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Bernie the baddie battles Beauty at Eastbourne

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Following last year’s triumphant and record breaking production of Robin Hood will be a major challenge for Chris Jordan and the team at the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne, but they are convinced that they can do it with their new production of The Sleeping Beauty.

Over the last ten years the creative team have earned a reputation for delivering traditional pantomimes, with a little extra magic, and this year should be no different. Some of the regular cast members, like Martyn Knight who plays Dame for the ninth consecutive year, will be making a welcome return and they will be joined by some new faces.

Sasha Wareham, who has spent the last four years working as a lead singer and dancer on cruise ships all around the world, will be making her Eastbourne debut playing Princess Belle. Performing since the tender age of three, and in more pantomimes than she can successfully name, Wareham trained at Laine Theatre Arts before going on to appear, as an adult, in Aladdin and Cinderella.

At the launch of the pantomime she explained how thrilled she is to be taking the title role in the pantomime and she performed one of the songs from the show to give the guests a faultless demonstration of her fantastic voice.

Dame Nellie Night Nurse will be the creation of Knight, Eastbourne’s superbly talented Dame. As well as dancing around in a vast array of fantastic frocks every Christmas, he has also worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, from Dickie Henderson and Lionel Blair through to Patsy Kensit and Susanna York.

He has also appeared in many West End productions and I asked him: “When you have done so much stage work, what’s so special about pantomime”?. He replied: “You know, I think there is a spirit of pantomime that somehow pulls everyone together. Even under the most adverse timing schedule – I mean we usually only get about a week of rehearsals to learn all the dialogue, the songs, the dance routines and everything else.

“Then, maybe, we get three days in the theatre before we open to the public, so it has to be a combined effort by the whole cast to make it happen in time and that family spirit, together with it being at that very special time of year, is what makes doing pantomime so very special”.

“Do you get brand new frocks this year? “ I asked. “Oh yes, they are all totally new this year. They are being designed for me by Shelley, our fabulous costume designer, and they will be made by her and her team right here in Eastbourne. I think, this year, they are going to be bigger and better than ever and maybe with a few surprises. At the start of the second half I have the most brilliant strip costume that takes me the whole of the interval to get in to it – but just a few minutes to get it all off again”!

Of course, every pantomime needs a baddie and the wicked villainess in The Sleeping Beauty is the evil Carabosse, who will be played by none other than Bernie Nolan. Still touring the country as Mama Morton in Chicago, Nolan will be leaving that production early to show the Eastbourne audience just how mean she can be to Princess Belle.

I asked her: “What do you enjoy most about appearing in pantomime?” The reply was: “It’s such fun. You can have so much fun with the audience, and you can 'ad lib' and interact with them. Not so much when you’re a 'goodie' but when you’re playing a 'baddie', you can tell the kids to shut up and all sorts like that – and I love comedy too.

“Even though I am the 'baddie', I can add a bit of comedy into it so it’s great. One of my sisters really hates playing the 'baddie', she can’t stand it, but I love it. With my personality it’s playing a 'goodie' that’s a challenge – believe me. Singing loud, talking loud, being forceful – it’s much more me!”

"It is bloody hard work, Panto is the hardest work any actor will ever do. You get these other actors who take the micky and say, 'Oh God, panto, I’d never do that' – they probably couldn’t handle it. A lot of people wouldn’t have the ability to do it. You need so much strength in your voice, and stamina, because it takes a lot out of you.

“Pantomime is often the first experience of theatre for a lot of children”, I commented. Nolan agreed. “Yes, that’s what’s great about it as well; I love that side of it. Lots of kids coming and seeing the beautiful theatre, watching an all-singing, all-dancing, really colourful show and, having seen the panto, maybe they will want to be in it. Sasha, the girl who is playing Princess Belle, was saying to me that she’s done panto since she was a little child and that is probably why she’s in the business. It’s so great from that point of view.

“Of couse, it’s a different style of acting to anything else and that, in itself, is difficult. A lot of TV actors come to do pantomime and they are rubbish because TV acting is so small, everything’s tiny whereas with panto everything has to be over-the-top. I’ve dome panto with lots of fantastic people over the years, but I’ve also worked with some terrible – not mentioning any names – people as well.

“They just couldn’t grasp it and they end up hating it. I said to one, “You need to be bigger, big arms, big gesticulations, big voice” and he just couldn’t do it. You need to be able to adapt to the style. A lot of TV actors get offered pantomime work because they are famous, because TV gives you a massive profile, and, of course, I’ve done panto with TV actors who have been brilliant but, it is very different to that. You have to interact with the audience. If someone shouts something up you have to react.

“I was doing a performance of Chicago recently and there’s a quiet scene in it. There is a big long silence in it and then I say, 'Well, there you go'. We were in Scotland and just before I spoke someone shouted, 'Go on Bernie, go for it!' Of course, you can’t react because you’re in character, but, because I am so used to doing panto, I so wanted to shout back; 'I’m doing me best, gimme a chance!'

“Have you performed very much in Eastbourne?” was my next question. “Oh my God, yes. I think the first time was in 1978, with Ronnie Corbett. I did the summer show with my sisters and Janet Brown. I’ve done Flashdance here, Blood Brothers in 1998, Mum’s the Word at Devonshire Park and, most recently, Chicago at the Congress Theatre.

“I’ve always had such a lovely time here. My friend has a flat here so, when I was here with Chicago I rented that from her so my husband and daughter could join me and we had a lovely week here doing all the touristy things".

Plans for a Nolan Sisters 40th anniversary tour in 2013 are already in hand. “Yes, once I’ve finished doing the panto and we’re all very excited about that. We’re going to try and do it in a more intimate way this time. We might even do a bit, I’m not sure yet as we haven’t discussed it, but a bit where we maybe take questions and get to talk to people a bit more.

I loved the last tour, doing all the arenas. It’s probably the best tour we’ve ever done, even going back to our heyday. It was just incredible and beyond our wildest dreams, we weren’t even sure that anyone would bother to come but, as it happens, we ended up adding extra dates and selling out all over the place”.

The Sleeping Beauty can be seen at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne from 13 December to 13 January. 


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