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Melissa’s Meeting with the Personalities of Pantomime

6 December 2017

Panto’s Fabulously Funny Family

Melissa’s Meeting with the Personalities of Pantomime

Issy van Randwyck and Steve Delaney chat to Melissa Syversen.

Part Two in a Seasonal Look at the Panto

 

Pantomime season is upon us once more, boys and girls!  T’is that wonderful time of year again.  The Christmas lights are shining along the high streets, the Christmas markets and Winter Wonderland have all popped up and we can finally eat mince pies to our heart’s content without the guilt.  And as we enter the Christmas season, with it comes what is my favourite theatre genre: Christmas pantomime.  All over the city, colourful posters of well-loved characters are gazing out at us as we hurry along to finish the Christmas shopping.  They all range from Dick Whittington  at the Palladium, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyric Hammersmith.  And of course, Aladdin at the Richmond Theatre.

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Aladdin marks the first partnership between pantomime production company Qdos Entertainment and ATG theatre group.  Richmond Theatre’s production of Aladdin has gathered an impressive cast this year, led by pantomime legend Christopher Biggins as Widow Twankey.  The cast further includes Issy Van Randwyck, Count Arthur Strong (Steve Delaney) and Rikki Jay as Aladdin’s brother Wishee-Washee.  Making his pantomime debut, AJ Jenks will play the title role of Aladdin.  I was lucky to meet Mr Biggins earlier in the autumn during the Richmond season presentation and he spoke very highly of this version of Aladdin, which he has previously performed at Nottingham Theatre Royal in 2015.  He promised us many wonderful costumes, stars and humour.

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Now as the premiere is just around the corner, I was lucky enough a few weeks back, to chat with two of the other stars of Aladdin, Issy van Randwyck and Steve Delaney (a.k.a. Count Arthur Strong).  I had a lovely chat with both, to the point we might have diverted a bit from the task at hand to discuss other topics such as popular Scandi-noirs and the nature of drama schools.  Our main topics, however, were this year’s production of Aladdin at the Richmond Theatre and pantomime itself, as a theatre genre and a uniquely British tradition.

Having made the trip to Richmond from Central London, I first sat down with the lovely Issy Van Randwyck at the Richmond Theatre.  Issy has a long and eclectic career on the stage that includes musicals, Shakespeare, pantomimes and modern plays.  She was a member of the popular cabaret group Fascinating Aïda.  On the big and small screen, her credits include The Danish Girl, Partners in Crime and Spooks.  In Aladdin, she will be playing the magical genie Scheherazade

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You were born to Dutch parents and lived abroad during the early years of your life.  What was your first encounter with British pantomime, as it is such a British institution?
You know, my first cognitive memory is going to see one of those ‘On Ice!’ shows when I was living in South Africa when I was little.  So, it must have been when I was around four or five.  I think I saw one of those pantomime stories but on ice, somewhere in Durban.  That must be my first memory of seeing a Christmas show.

When did you do your first pantomime as an actress?
I did my first pantomime, I think it was 1999.  At Guilford, I did Peter Pan playing the traditional principal boy.

Pantomime is something that has been going on, in somewhat different formats since ….. forever.  What do you think it is about Pantomime that keeps attracting audiences?
Community.   I think it is Community.  It is something that brings all ages together.  I think it is the first time a young generation goes to the theatre and sees the whole magic of it.  They have never seen and been in a place like that and then it gets dark and the band starts up and the curtain rises.  And then the lights and the magic of it all, you know.  It is really wonderful and, as a parent, you get to see it through their eyes and you remember your first time.  And then as a grandparent, you have been for years.  I think it is a coming together of a community.

That must be wonderful for you as an actress being able to be part of that community in different places.
I did Aladdin, playing Aladdin, with Christopher (Biggins) actually, fourteen years ago at Cambridge Arts.  I have done a number of them and loved each one.  It is a lot of hard work, don’t get me wrong, two shows a day, six days a week.  It’s not for the faint-hearted.  You have to get match-fit, make sure that you get your sleep, take your vitamin C.  You really have to look after yourself like an athlete.  But there is so much joy backstage, and I have to say working with Christopher Biggins: he is pure joy!  He just is, wherever he goes.

I met him about a month ago: he really does brighten the room.
He really does, he is just one of those people.  There are those people that just suck energy out of the room and then there are those that just give, and that is him.

He is a bit of an institution in his own right within pantomime.
He is.

It must be great fun for the two of you to keep coming back and do pantomimes together?
I have known him for much longer than that.  The first time we worked together, he directed me in a production of Taming of the Shrew in Barbados.  Rehearsing in bikinis and sarongs, on the beach you know, it was joyous.  Again, not work, just glorious.

