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INTERVIEW: Antony Stuart-Hicks who stars as the dame in the Barnstaple panto, Sleeping Beauty

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: December 19, 2013

SHOE HEAVEN: Broomhill Sculpture Gardens provides the backdrop for Antony Stuart-Hicks in full dame mode.       Picture: Mike Southon. Ref:  BNMS20131011C-063_C

SHOE HEAVEN: Broomhill Sculpture Gardens provides the backdrop for Antony Stuart-Hicks in full dame mode. Picture: Mike Southon. Ref: BNMS20131011C-063_C

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I'M talking bloomers and bras with Antony Stuart-Hicks, who plays the festive femme fatale in this year's panto, Sleeping Beauty.

For some reason I feel the need to ask a burning question: What does a self-respecting panto dame wear beneath her frocks and the frou-fou?

"A lot of dames like to wear a padded bra but I don't like the feeling of them," reveals the practical actor, "so all my boobs are built in to my costumes. It makes the costume changes much quicker as nothing can get snagged on the bra strap."

Antony, who has starred in panto for the past 18 years, maintains he can strip, rip and zip (completely change his wig, shoes, dress and accessories) in less than 10 seconds.

That said, he does have a helper: his faithful nan, who every year, works in the wings as his dresser.

"She keeps me in step as well. If I am being too much of a diva she just says: 'Right get in the frock!'."

Antony is thrilled his nan is beside him as he steps into the limelight as lusty lad-in-drag, Nellie Night Nurse.

"It's such a family time panto and it can be quite lonely. My nan is somebody I adore – you know she brought me up and I worship the ground she walks on – so to have her here is just brilliant for me. She is just so funny."

Apparently, once at Newark Theatre, when Antony was performing comedy with Bernie Clifton, the two actors both noticed a burning smell coming from the wings.

"My nan nearly caught the theatre on fire because she put a mince pie in the microwave with the foil on. As I went off to do a quick costume change she was there with this melted steaming pie going: 'Oh God I think I set the alarm off'. She can't be left alone!"

Traditionally, the dame in Sleeping Beauty is a nurse but Antony's dame is also cook, chief bottle-washer and cleaner – or as he puts it "local scrubber".

"There is only so much you can do with the NHS!" he exclaims.

She may work below stairs but she's no dowdy housemaid – she's super glam and there are at least 15 costume changes in the show.

"If she was working in Downton, she'd be wearing much better outfits than Maggie Smith I can tell you that," he laughs. "She has a great wardrobe built up from her past gentlemen friends who have treated her to a nice frock from Barnstaple's Pannier Market."

Apparently, it was female members of his own family who inspired his dame.

"She is sort of based on my nan and all her sisters. There were about nine of them. I used to listen to how they would rapport with each other and the kind of characters they were."

Antony is certainly not afraid of a bit of wicked fun with the audience when the mood takes him.

"All of the ad libs really are ad libs. Every show is different with me because I do a lot of observational stuff. People have earned their hard earned cash and I am determined to give them a bit extra."

It's a skill he learnt on the comedy circuit – the hard way.

"I got my grounding and my experience with live audiences by doing an emulation of Ken Dodd. I used to do it on the club circuit and, my God, I have performed in some horrific clubs in the North West. But they were the best ones because you would get heckled. Every stand-up or comic, of course, has died at some point on stage but it just makes your brain work a bit quicker."

The experience has given him the greatest respect for all comedians – whether he likes their comedy or not.

"It's a very scary place to be up there. You need the brain function to work quickly but also to keep it appropriate for a family audience. I just love the excitement."

He admits, though, to getting nervous before he goes on.

"Sometimes I am physically sick. But the minute I walk on, within 30 seconds, I can work out what sort of a crowd they are and I start going for a bit of the ad lib."

He adds with a laugh: "You get away with a lot more when you are a man in a dress!"

So what does Christmas mean to him?

"It means fun," he says in his affable, warm, Northern tones. "It means laughter. It's a family time. It always means work to me. I have never had a Christmas at home for 18 years. I don't miss it though because the cast are all my family."

Sleeping Beauty is at the Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple until Saturday, January 4. Box office: 01271 324242.

For a review of the show turn to pages 4 and 5.

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