarah the Cook

Martyn Knight as Sarah the Cook with comedy partner Tucker as Idle Jack (Photo by Martin Smith)Martyn Knight as Sarah the Cook with comedy partner Tucker as Idle Jack (Photo by Martin Smith)

Martyn Knight had been retired from the stage for seven years when writer/director Chris Jordan first asked him to play an Ugly Sister in Potters Bar.

Now pantomime is the only time Martyn treads the boards himself – and he has been Eastbourne’s resident dame for the past 14 years. “I have a bit of an affinity with Eastbourne,” says Martyn, who spends the rest of his year directing amateur theatre companies across the country. “My mum used to sing on the bandstand. I’m incredibly proud and honoured to be asked back year after year, and to have forged a relationship with Tucker has been good – you’ve got to get on with the comedian you work with.”

It was Martyn’s mother who first got him on stage at the age of ten, launching a 50-year career which later saw him appear in West End productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and South Pacific. The latter was referenced during Eastbourne’s popular final show of the 2016/2017 season, where pranks are played on the cast. Half a dozen of Martyn’s former South Pacific castmates were contacted by Chris and appeared on stage, all dragged up, to sing a chorus of There is Nothing Like A Dame to Martyn’s astonishment. “I recognised them one-by-one,” says Martyn. “I was shocked to see them after so many years – the last time was in 1988 in the Prince of Wales Theatre!”

Dealing with the unexpected is a big part of the dame’s job. But getting into the role isn’t always easy for Martyn at the start. “I find it hard to begin when we do the read-throughs,” he says. “I can get the voice – my character is very Cockney and common. When I’m on stage with the make-up on and the wig and costume I’m fearless and can handle anything thrown at me.”

His Achilles heel is his habit of corpsing with laughter. “It’s a fine line – you have to let the audience know when something has gone wrong and move on from it,” he says. “One time David Alder was doing the ghost gag and something went wrong – I started to laugh and I couldn’t stop for two or three minutes. I was helpless!”

Although his introduction to the dame was as an Ugly Sister it’s the role he finds hardest to play, as in Cinderella the Ugly Sisters are the baddies. “I would love to do Mother Goose,” he says. “It’s the only panto where the dame is the title role.”

Dick Whittington and his Cat is at Devonshire Park Theatre, Compton Street, Eastbourne, from Friday 8 December to Sunday 14 January. From £12, 01323 412000; www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk

Michael J Batchelor as Dame Mollie Mopp

Michael J Batchelor as Dame Mollie Mopp in The Hawth's Crawley panto Snow White (Photo by Paul Clapp)Michael J Batchelor as Dame Mollie Mopp in The Hawth's Crawley panto Snow White (Photo by Paul Clapp)

Michael J Batchelor always insists his dame makes an entrance. This may be down to the work he puts into creating his costumes – between eight and ten new costumes for each production. “A company will have a set of dame costumes which go with that show,” he says from his rented house in Bognor, where he is performing at Butlins. “I knew if I made my costume it would fit and I would be able to walk in it.”

He began his career as a dame at the young age of 21 playing an Ugly Sister. He quite enjoyed the part: “I worked together with the other Ugly Sister for five years,” he says. “It’s a fine line as you’ve got to be funny and look ridiculous, but be nasty in the right places. I see the boos as applause – you’re still evoking an emotion out of the audience.”

Now 39, he feels he is the right age to play the dame: “You need to be someone’s mum or auntie,” he says. “I’m not size-ist but I do think a fatter dame is better.” He draws his influences from Are You Being Served? stars Molly Sugden and John Inman, Les Dawson’s no frills ‘man-in-a-dress’ style and his own personal drag queen creation, Tanya Hyde, who started life at Alton Towers’ hotel. “They used to have fake staff members at the hotel – I spent four years as the female manageress,” says Michael. “It’s where I really learnt what I do. I would meet people and have to start a conversation and make it funny. I used to be a hairdresser so it was already my job to make a conversation out of nothing, but the funny thing can’t be taught.” His dame is warm, jolly and colourful, but has a sarcastic side from Tanya, who he toured to drag clubs up and down the country and summer seasons in Tenerife and Gran Canaria. “Tanya is better than everyone but she’s still common as muck,” he says. When on stage he involves both the audience – picking out a boyfriend in the front row – and the rest of the cast and crew in subversive moments, whether it’s calling out to a stagehand by name or making his co-star laugh. He delights in playing with words from the urban dictionary: “I use words like ‘brap’ and ‘on fleek’ and use them in the wrong way,” he says. “You have to do double entendres, but you have got to be clever enough so it doesn’t go too far. Children are more canny now.”

In Snow White he plays the Wicked Queen’s cleaner Dame Mollie Mopp. With the costumes to produce and next year’s Butlin’s summer panto to write, plus a diary date for the 2018 Crawley panto he’s in the happy position of being booked up until early 2019. “When I put the gear on, and the boobs, I transform and become a different person. For me it’s the boobs that make the difference – as soon as I’ve got them I want to push them up or squash them or wiggle them. That’s where the character comes from.”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is at The Hawth, in Hawth Avenue, Crawley, from Friday 8 December to Sunday 7 January. From £19.50, 01293 553636; www.parkwoodtheatres.co.uk/The-Hawth

Simon Howe as Dame Dolly

Cassie Compton as Snow White and Simon Howe as Dame Dolly in Snow White at Worthing Pavilion Theatre (Photo by Sam Pharoah)Cassie Compton as Snow White and Simon Howe as Dame Dolly in Snow White at Worthing Pavilion Theatre (Photo by Sam Pharoah)

Simon Howe is carrying on a proud family tradition which dates back to a World War I prisoner of war camp. While his grandfather Sylvester Stuart was held by the Germans in Dusseldorf he produced a series of performances in the POW camp – where he first played the dame in 1917. “I never saw my granddad play the dame,” says Simon backstage preparing for a photo shoot. “But he taught me the ghost gag. I’ve had lots of arguments with modern directors about it – the traditional way to play it is sitting down, so evil hovers above you. It looks more menacing.”

