In the first of two interviews with the stars of York Theatre Royal panto Robin Hood And His Merry Mam!, Sian Howard reveals all about working with the show’s legendary creator and dame Berwick Kaler – and recalls how she went for a burton on stage last year…
How long have you been involved in panto?
I’ve done previous! My first panto was Jack And The Beanstalk about 26 years ago. I came back six years ago, and been doing them for the last six years with a couple of breaks in between.
Does it help that you all know each other?
If it all gels together then it’s easier for Berwick, who has to write the following year’s show, to write with that gelled family in mind.
How does Robin Hood And His Merry Mam compare to previous pantos?
I think it’s really well written and I think it’s funny. I always think Berwick’s writing is funny, but I laughed more when I read it this year. Rehearsals have been quite hysterical. Apart from being very clear and knowledgable Berwick’s also a great scream in rehearsal.
What’s your character like this year?
People ask me that and I don’t know what to say. I kind of go, it’s sort of me, really. Which is perhaps a bit of a truism really, because Berwick does like you to be yourself – an extension of yourself. To answer your question I’m playing Lady Hamalot. She owns the Castle of Hamalot, where the panto is taking place.
She used to be very big in the local amateur dramatic society, so she’s quite grand and fancies herself as a bit of an actor. So me really – as I said! Usually what happens is I’m somebody else in Act II. He’s written me a part where I’m her eighth cousin twice removed and then returned.
Tell us about the costumes.
Ah the costumes – they are amazing this year. A lot of commercial pantomimes around us, they would have costumes maybe that were worn the year before, or were recycled in some way. And we have these completely designed and made from scratch for us.
Have you had any mid-panto disasters?
Where do you start? I managed to fall over last year. In the middle of the song at the end of the pantomime before Berwick comes in, we do a little dance routine. I stepped back onto my frock and I literally landed right on my bottom in the middle of this dance. It did hurt.
The thing about it was, David Leonard just looked down at me and laughed. He wasn’t the gentleman, he didn’t help me up. And then it was hysterical.
Is it chaos backstage?
There’s always little pockets backstage of people desperately putting on their next costume, particularly the dancers ensemble. There’s a lot of quick changes. I’ve got a lot of quick changes this year. You don’t want to get in anyone’s way.
Who does the panto appeal to?
What I think is amazing is, obviously this panto is for the people who come back and come back, then they bring children who grow up with it. But you can also have friends that come who have never seen a York pantomime and they don’t feel excluded. That’s a tribute to Berwick because he doesn’t exclude anybody. He lets you all in.
It’s a long run – is that tough on the actors?
You have to take care of yourself. When you’re doing a play you are recreating every night, you are making it fresh every night. It’s exactly the same with the pantomime.
But there’s another layer to it, when things slightly go off the plot a little bit and we’re following Berwick. That too has to be fresh minted every performance. It’s as if it’s the first time it’s happened, whatever it might be.
Why is it so popular?
Berwick does push the boundaries every year. You could sit back on your laurels and go, we’ve got this panto now, we can do this. But he never does. He’s always fighting for something fresh that has never been seen.
The other character in it is the audience. We can rehearse until we’re blue in the face. But until that other character, the audience, comes in, it’s very hard to predict what will happen.