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The stars of Sleeping Beauty look forward to the pantomime season at the Theatre Royal Bath
As the Theatre Royal Bath gets ready for another fabulous family pantomime, its star Neil McDermott promises: "It's the classic story of Sleeping Beauty with our own sense of fun and mischief added. It's great to be able to get families into the theatre at Christmas where they can have a brilliant time, shout out and laugh as loud as they like. I think it's a really magical way to get into the Christmas spirit."
The father of two, whose previous pantomime credits include Aladdin in London and Cinderella in Hull, adds: "I've got a young family myself, so every time I'm doing panto it means my kids come and watch me and I feel really Christmassy."
Best known to TV audiences for playing bad boy Ryan Malloy in EastEnders since 2009 and Dr. Ralph Ellis across three seasons of The Royal, Neil is thrilled to be back in Bath after he appeared at the Theatre Royal in February for the nationwide tour of Laura Wade's comedy Home, I'm Darling. "It's such a beautiful theatre where so many greats have performed. It is well-supported by loyal audiences and of course Bath itself is beautiful. It's a really nice place to spend time in and I'm especially excited about being back over the festive season."
Neil's other screen credits include Doctor Who, Inspector George Gently, Kiss of Death and Rosemary & Thyme and in the West End he has starred in Pretty Woman, The Sound of Music, Shrek The Musical, Follies, La Cage aux Folles and Henry IV. In Sleeping Beauty he plays the dashing Prince Vincent, whom he describes as: "A little bit vain and arrogant in a comedy way. He thinks he's a lot smarter than he actually is but his heart is in the right place."
What does the actor hope audiences take away from seeing the show? "I just hope that we can really make their Christmas a magical experience, with us mucking around on stage, making them laugh and keeping them entertained for a couple of hours."
This enchanting, enthralling, laugh-a-minute extravaganza runs at the Theatre Royal from 7th December to 7th January. Joining McDermott on stage are panto legend Jon Monie as Lester the Jester, EastEnders actor and panto stalwart Nick Wilton as Dame Nanny Nora, Hollyoaks actress Sarah Jane Buckley as Fairy Snowfall and rising star Maisie Sellwood as Princess Rose.
With Monie again taking on writing duties, Sleeping Beauty is a new spin on one of the most beloved seasonal stories of all time. His script tells the magical tale of a beautiful Princess who is cursed by an evil spell on her 18th birthday party and who can only be awoken from her slumber by true love’s kiss. As Fairy Snowfall works with her friends to lift the curse and break the spell, theatregoers can expect plenty of amusement in a thrilling quest for a happy ending.
The show is being staged by UK Productions, with the company's Artistic Producer Damian Sandys pledging: "Audiences can expect a whole lot of fun and a massive sense of adventure. It's a cracking story. You've got the brilliantly evil witch Carabosse [Emma Norman] pitted against the good Fairy Snowfall. Add a really modern and feisty heroine and a wonderfully charming prince and you've got all the classic elements of pantomime along with fantastic costumes, brilliant sets and a lot of comedy."
There are special effects and a mixture of contemporary music and older tunes. "So there's something in there for everyone," Damian feels. "There's so much negativity in the world at the moment and so many problems, so it's lovely to be able to immerse yourself in something funny, entertaining and colourful that has a great moral tale at the heart of it."
The show follows last year's smash hit Aladdin at a venue that has been staging pantos for more than 200 years. In November 1815, ten years after the Theatre Royal opened, the famous entertainer Joseph Grimaldi played the clown in Mother Goose. When Reg Maddox took over management of the theatre in 1937 for a four-decade tenure, he and his family really put Bath on the panto map and it’s been an annual tradition ever since.
Jon Monie has been an integral part of the city's panto season for more than two decades. He has a record-breaking 1,100-plus performances under his belt and this year he's back by popular demand for his 21st Christmas show at the Theatre Royal.
The story of Sleeping Beauty, Jon feels, is "a fantastic balance of adventure and romance" that offers: "A lot of special effects, a lot of flying, slapstick routines, some new comedy routines and topical references as well. It's been given a really thorough lick of paint but still retains those traditional values. It ticks a lot of boxes."
Despite his illustrious panto career, this is only the second time Monie has tackled Sleeping Beauty. "That was a good 13 years ago, so I'm really quite excited about getting the chance to do it again. Over the last few years that I've been writing the scripts I've tried to make the principal girl a lot feistier and it's great to be doing the same with Princess Rose. In the past the principal girls were maybe a little bit underwritten and their happy endings were very much dependent on other people. I've tried to make them more involved in the action and so this Princess Rose gets to fight dragons and is in control of her own destiny."
Asked about his own character, Jon laughs: "Oh, he's an idiot but he means well. Dame Nanny Nora is Princess Rose's nanny and I'm Nora's son and the court jester, so it's my job to keep everybody entertained. And I've grown up with Princess Rose, so we're the best of friends and I do what I can to help her achieve her dreams."