As dame Simon still wears a spotted handkerchief his grandfather used on stage, as well as his late father’s cape and a pair of bloomers his late mother Audrey Maye made for him. She was in a comedy double act with Simon’s father Len, who played the dame for many years. “He was an eccentric dancer, like Jack Tripp,” says Simon who also takes inspiration from Les Dawson and John Inman. “Dad told me granddad was flat-footed so his walk was very funny. He spoke very upper-class, like John Le Mesurier. Dad was from London and spoke with a London accent. The first time I played a dame Dad had retired. He gave me routines to do, but I also wrote routines for myself.”

Simon’s career started young, appearing as a child in an episode of cult favourite The Prisoner. He later played roles in the West End in 42nd Street, The Pirates of Penzance, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and in The Cherry Orchard and Macbeth at the National Theatre. Even when he takes a straight role he is still thinking of pantomime. “Panto has evolved,” he says. “It is more of a musical extravaganza, with more modern songs.” He feels it is a tradition of pantomime to reflect what is going on in society at that time. Like Michael he feels the generous bust is essential to finding the dame’s character: “You can’t help but adjust yourself,” he says. “My dad said you can’t really play the dame until you’re 40. If the dame is saying: ‘I’ve had a hard day’ to an audience which has really experienced a hard day in real life you’ve got to look like you’ve had a hard day!” Now 58, Simon was 40 when he played his first dame, and has kept up the role for the past 18 years. “The dame is the lynchpin of the panto,” he says. “The dame is able to interact with the audience like the comic can. There are three types of character in panto – the evil character who puts the audience slightly on edge, the fairy character who calms the audience down and the comedy character who makes the audience relax as they know it’s going to be funny. If you’ve got those characters right then you have something for everyone.”

And Simon is passing his knowledge on. Helping him with his make-up is his daughter, Molly Rees Howe, who will be spending her Christmas in Snow White at the Darlington Hippodrome.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is at Pavilion Theatre, Marine Parade, Worthing, from Friday 1 December to New Year’s Day. From £12.50. 01903 206206; worthingtheatres.co.uk

David Hill as Ugly Sister Donaldina

David Hill as Ugly Sister Donaldina (Photo by Nick Ford Photography)David Hill as Ugly Sister Donaldina (Photo by Nick Ford Photography)

Playing an Ugly Sister requires both the comedic timing of a dame and the villainy of a baddie. Having played the part for five consecutive seasons David Hill is relishing the chance to get back into the oversized frock. “The Ugly Sisters are slightly different from the dame – they are comedic forces of evil,” he says. “They push the plot forward. The audience is on the edge of their seats booing from the start of the show. I want their boos to be as loud and ferocious as they can!”

David is also an executive producer of Cinderella, which is being staged by a partnership between E3 Production and Brighton Academy of Performing Arts. He has wanted to bring a panto back to the city ever since Theatre Royal Brighton opted to host popular musicals such as Spamalot and this year’s Grease in their place.

“This city is starved of family events where mum and dad can bring their children,” says David who starred alongside Julian Clary in one of the Theatre Royal Brighton’s last pantomimes in 2000. “The art of the panto is to produce something magical, which enthrals the children, but also offers mum and dad a wonderful show with comedy, singing and dancing. Cinderella has the strongest story.”

One of the hardest elements of returning to panto after a 13-year break has been finding another Ugly Sister. His previous counterpart was Tony Jackson whose height and size added an extra comic element. “Tony was very short and I’m 6ft 4in – but he was the boss and pushed me around,” says David. His fellow producers left the final casting of Melania to David, who picked West End star and former Harry Potter actor Alasdair Buchan. They are now spending time ahead of rehearsals going through the script and getting to know how each other works. “It’s getting the comedy timing and precision that goes with it,” says David, who will have eight costume changes during the show. “I don’t think Alasdair has ever played an ugly sister before so he will have a whole new bag of tricks.”

Also in the cast are Joseph Peters from Jersey Boys and the UK tour of All or Nothing as Dandini, Keris Lea from The Sundaes as the Fairy Godmother and pop legend David Essex on-screen as Baron Hardup. Taking the title role is Hannah Bailey who won a county-wide Search for Cinders. The cast is supported by young actors from the Brighton Academy of Performing Arts and a live band. Several shows have already sold out at the 750-seater auditorium, and two performances were added before Cinderella was officially launched in October.

“It has been a juggernaut,” says David. “We were selling 70 tickets a day before we even did any marketing. We are hoping it will be a permanent residency at the Hilton Brighton Metropole – we will be announcing next year’s pantomime on the opening night.”

Cinderella is at Hilton Brighton Metropole, King’s Road, Brighton, from 22 to 27 December. From £10, www.brightonfamilypanto.com

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