Your Aladdin, AJ Jenks, this is his first pantomime.
Often with pantomime, it is often the first professional job among the younger members of the cast, and it is a wonderful introduction for them.

It is an opportunity to learn from the best.  Have you given him any advice on how to do pantomime?
No, I actually only just met him today for the photographs.  We start rehearsals on the 27th November.

That is very close to the opening date on 9th December!
It is.  You absolutely have to be match fit.  You do as much background homework to learn your stuff, so that rehearsals are rehearsals.  We rehearse for nine days and then tech-rehearsals on Thursday and Friday and open on Saturday.  It is what it is and it is the way that everyone does it.  That is what you sign up for and it is a part of the joy of it because you all go over the top together.  We’re all in it together.

How does this Aladdin differ from other pantomime versions of Aladdin?
Each pantomime is written to play to the strengths of the key players and likewise, you have Count Arthur Strong who is hilarious, Riki James and Christopher Biggins.  It is keeping it topical, keeping the narrative of the story of Aladdin and then you can go off on little tangents.

You were a member of the cabaret group Fascinating Aïda for six years.  Do you think that has helped with your work in pantomime?
Yes, but I have done a lot of comedy since then and I did comedy before as well.  You know what, I think working as the only girl at Madame Jojo’s, the drag show, that was probably closer because that really was that badinage between the audience and ourselves on stage.  That, and being the only real girl, I think gave me a greater insight and experience I think for panto.

In terms of Pantomime endings, do you prefer the Disney route where the villain perishes in some way or do you lean more towards redemption for the villain?
Oh, very interesting.   I think you do it for the children don’t you, so what is going to be the last thing they need.  They have enough things to process these days.  The least upsetting thing for them to process is the better.  Redemption and moral of the story, definitely.  Violence and Christmas shows don’t really mix.

Will you continue to do pantomimes?
Oh, God yes, I am an actress I do what I am told to do.  I have a young family, and I think this time is a time of magic.  Children have so much to process these days, so for as long as we can bring love and joy and the illusion of magic to them, at this time, I will continue to do it.  You can laugh as a family and break down the barriers and the walls, it can only be a good thing.  That back and forth that happens in a pantomime, the social interaction, it is so important.  It makes it possible to spark imagination and discussion.  And also anywhere where you can take the mickey out of yourself is very important, that can only be a good thing as well.

Can you describe Aladdin in three words?
Family.  Fabulous.  Funny.

After my chat with Issy, I was lead down to the stalls bar to meet the Count himself, Arthur Strong.  Or perhaps more accurately, with his affable creator and portrayer, Steve Delaney.  Count Arthur Strong was created while Delaney studied at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.  In the ‘90s, The Count started appearing on the London comedy circuit before debuting at The Edinburgh Fringe in 1997.  Since then Arthur Strong has become a staple in British comedy, having performed numerous tours and radio shows and also starred in his own titular sitcom on BBC2.  Count Arthur Strong made his pantomime debut last year at The London Palladium, playing Baron Hardup in their production of Cinderella.  This year he will be playing The Count of Peking who is the father of the beautiful princess.

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I saw Cinderella at the Palladium last year, which was your pantomime debut.  How did you find that?

Yes, and what a place to debut!  It was great, I really enjoyed it.  It was a spectacle for sure.  And that is what they went for.  One of the reasons I am doing this one (Aladdin) is, you know I wanted to do a more story based pantomime.  Something that is a bit more about the characters than perhaps the Palladium was.  But it was great.  I have been offered pantomimes before but hadn’t done it really because I always thought well Baron Hardup seems to me the right character for Arthur.  A bit batty, an old man who doesn’t really notice that he is married to the wicked stepmother and that his daughter is being ill-treated.  So when the combination of Baron Hardup and the Palladium came up, I jumped on it, and it was great.  For me, it felt like being in a variety show.  Everybody came on and did their schtick.  I don’t really have an act in the same way they do, mine is more character-based so it kind of has to be its own thing.  Pretty much all year round I tour the country in my own bubble so it seems like now that pantomime is the only time I come out of that bubble, so it is good for me.  It is a good opportunity to work with people I consider real variety artists, and Arthur thinks he is a proper variety artist, so it is an interesting notion as well.

That must be interesting for you because pantomime is to a certain extent about casting celebrities and name recognition.  But you play a character who plays a character.  The audience is coming to see Arthur, who is such a well-known character.
It is definitely different, you’re quite right.  For instance, one thing that happens a lot in pantomime is that people drop out of character that they are playing and they address the audience directly as themselves.  Paul O’Grady was doing it all the time and it’s a pantomime device almost.  Whereas I can’t really do that.  I can drop out of the character that I am playing, but it’s got to be Arthur who’s doing the character and doing him somewhat badly, that is the notion behind it.  So, it is a slightly odd thing and I think I’d have to do a few more pantomimes before I found that balance.

