Clever Silliness – An Interview with Panto Star Matt Slack at the Jack and the Beanstalk Rehearsals

DSCF3509

The opening night of the Birmingham Hippodrome panto draws near, and the stars are now kitted out with all their colourful costumes. With just one more sleep to go, Jack and the Beanstalk is looking amazing, a truly dazzling set having taken over the theatre’s main stage.

Earlier in the rehearsal process, I had chance to speak to actor and comedian Matt Slack, who is returning to the Hippodrome after taking up the role of Oddjob in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs last year. This year, he’ll playing Jack’s daft brother, Silly Billy, alongside his returning co-stars, Paul Zerdin (Simple Simon) and Gary Wilmot (Dame Trot).

You’re returning to the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime for the second year running. How is this year’s panto comparing to 2013’s?

I’m really thrilled to be back. It’s going to be difficult to follow last year’s because it was such a huge success. The response from the Birmingham audience was just incredible! It is the best in the country, and I’ve done a lot of these now. We set the bar really high so we’ve got a lot to live up to, but already in the rehearsals there’s a fantastic vibe and we can tell it’s going to be funny and spectacular!

DSCF3467It’s great to be back with Paul and Gary. Duncan James [Jack] and Jane McDonald [The Enchantress] are both brilliant to work with too. Jane’s never done it before but she’s a natural.

Normally it feels a bit daunting at the start, but in this case, I don’t have a bad word to say about anything. I’m going to be doing some new material – obviously you don’t want to repeat anything. But hopefully it will be all the same quality as last year.

Has it been fun reuniting with your co-stars from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

Yeah! Me and Paul are good mates anyway. I think it makes it more exciting to have all three of us together again, and it’s helped the rehearsals to move along a bit more quickly because we’ve already broken the ice and we know each other – there’s none of that “first day at school” kind of awkwardness.

Tell me about your character. Is it quite similar to last year’s?

Yeah, it’s been a funny old year for me, actually – I’ve played an array of characters on stage and TV, but I’ve ended up in a very similar role to the one I was in at the start of the year. Silly Billy is a lot like Oddjob: it’s basically just me being me – a bit stupid, a bit silly, but sort of clever at the same time. It’s a clever silliness. He’s a big, bold, funny character. I just hope the kids enjoy the performance as much as the adults. We want to get every generation there laughing. There’s nothing better than when someone comes up to you and says, “You made me laugh, and my kids, and my mum.”

Have you had chance to have a look at your full costume yet?

I’ve just tried it on. It’s brilliant! Something happens when you put the costume on – it just instantly puts you into “panto mode”. It’s almost the same as my costume last year except for the colours, which is good because it means I’m already comfortable working in it. All of the costumes are specially made, this being the biggest panto in the country. It’s quite imDSCF3517portant that they’re comfortable because the performances can be very physical, and because of the number of shows we do.

Have the rehearsals got you feeling festive and ready for Christmas?

Well, this panto starts so late that it will be very close to Christmas when we start performing. It doesn’t actually open till the 19th December. It can sometimes be hard to be in the Christmas spirit when you’re working so hard, but ultimately panto is Christmas for me, so yes, I am starting to feel festive.

Jack and the Beanstalk opens at the Birmingham Hippodrome tomorrow evening. To find out more and to book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website

Advertisements

“Like being in a giant wallet” – Chris Gascoyne gets into costume for the Jack and the Beanstalk Panto

Duncan James and Chris Gascoyne 2

With this year’s Hippodrome panto, Jack and the Beanstalk now just a month away, the cast are beginning to get to grips with their scripts and prepare for their parts in the show. Last week, I caught up with Coronation Street’s Chris Gascoyne – who plays the giant’s accomplice, Fleshcreep – to find out more about the show.

So how are things going with the panto so far?

Well, we haven’t started rehearsals yet. We start rehearsing in London in about two weeks’ time, and then we come to Birmingham. Normally rehearsals for a panto are only a week. It’s crazy really. When you see the size of it, all the costumes and the routines, you wonder how they’ve managed to do all that in a week, but it’s just because you have to, really.