Monie's television credits include The Nevers, Moominvalley, The Outlaws and Showtrial. He is also a long-standing member of improvisational comedy group Instant Wit and recently entertained audiences at the Ustinov Studio on their current tour. But panto remains his first love. "I genuinely love it," he gushes. "I don't think you could do it if you didn't love it actually, because it is quite a demanding schedule - doing two shows a day, six days a week, for four or five weeks. It's a slog, but it's a fun slog. And it's just a joyful thing to be a part of people's Christmas traditions."
Nick Wilton agrees. "Panto is an essential part of the festive season, where you come to see a good story that works for the whole family," says the man who has been playing the iconic Dame since 2000 across the UK. "There's comedy, some modern songs and some older songs with rewritten comedy lyrics. And there's a beginning, a middle and an end where good conquers evil."
Wilton has been a series regular as Market Inspector Mr. Lister on EastEnders since 2008 and has also appeared in Carrott’s Lib, Heartbeat, Doc Martin, The Bill and the children’s show Big Meg, Little Meg. Having previously delighted Bath pantogoers in last year's Aladdin as well as in Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Jack and the Beanstalk, he's back this year as Dame Nanny Nora.
"She's a woman of a certain age," Nick elaborates, "who's been around the block a few times. And it's always a joy to play the Dame. I started off writing. I used to write sketches and do revues, so what I really like are the comedy routines as well as the touching, quieter moments. You have all the chaos and the madness, then there are a couple of scenes where it's just the Dame and Rose where you can tell Nanny Nora really cares about her."
"It's the classic story of Sleeping Beauty with our own sense of fun and mischief added. It's great to be able to get families into the theatre at Christmas where they can have a brilliant time, shout out and laugh as loud as they like. I think it's a really magical way to get into the Christmas spirit."
He's drawn back to the Theatre Royal time and again because: "It is the perfect place to do a panto and the perfect size. The show is like a picture box that's beautifully framed on the stage. It really draws you into the story. And the audience is such a nice mix. We get a lot of older theatregoers bringing their grandchildren along but over the last couple of years I've seen older teenagers coming in as well. Jon writes some very good grown-up stuff that he slips in and I think they enjoy that."
Sarah Jane Buckley has played the Fairy in many pantos over the years and says of Fairy Snowfall: "I love her because she's got guts, she fights her corner and she says her piece, but she also has a big heart and is such a fun and magical character."
Best known as Kathy Barnes on Hollyoaks, Sarah Jane's many stage credits include Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Slice of Saturday Night, Calendar Girls: The Musical and Blood Brothers. The latter two shows toured to the Theatre Royal and she's a big fan, saying: "It's a beautiful theatre in a beautiful area with the most gorgeous warm feeling. It's like a warm hug when you go into it."
With numerous pantomimes on her CV, she's especially fond of seasonal shows. "Panto is a collective experience where you've got kids and grandmas and dads and mums and families and friends. You've got that lovely sense of warmth and character and caring, and the audience participation is just magical."
Buckley relishes the challenge of playing a character "who tends to carry a lot of the story" and adds: "When I'm doing a straight play or if I'm doing any television it's a completely different type of animal. Here you have to get the kids to believe in it but also make sure the adults have a great time." She laughs. "A big physical challenge is carrying the wings on my back but I love doing panto. It's an institution that's so particular to our country. We're really lucky to have it and we should cherish it."
Maisie Sellwood is making her Theatre Royal debut as Princess Rose and says: "My extended family live in Bath and I've grown up coming here a lot, especially over Christmas. I'm so excited to be somewhere that's so special to me."
A graduate of the BRIT School and the London School of Musical Theatre, Maisie performed at Eurovision - Your Decision in Liverpool and was lead vocalist with MV Piano Land on a cruise of Asia.
Having also appeared in Sleeping Beauty in Blackpool last Christmas, she echoes Jon Monie by describing Princess Rose in this version as a feisty young heroine for our times. "She's got a bit more about her. She's a little bit more street-smart but she's also still this sweet, loving character that everybody knows and adores." Can Maisie relate to her at all? She grins. "Definitely the feisty bit. Not so sure about the sweet bit."
Does she see the Princess as a role model for young girls in the audience? "I do, yes. She's not only kind, she has such a lovely relationship with her best friend Lester the Jester. And she stands up for what she believes in. She makes sure that she's heard and that she's got a voice. It's a lovely role to play and panto is a lovely job as an actor because the main objective is to make sure everybody has fun."
Maisie smiles again. "You need stamina to do two shows a day but it's worth it to see how happy the audience is. They get to leave all their worries and problems outside as they're taken to this magical land for two hours of fantastic entertainment."
The pantomime Sleeping Beauty appears at the Theatre Royal Bath from Thursday 7th December to Sunday 7th January. Tickets are on sale at the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 and online at www.theatreroyal.org.uk