When I first came to the Millfield, I had done pantomimes before, but I had only once played a prince. I don’t often play conventional romantic leads, so the quirkier character roles in pantomime have always felt a more natural fit. I also like the challenge of improvising around what audiences throw at you (not literally, one hopes), so roles that combine comedy and villainy, and who can sneak jokes under the radar, appeal to me! The first role I played at the Millfield was dame in Beauty and the Beast, and it helped that the show was set in France! I’m a magpie, in that I borrow bits of other characters I like, and glue them together, so I took the corncrake vocals and over-the-top accent of Madame Edith in ‘Allo ‘Allo, added Carol Channing eccentricity, and some Fenella Fielding smolder!
The next year, I played the villain instead, in Mother Goose, as the theater needed an actor who could simultaneously operate a puppet henchman, since the Demon King carried a pet spider. The biggest difference as villain is that many of your scenes are solo, front-cloth scenes, counterpoints to the ensemble scenes. The other character in them is really the audience, as they’re the ones who interact most with you, and their responses are really the other half of your scenes. Villains have to galvanize the plot by threatening the other characters’ happiness, but it’s a balance between being wicked and funny, and nefarious, but ineffectual! I like giving my villains an air of slight ennui, as if they are trapped in this silly, carnival world, but are powerless to do anything about it! My favorite humor involves wordplay, playing with tropes, and breaking the fourth wall, whether that’s 30 Rock, or Will Self, Cole Porter, or Carry On!, so I add some of those things into my villains.
Because of the exaggerated, storybook nature of the villains, I like to start with a definite vocal and physical quality. My Fleshcreep, for example, walked very idiosyncratically, being led by his nose; my King Rat twitched and scratched, as I imagined his being flea-ridden (hence his bad temper). Vocally, he had a Jerry Stiller Brooklyn twang amongst the Cockney cast (which I chose as a nod to Disney, where the villain is usually British in contrast to an American cast); my Ugly Sister used Joan Sims’ vocal tic of an affectedly posh voice (with aspirated ‘h’s); Fleshcreep was a Kobold (a German sprite), which allowed me to pepper his aggressively accented dialogue with outbursts in German; for my Wicked Witch in Beauty and the Beast I have stolen some of Edith Piaf’s nasal French accent!
I’ve played a lot of characters who identify as female, and for me their gender makes no difference, in the same way that I’ve played characters of, say, nationalities and ages different to my own. That said, pantomime has a long history, with conventions and expectations. A very traditional dame can afford to undercut the illusion of femininity, acknowledging she’s a man parodying the traditional maternal role. An Ugly Sister thinks she is a glamorous female stereotype, whilst (traditionally) being a parody of cosmetic excess. But for both of my female villains I’ve played ‘straight’, as it were. Their voices might be in the Lauren Bacall register, but I actually try to emphasize their femininity: Carabosse was essentially a statuesque Bond villain; her accent even came from Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye! My Wicked Witch consciously plays with conventional tropes of being preening, pouting and pettish. I don’t send them up as being men-in-drag, even though elements of the Witch’s aesthetic would not look out of place on Drag Race. When she ends up with Gaston, the joke for me is that he’s ended up with this rather egocentric virago who is going to make his life a living misery by being as incredibly high maintenance as he clearly is, rather than laughing at Gaston because he’s ended up with a dude in a frock!
Personally, pantomime means a lot to me. I wasn’t brought up on it, as it wasn’t a major tradition for us, but I’ve found an incredibly powerful magic in this odd gumbo of elements that really shouldn’t really work at all, but somehow does! Music, dance and stories work magic in themselves; combine that with a time of year when people come together, and which still carries a lot of old magic from deep-rooted traditions (Chanukah, Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Kwanzaa) and it’s very potent. For me to be able to be part of people’s yearly celebration, and to make them laugh, or feel included, or transported, is an extraordinary feeling. There’s a lot of current debate about the relevance of pantomime today, as cultures change seismically all around us. Pantomime is one of our few remaining theatrical traditions, often a child’s first experience of theater, as well as one of the few times some children (and adults) go to the theater in the year, and the thing that keeps many of our amazing regional theaters solvent year-round, so it’s without a doubt worth preserving! But we should be able play with the form, and change the rules, just as we’ve done with Shakespeare over the years. It makes the storytelling even more interesting and diverse, and if we do that with pantomime, it could last forever!
Alex’s most recent pantomime roles have been at the Millfield Theatre, in north London. Starting as the dame, Madame Fifi in Beauty and the Beast in 2011, he went on to play The Demon King in Mother Goose, King Rat in Dick Whittington, Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty, Ronnie Hardup, one of the Ugly Sisters, in Cinderella, Abanazar in Aladdin, Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk, and in 2018 is appearing once more in Beauty and the Beast, though this time as the Wicked Witch. Alex’s theater credits include several seasons at Pitlochry Festival Theatre (which has also been wonderful for his hobby of Munro-bagging). There he has appeared as Mary Sunshine in Chicago, James Joyce in Travesties, Lieutenant Spicer in Quality Street, Dexter Haven in High Society, Sidney in Absurd Person Singular, Bevan in People, various roles in The Ruling Class, Guy in A Chorus of Disapproval, Lord Windermere in Lady Windermere’s Fan and various roles in Hello, Dolly! His other credits include Hugh Paddick in Round The Horne (Apollo Theatre); The Shakespeare Revue, (UK Tour); Stiles and Drewe’s The Three Little Pigs (UK Tour); Blood Brothers (Phoenix); Flahooley! and Mexican Hayride (Sadler’s Wells); Enjoy! (York Theatre Royal); A Capital Affair (Vienna’s English Theatre); Doctor Faustus (Creation, Oxford); Pool (Brockley Jack); The Tempest (Winchester Theatre Royal); Alice in Wonderland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Guildford Shakespeare Company); The Way To Keep Him (Artifice). His German-language credits include Was Ihr Wollt and Romeo und Julia (Openhouse, Vienna). As a puppeteer he worked on Midnight (Peacock, London); and Monstersaurus (UK Tour) and has toured the USA with The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Room On The Broom and Pigeon Party! Alex originally studied English at Jesus College, Oxford, and he still works as a proof-reader and translator, for everyone from Volkswagen to the University of Bern. He speaks German, and his translation work for the stage includes Der Grüffelo for Junges Theater, Bonn. In his spare time, he’s a Munro bagger and nature enthusiast.