Our director, Michael Harrison, is working on two pantos at once – I think the other one is in Southampton. We’re all rehearsing in the same building in London, so he’s running from one room to the other. I think it might be the same show, so maybe I’ll have a look next door and see how the other bloke’s doing it, once we start! [Michael] has written the script for this one as well, and it’s one of the best panto scripts I’ve ever read.

Tell me a bit about your character, because it’s not one that’s in the original story, is it?

The character that I play is called Fleshcreep, and he’s the giant’s “second-in-command”, so apart from the giant, he’s the baddie of the show. The giant himself will be mainly in 3D. About six years ago I did a pantomime in Cardiff and they used 3D in that and it was incredible! But apparently this is new technology and it’s supposed to be even more amazing. Maybe one day it’ll be so good that they won’t need actors any more!

So is it Fleshcreep who’s really in charge, or is the giant still the big boss?

No, the giant’s definitely in charge of me! Fleshcreep is his minion.

Do you know what the giant will look like?

I haven’t seen him yet. I won’t get to see the giant until the technical rehearsal.

So you’ll just have to use your imagination in the meantime, then?

Pretty much, yeah. I remember with the one that we did in Cardiff, I played Abanazar and I had to talk to the genie, but because it was in 3D, I couldn’t even see it on stage. So while everyone else had got their got their glasses on, I had to look at a certain point in the auditorium and talk to him. All I had to go on was a recorded voice, and if I was a second too early or a second too late with my lines, it just carried on anyway, so the timing was the most difficult part. Also if I forgot my lines, he’d just carry on speaking as if I’d said them!

Your character on Coronation Street has a reputation for being a bit of a “bad boy” too. Do you think it’s more interesting playing characters with a mean streak?

Yes, I think so! But I don’t think Peter is really a baddie – he just makes mistakes and makes bad choices, just like anybody. He’s not a bad person, and even if he gets himself into situations where it looks pretty bad, he’s not someone who would intentionally hurt anyone.

Chris-Gascoyne-Birm (2)Have you done a lot of pantomimes before? How does this compare to others you’ve been involved with?

This is my fourth panto, and it’s bigger than any of the others I’ve done. I’ve been pretty lucky really: apart from the first one, all the other pantos I’ve been involved in have been with Qdos, which is the biggest pantomime company, and this is their biggest show. Everyone tells me that the Birmingham audiences are great and the cast is great and I know the script is good, and there’ll be all the 3D and special effects so I’m really looking forward to it! But really, I’ve got no idea what to expect!

You haven’t started rehearsing with the other cast members yet, but have you had chance to meet many of them?

No, not really. I met Duncan James this morning for the press photos. It was quite funny, because I came up to his dressing room head to toe in black leather, and he said, “Oh hi – are you playing the baddie, then?” and I said, “Well, I’d guess.” So I’d just met him and then the next thing I know I’m trying to strangle him in the foyer for the pictures!

Was this your first time seeing the costume today as well?

No I’d seen that before for some other photos we did earlier, but I’ll slightly modify it, I think.

What’s it like to wear it? It doesn’t sound especially comfortable!

It’s very warm! It’s all leather, and it’s a little bit like being inside a giant wallet.

Obviously Fleshcreep is a completely new character. Can we expect to see anything else new or surprising in this version of the Jack in the Beanstalk story?

Based on the script, I think that without it completely moving away from the story, there are going to be lots of really brilliant, interesting surprises. But I don’t know that much yet, so I’m as intrigued as you are to see how it all comes together.

What do you have lined up next for when you’ve finished with all of this?

I don’t know yet. Hopefully I’m going to go and do a couple of plays, though I can’t say what they are yet because they haven’t been 100% confirmed. I’ll probably do a bit of TV and just carry on and see what happens. I think all you can hope for as an actor is that luck will keep smiling on you and you’ll keep on working.

Has being involved with the panto made you start feeling festive yet?

Yeah – it always makes you feel Christmassy. I think the best thing about doing a panto is when you’re performing on Christmas Eve and all the kids are so excited! It’s great to be a part of that. It’s not really that far away now and all the lights are up so I’m looking forward to Christmas.

Jack and the Beanstalk will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19 December until Sunday 1st February. Click here to read my interview with star of the show, Duncan James, or for more information and to book, visit the Hippodrome’s website.