John, you had a brilliant academic start having won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music and being awarded the Founder's Prize for Excellence plus the Paul Simms Opera Prize. What was your journey from graduation to playing panto dames?
I founded CCO while still at college, so the company was already making a start in life, and we staged our first pantomime in 2007, the Christmas after I’d graduated. I played one of the ugly sisters.
What’s King Tut got to do with panto?
… Nothing. But then neither did Billy the kid a few years ago, until we got hold of him and put him in a panto story. The Egyptian aesthetic this year gives us so much to play with - Pharaohs, pyramids, hieroglyphs, mummies…. and of course, there’s lots of gold and glitter flying around. I’m already going home with it all over my face.
Being Sheffield born is there something you bring from your own county that you think feeds into your scripts?
I have always had a penchant for the Dame role, having grown up around a wonderful Dame in my local panto in Sheffield, Brian Platts. He was a master at knowing how to speak to an audience - a true raconteur - and I learned a lot watching him work his magic. When I do play the Dame (which isn’t every year) I’m told it’s got some of him it … and quite a lot of my mother.
Your past playscripts for panto have used wordplay to hilarious effect, but also props and pop ups, the ridiculous and the element of surprise as well as slapstick. Where do all your ideas come from?
The musical director David Eaton and I spend about 2 months discussing ideas, story boarding, finding things that interest us, and then we bring the designer into the discussion for a reaction, and to discuss how we realise our ideas. We often find ourselves saying “if this were a film, this is what we’d do…” so we can get a really strong visual picture. We then go our separate ways for a while, so I can pen the script, David can work on the music, and the designer can pull some visuals together. It’s all about brainstorming, collaboration and not being afraid of change in the rehearsal room.
This year you’re sharing the role of evil Lord Conniving with Matthew Kellett. How do you both get into character?
Yes - Matt’s getting married later in December, and I’m rehearsing a new production of Un Ballo in Maschera with Opera North. We’re quite different, Matt and I, but we work together to pull our interpretations together in a way that still works for us both. Last year, we had lots of fun playing around with El Tabasco in Pinocchio.
We’ve had the pleasure of hearing you sing, do you have to modify it when playing panto?
Not at all. In this panto, it’s all about using everyone’s skills to the fullest, and bending those skills to lots of different styles.
How do you keep your voice in tip top condition?
It’s important for any singer - operatic or otherwise - to warm up before a show, stay hydrated and get plenty of rest when you can. If you were a runner, you couldn’t do that without a physical warm up, and you couldn’t do it all day. Singing is a very physical activity, and you have to look after the whole body.
You’ve been described by the Daily Express as one of the “finest G&S actor/directors of the present day”. Has that been a good training ground for directing panto?
Gilbert wrote a lot of pantomime and burlesque himself, and there are elements of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ in his comic operas - not necessarily directly - but there is a … shall we say … ’music hall’ aspect to those pieces; the audience has to feel like they are in on it, they have a part to play in the comedy. Panto is more direct - the audience are truly a character, but G&S is certainly partially related.
What do you ask people to do in your auditions, fall around a bit, act, sing, show their ability for comic timing?
We ask our auditionees to bring as wide a repertoire as possible, so that we can get to know what they can do / what they can bring to the show. We love being able to employ people’s individual skills as much as possible, it makes for a really varied show. We also ask them to bring something to say and that can be anything that they like, as we’ll play around with it in the room. One year, one singer gave us an RP spoken rendition of the title song to The Fresh Prince of Belair. We hired her.
Are they usually opera singers or do they also come from other disciplines?
Any discipline goes in our panto.
Finally, what’s your favourite bit in the show?
I don’t think I want to spoil the surprise - but you may want to bring a tissue!
KING TUT: A PYRAMID PANTO
24 Nov 2017 - 6 Jan 2018 Performance times vary
(Young Children’s Matinees 2, 3, 9 & 31 Dec)
KING’S HEAD THEATRE
115 Upper Street,
How to get there:
The nearest underground stations are Angel (on the Bank branch of the Northern line) and Highborn & Islington (on the Victoria and London Overground lines). The nearest rail station is Kings Cross St Pancras.
A now legendary part of North London’s Christmas, Charles Court Opera’s seasonal are always cheeky, topsy-turvy retellings of myths, legends and fairytales. This year CCO head for the Valley of the Kings and sprinkle their madcap magic across a LUXORiously entertaining, jaw-droppingly hilarious show with a show full of bling-tastic pharaohs, sand dancing, mystery, intrigue and lots of fun, plus some incredible musical arrangements that will keep your toes tapping well into the new year. Don’t be in denial - it’s only a river in Egypt!
" ... the audience has to feel like they are in on it, they have a part to play in the comedy"
"When I do play the Dame (which isn’t every year) I’m told it’s got some of him it … and quite a lot of my mother"