Simon Sladen speaks to the cast of Jack and the Beanstalk at Fairfield Halls, Croydon.
This year Fairfield Halls, Croydon celebrates its 50th anniversary. The theatre complex, comprising the Ashcroft Theatre, Concert Hall and Arnhem Gallery has already enjoyed a number of celebratory events and is looking forward to rounding the year off with its pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, which, for the second year running, will be produced by Evolution Productions.
Sales figures for the theatre’s festive offering are the highest since records began, with audiences keen to re-live the successes of last year’s Aladdin which starred Larry Lamb as Abanazar. Returning to the venue by popular demand as Dame Trott, after giving his Widow Twankey in 2011, I ask Quinn Patrick what the secret is to Evolution Productions’s success?
“I think what’s good about them is they’re really keen to keep the tradition of panto,” he tells me, “which is really nice. They are really keen to make sure it’s fun, it’s lively. They’re moving with the modern, with what kids really want, but still keeping the tradition for the grown-ups.”
Patrick, who this year marks his half decade working for the company, is also keen to stress the importance of finding the right team. “Paul [Hendy, the Producer] completely takes time over his casting and he manages to put together, I think, really good teams of people,” a point reiterated by 7 foot 7 tall Neil Fingleton, who believes that the “secret of a good panto is the cast.”
Fingleton was a professional basketball player in the US before taking up acting and will play the Giant in this year’s production. “Acting was something I always wanted to get into,” he tells me before revealing that he has recently finished filming 47 Ronin with Keanu Reeves. Over the years, Fingleton has appeared in a number of pantomimes as the Giant, the Genie and Little John, but are there any other roles he’d like to play?
“I think the dwarf’s out,” he laughs. “It’s nice not to always play the Giant if you know what I mean? Not to be always type cast, to have some time away and return to it. Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be playing the Ugly Sister or something!”
Both Fingleton and Patrick are passionate about panto and Patrick explains that although he enjoys playing Dame, he’d like to give Buttons a try in the future. “It’s one of the panto roles that’s just brilliant,” he enthuses. “You get the pathos and the comedy and you get to interact with the kids, which you don’t get to do so much as the Dame. And it would be one frock, which would be nice! None of that running around like a crazy loon!”
Patrick will see his fair share of costume changes this year in Jack and the Beanstalk and I ask him if he has a favourite? “Yes,” he replies without hesitation, “Cotton ones! The ones that breath!” Costume is an important aspect in Dame creation and with there being so many ways to approach the role, I ask Patrick how he would describe his.
“I would very happily describe my Dame as what I perceive is the tradition of a man in a frock,” he says. “I am massively inspired by the old school, like Les Dawson and Terry Scott and those kinds of people.” But what about his look?
“I’m always inspired by Hattie Jacques,” he explains, “because Hattie always looked like the big version of what she was playing, whether it was a nurse or a Spanish senorita, she just looked like the big version of it and that was the comedy.”
Costume designers are just one of the many people required to stage a pantomime, with dressers also vital to ensure quick costume change success. As seasoned pantomime performer Patrick explains, “You have to work as a unit and when that happens the run suddenly becomes so amazing and so free because you’re going out and you’re getting the same show, every time, 52 times, for like five, six weeks, and you feel safe; you’re not having to worry about anything.” Spending so much time together over Christmas, it is often said pantomime casts are like little families.
Family is particularly important to Sid Sloane, the face of CBeebies, who takes on the role of Jack Trott. He strongly believes pantomime is a “very special occasion for getting together with family and meeting up with people who you haven’t seen for a while or maybe all year.” It brings communities together and gives them the opportunity to let their hair down and celebrate. Having appeared as Genie, Robin Hood and Jangles the Jester previously, he’s looking forward to playing a “fun and funny” Principal Boy, although admits he’s secretly yearning to play Villain one day.
Whilst younger audience members will be keen to hear whether Sloan cracks out the Number Rap as Jack counts his magic beans, older audience members are no doubt looking forward to seeing Laila Morse, aka EastEnders’ Big Mo, waving her magic wand as the production’s Fairy.
This will be Morse’s first pantomime and I ask her whether she is looking forward to the season ahead?
“I’m excited about seeing the fans. I hope I don’t go ‘Oh my God’ run on and run off again!” she jokes. “I’m looking forward to entertaining them in a different way to which I do in EastEnders because although I look after everyone, she’s [referring to her character Mo] a bit of a wheeler and dealer. She likes to have a row.”
So what will Morse’s Fairy be like? I remind her that on Come Dine With Me she said, “If someone steps out of line I'll have to put 'em in their place.” Might her feisty Fairy take the same line? “I dare say she would,” she laughs, before continuing, “I’d like her to be nice, caring, grant people their wishes and be just absolutely funny.”
Morse reveals that she has received plenty of pre-panto support from her EastEnders colleagues, many of whom are experienced pantomime performers themselves. “They’ve all turned round and told me it’s absolutely brilliant. Good fun. Hard work,” she reports. Have they given her any advice? “Learn your lines and you’ll be alright!” she laughs. “I want there to be fun, laughter and everyone having a flipping good time enjoying themselves!”
And with that as the cast’s motto, Jack and the Beanstalk looks set to be a lot of fun indeed.
‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ plays at the Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Croydon from 7th December 2012 – 6th Janurary 2013.