If Steve Delaney were suddenly to pop out…..
I could never do that.  I am either Arthur or I am not.  So every role I play in pantomime would have to be Arthur, essentially.  But you know, I am never credited as Steve Delaney in these things, I have always insisted that it is Arthur Strong.   I don’t want people to be too preoccupied with the fact that somebody “does” Arthur, I’d rather they just believe the character.

It was funny, because, even in the press release I received, it says Arthur Strong, so even I was a bit unsure whether I’d be talking to Steve or to Arthur before this.
Well you know, when I first started for a number of years I never did interviews as me at all, even if I was on a radio show or something like that.  I did a spot for BBC Scotland in London and I turned up dressed as Arthur.  I always used to do that, but after ten or fifteen years, it got to the point where I was frustrated because I couldn’t actually say anything coherent.  I couldn’t answer a question properly because I was answering them in character and it got to the point where I had to say ‘I’ve got to stop doing it now’  because sometimes people seriously wanted to know the answer to the questions and they weren’t getting them.  Now it is a balance between interviews I do as me and those I do as Arthur.

Pantomime is such a unique theatre genre.  Do you remember your first pantomime that you saw?
It was at the Leeds Grand Theatre.  It was Cinderella with Lonnie Donegan playing Buttons.  He was a Skiffle artist in the late 50s, great singer.  I must have been about six or seven.  Someone I partly based a little bit of Arthur on was a next-door neighbour who was the chief electrician at The Grand.  And his mum, the lovely old Mrs K, she used to take us to the pantomimes.  So that was the first one I saw.  And later I actually worked there, I used to be a theatre carpenter and our workshop was at the same level as the fly floor.  This was about ten years later and Frank Carson the Irish comedian was playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella.  Quite different from Arthur, a bit savvier.  I saw many of those pantomimes because, rather than working, I’d spend a lot of time on the fly floor and watch the show.

But you’re absolutely right; pantomime is its own genre, there’s nothing like it.  I think it is pretty much all we’ve got left from variety, true variety theatre as it was.  There is no other outlet for that kind of thing these days.  You know, it’s like when Top of the Pops finished.  You think of all those bands who win The X Factor.  Twenty years ago they would all have wanted to go on Top of the Pops.  They would have a record out and it would be on the charts and everything, but a lot of that has changed completely.  The fact that there is none of those music shows that aren’t talent shows, it is a shame.

I agree with you that pantomime is one of the last genres that carries the elements of variety, musical halls, even the old harlequinades.   It is a genre that has endured in different forms, yet somehow stays the same.  What do you think it is about Pantomime that keeps attracting audiences?
I think a lot of it is tradition, you know.  Obviously, it is tied into Christmas.   I think we are looking for something to do that is special and different at Christmas.  And there is always a lot of spectacle attached to pantomimes.  A lot of kids are kind of blooded into the theatres, often for the first instance if you like.  The very first shows they see are pantomimes, whether they go to see another show again is a different matter.  It’s the tradition, it’s kind of like having turkey for Christmas.  Christmas is a unique time of a year and that is why pantomime exists in the first place.  People looking for something that is very different, and these days pantomime is something different.   Like we said, it is the only thing of its kind now.  When I was a kid there used to be a lot a variety transitioning into television in the early sixties but we don’t even have those variety shows anymore.  I could name dozens like The Dickie Valentine Show, The Dickie Henderson Show and The Arthur Haynes Show.   All these had variety acts and guest stars on.  We have none of these now.  You don’t see that sort of thing on television anymore, it just doesn’t exist really.  And I think pantomime theatre is here to stay for a very long, long time.  The kids who came along to pantomime and it made a strong impression on them, they will bring their kinds twenty years down the line because they want their children to have the same experience.  It is unique.
I was talking to Issy and she said you only have nine days of rehearsal?
It’s crazy, isn’t it?  But I have to say, having done three television series where there would be so much work in the last four or five days, even largely rewriting entire scripts, I am really not fazed with having nine days.  I’ve got the script at home for this: I know it will change and I have rewritten bits of it already.   It won’t be a nightmare like having to rewrite a television script in four days and then record it on a Friday.  So nine days is a luxury.

Can you describe Aladdin in three words?
I couldn’t do it.  No, wait that is four words.  Couldn’t do it.

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Aladdin will be playing at Richmond Theatre from Saturday 9th December to Sunday 14th  January.  Be sure not to miss it!

This interview was conducted on Monday, 6th November 2017 at The Richmond Theatre by Melissa Syversen.

Photography by Craig Sugden

 

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