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Trapdoors, boobs & beans: the life of a panto dame

PUBLISHED: 16:18 11 December 2017

Paul Laidlaw gets into character at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

Paul Laidlaw gets into character at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage

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Paul Laidlaw has entertained audiences for decades with his comic antics as the pantomime dame at Gordon Craig Theatre’s annual Christmas spectacle. Julie Lucas caught up with him ahead of his latest role in Jack and the Beanstalk

Paul Laidlaw as Dame Trott in Jack and the BeanstalkPaul Laidlaw as Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk

How did you become involved in the theatre?

I began as a child actor on television. Then I went to university and joined the rep at York Theatre Royal after I graduated, where I learned my craft. I then joined the National Theatre and began combining acting with directing and work as a musical director.

You’ve been playing the dame for an amazing 31 years in Stevenage panto, what keeps you coming back to the role?

It’s the immediate rapport with the audience. No other branch of the theatre allows that unique ability to talk directly to the audience and involve them. It’s even more evident for the dame and the comic in the show because so much of what we do involves audience reaction.

The gordon craig is known for its big production, how much preparation is needed?

We start rehearsals about 10 days before we open. It’s very intensive. In reality we’re putting on a major musical plus all the pantomime elements and technical wizardry in less time than most casts have to work on a single play.

What’s your favourite panto?

As a director, probably Cinderella as it contains all the elements of a good panto and has magic and a great story as well. But as a dame, Mother Goose is my favourite part – a great acting role with both comedy and pathos.

What sticks out (panto innuendo alert) from past shows?

There are too many to list! I must be the only person to miss Barbara Windsor’s boobs with my balloon during the balloon ballet sketch! Then there was flying through the magic fountains as Mother Goose and getting soaked through twice a day. I once got stuck in a trap door when the lifting gear failed and had to play a whole scene as a legless torso talking to Aladdin’s ankles.

What do you do after you hang up the big wig and bloomers each year?

I’m musical director of the legendary Scarborough Spa Orchestra so for 15 weeks each summer I’m giving over a hundred concerts with them. I also usually manage to direct a couple of shows in the spring and autumn and then it’s back to panto for 10 weeks in the winter. It’s all go!

Paul Laidlaw stars as Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage from December 1 to January 28.

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