It’s that time of year again. Oh no it isn’t it! Well, it is actually.
The pantomime season is well and truly upon us, and showing this year at Richmond Theatre is Cinderella; one of the greatest of pantomime stories of them all.
Kellie Shirely plays Cinderella, and Graham Hoadly and Paul Burnham the ugly sisters, Beatrice and Eugenie. The four of us settle down in Richmond Theatre’s Matcham Room, named in honour of the distinguished theatrical architect Frank Matcham, for a chat.
Pantomime, with its relentless cheer and bad jokes, is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. However it is undeniably important in getting children into theatres and there is a responsibility for those putting on the show to make that first taste of theatre a memorable one.
I remember my first pantomime. Incidentally it too was Cinderella, and although I have grown up to be a miserable cynic, I have to admit the experience has stayed with me.
Graham, playing his fifth ugly sister in six years, looks at his childhood memories of pantomime with great affection. “I adored them”, he says. “Funnily enough the director of our show (Christopher Dunham) was in the second pantomime I ever saw, in 1961. I’ve never forgotten that show. I can see it almost like a film in my head.”
Paul, who has worked in pantomimes for the last ten years, also has vivid memories: “I remember how bright and colourful it all was. We used to go with the school, and if I liked it I used to get my mother to take me again!”
The duo, marvellous as Cinderella’s ugly sisters, couldn’t be more different in appearance. Graham is short and squat; Paul tall and gangly; a disparity that works fantastically well in the show. Together with Kellie Shirely, known mostly for playing Carly Wicks in Eastenders and starring in only her second panto, they are charming company.
Kellie’s childhood experiences of watching pantomime are slightly different: “I remember my first panto when I was about five or six. My mum and dad hate panto, so I had a very different experience.”
She has to concede, however, the occasion stayed with her nonetheless: “Saying that, it is still very vivid in my memory and, in a weird way, made me want to become an actress.”
As Paul succinctly puts it, “It’s about feeling that magic, and then wanting to recreate it.”
Pantomime these days has become increasingly commercial, with producers taking to casting expensive ‘stars’ in their shows. This year, for example, sees the likes of David Hasselhoff, Jedward and Craig Revel Horwood gracing stages across the country.
The result, as Kellie puts it, is that “panto has become a bit elitist because seats are so expensive.”
Graham agrees: “When you have a commercial panto as we are, with stars, then it is often the case that people cannot afford to go. In my childhood people could afford to go to the big pantos. And now you have television and things making people not want to go.”
Paul suggests that perhaps folks are starting to emerge from this blue-ray, x-box induced slumber: “I think it’s going full circle; I think people will go to theatre because they’re getting sick of that world.”
You can’t help but think, if he is right, that these ‘stars’, who perhaps not coincidentally have made their names in television, are playing a major role in that.
The ‘star’ of this pantomime is Jenny Eclair, but her performance leaves plenty to be desired. It is Graham and Paul, maybe not big names but with a wealth of panto experience between them, who steal the show, and so it should be.
When asked what makes a great pantomime, Paul responds “Us!” He may be joking, but he’s absolutely right.
Unsurprisingly, the trio are passionate about their work. As Graham says, “Sometimes people think pantomime is a bit of a laugh but for me it’s serious work because of the responsibility to the children. It’s a play like anything else; you’re telling the truth in it. The audience have to care whether Cinderella goes to ball. And Kellie is wonderful and they do care.”
Kellie does make a very beautiful Cinderella, imparting just the right amount of vulnerability to evoke genuine concern over what happens to her. She has already been brought flowers by two little girls, both truly believing that she is Cinderella. That belief is part of what makes pantomime such an unforgettable experience for children.
All this shows as well, with audiences hooked from start to finish. “I’ve not heard a bored audience, not once”, Paul explains. “I’ve done things in the past when you hear them start rustling and chatting but not once in this show. There’s not a slow moment.”
Christopher Dunham, who has directed pantomimes for years, has a strict approach to directing, with his watchword during rehearsals being one of “Tell the story, nothing else.” When you have a story like Cinderella, for many the epitome of pantomime, and a talented cast, the rest will follow.
According to Graham, a big part of what makes Cinderella so great is its wealth of characters: “Some people want to see what the comic, Buttons, is like. Some people want to see what Cinderella and the Prince are doing. And then you get people who want see what the ugly sisters are up to. So there are characters for everybody.”
Rather in line with this, pantomime also needs a universal appeal, with aspects that satisfy all age groups. As Kellie says, “It’s got to be across the board: little kids have got to enjoy it, and grandparents and mums and dads. There’s got to be something for everyone.”
So why, I ask, should people come and see this production of Cinderella?
Paul suggests people should go and see it “for its heart and soul and sense of fun.” Graham describes it as “the perfect Christmas entertainment.” And, as Paul rightly says, “There are no adverts.”
Again, Paul may be joking, but he has tapped into a telling point that continues to emerge throughout the interview. Pantomime is a wonderful way for children to experience theatre and that experience can be a magical one. It certainly beats mindlessly staring at a screen in a darkened room.
As Kellie says: “It blows their mind. Being able to shout out and get involved. It’s genuinely exciting.” After all, these memories are the ones that stay with us forever.
Cinderella is showing at Richmond Theatre until the 15th January. The box office can be contacted on 0870 060 6651.