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Sharon D Clarke: 'We were all rooting for Rufus'

As she stars in Puss in Boots at Hackney Empire, Sharon D Clarke reflects on a successful few years, encompassing the West End run of Ghost and Rufus Norris' acclaimed revival of The Amen Corner at the National

Allyson Ava Brown, Sharon D Clarke and Josefina Gabrielle in Puss in Boots
© Francis Loney

What can we expect from Puss in Boots?

You can expect the usual Hackney Empire extravaganza! Susie [McKenna] does panto with a modern twist, always very multicultural, and she usually sets it in Hackney so there are lots of local references and colloquialisms. She's very into making sure the little ones have a good time as well, so there's never any blueness and she never kills anyone, she doesn't believe in that. Even if in the fairytales someone dies she won't kill me them on stage.

Tell us about Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha

She's not from Hackney, she's from up west so she's a posh bint. And she's actually a duchess who's made herself a queen. She's quite scary, though she's not the evil baddie. We've got two baddies this year, the immortal baddie and the mortal baddie, and I play the mortal baddie. The evil baddie is called Evilena [played by Josefina Gabrielle] - the little ones know exactly where they are with a name like that!

Are you missing Clive Rowe this year?

Clive has been part of the Hackney family for years, but he's doing The Light Princess this year. But there's a big pool of Hackney people that Susie can choose from, so the Dame we have this year Stephen Matthews who's worked with Susie on several Christmas shows. So there's always people that you pull in and pull out, but also for Clive as a Dame it is quite tiring so it's good that he gets a year off. So of course we miss Clive as a company member, but within the story no.

Is it true you married Susie on stage?

It is. About five years ago we got married on stage at the Hackney Empire. It was fantastic, absolutely brilliant. Our wedding guests sat on stage looking out on the auditorium which was beautifully lit. It's a fully licensed venue, though we're the only people who've got married there so far. So it's there and available for anyone who wants it, spread the word!

Do you think panto is more important during times of hardship?

I do, and at Hackney especially because the prices are so good you can afford to bring the whole family. For a lot of kids, pantomoime is their first experience of theatre so the earlier that you can get them in, understanding what theatre is for everyone and not just an elitist art form for the rich.

Did you experience panto when you were a kid?

I started young, about six years old, and I didn't just got to pantos I was in them! One of my first major roles was playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella when I was about 12. I loved being able to interact with the audience and that they could shout back and be part of the action - that's something I still love today.

Jacqueline Boatswain and Sharon D Clarke in The Amen Corner

You recently starred in Ghost - do you have fond memories of that production?

I just loved it! I remember getting the script for the audition and thinking 'I so want to do this'. That character, the fake psychic, was such a joy, and I remember watching the film 15 years ago and howling with laughter. Working with Matthew [Warchus], Caissie [Levy] and Richard [Fleeshman] was just such a privilege. It was a great company, and watching what happens backstage was fascinating. It was like an expertly choreographed ballet backstage. People are used to seeing the face of a West End show, but not many get to see the frenzy backstage.

And since then you've starred in a revival of The Amen Corner at the National

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed that. I remember seeing it at the Tricycle in 1987 going maybe five or six times. At that point there wasn't anything else with as much depth that was written for women, and particularly for black women, in theatre. So to be representing it on the Olivier stage and to see such a mixed audience in the auditorium every night was just phenomenal. We had such a fantastic time as a company - we'd eat together, chat and sing. It was a joy. Every cliché that people think of as theatrical was there, and we just enjoyed ourselves, and mourned the day it finished. The run was just too flipping short!

It was directed by Rufus Norris - were you excited by his recent appointment as artistic director?

Oh God yeah, we were all rooting for him! To work with he's very, very generous. He's got a very clear vision, but he lets you find it. He kicks off his shoes in rehearsals and spends the day bouncing around the room like Tigger; he's got so much energy and was always in on the singing rehearsals, singing along, just having a blast! He's a director who also used to act, so he understands what you're going through and enjoys being part of that process with you. He's absolutely fab to work with, a real pleasure, and I'm sure he'll be a wonderful artistic director.

Puss in Boots continues at Hackney Empire until 5 January 2014