Why the panto world of make believe needs you…
by Eileen Leahy | 19th December 2018
CHATTING to Claire Sweeney as she does her make-up ahead of a morning performance of the Sleeping Beauty pantomime she’s currently starring in at the Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells, it’s hard to imagine that the actress, singer and sometime TV presenter has been treading the boards in Pantoland for the best part of 30 years.
The reason? Because she just sounds so fresh and enthusiastic about the whole thing. As we talk about her role as Carabosse, the evil fairy who casts a spell on the young and gorgeous Sleeping Beauty, aka Princess Rose (played by Caitlin McNerney), there’s genuinely no sign of any jaded rhetoric or ‘seen and done it all before’ attitude. In fact, Liverpudlian Claire is positively chipper and brimming with excitement, despite the early start.
“I’m really loving this panto,” she trills in between licks of heavy eyeliner and bright lipstick applications to make her quite literally high-flying character look as dramatic as possible.
The actress, who first found fame as Lindsey Corkhill in the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside back in the 1980s, has since gone on to star in a number of top TV shows over the years, including Benidorm and Candy Cabs, as well as appearing on Strictly Come Dancing and as a Loose Women panellist.
And even after three decades of doing panto every Christmas, Claire says she still loves to do it as it brings so much ‘magic’ to the audiences.
“That’s what it’s all about,” she says. “It’s about creating magic for those watching, and sticking to the plot, too, so it becomes very believable.”
Joining Claire in the main roles of the traditional fairy tale, which is a joint venture between the Assembly Hall and Martin Dodd of UK Productions, are Channel 5 children’s TV presenter Derek Moran (Silly Billy) and Quinn Patrick, who returns once again to the Assembly Hall as its ‘grande dame’, this time as the rather hilarious Nanny. Claire’s nemesis, the good Snowflake fairy, is played by Laura Mullowney.
“The standard of this show is very high, it’s very slick,” beams Claire. “Everyone is really good at their job, there’s no weak link.
It really is one of the most enjoyable pantos I’ve done.
“Our Director, JJ Almond, has great management skills and brings calm to the cast. And I’ve loved working with Regan, our choreographer. He brings a real sense of fun to things.”
During the course of our conversation I discover there’s a number of other reasons why Claire is so happy to be flying around on strings, snarling and jabbing her evil spell stick into the audience as Carabosse.
Firstly, it’s because she gets to spend more time with her four-year-old son Jackson – unlike previous pantomimes she’s been in. “I get to go home to Jackson every night and that’s just brilliant, I’m very lucky.”
There’s also a ‘wonderful schedule’ here, she says. “You’ll do a performance in the morning and then your evening show, and that gives me time to have a little sleep in between.”
On that note, Claire says having those precious few hours to herself is what helps to keep her in tip-top condition. If she’s not having a little nap between shows she hits the gym.
“I’ve recently got a personal trainer, which is great, and I’ve been going to the Halo gym. But it’s also about being sensible and looking after yourself. Having said that, I was naughty last night as I went out to see the pantomime at the London Palladium, which was just great!”
Claire is no stranger to the London stage herself, having appeared in many musicals, including Chicago, Guys & Dolls, Fosse and Legally Blonde. And funnily enough, one of her co-stars from the latter show, Michael Vinsen, is also cast in Sleeping Beauty as Prince Philip.
Claire also says that when she was in Tell Me On A Sunday she came to Tunbridge Wells: “It was only for a night, so I’m really pleased to be back here doing panto as it’s just so beautiful, isn’t it? I’ve been blown away by Tunbridge Wells. Everything from the architecture to the people, who are so nice, it’s just a great town. Oh and the shops are fantastic, too!”
What would Claire say is key to her successful role in this pantomime? “I’ve really enjoyed the way my character has been written (by Andrew Ryan). It’s actually very humorous and you can have a lot of fun with it.”
Now aged 47, how does she feel being cast as the panto villain these days instead of the princess?
“Well, I call it the three ages of panto,” she laughs. “First you’re cast as the principal boy, then the princess, and eventually the evil baddie. You know you’re getting old when they do that!”
And as Christmas Day is the only break Claire and the rest of the cast will get over the festive holiday, what plans does she have?
“On Christmas Eve I’ll sing in my local church at midnight mass, then on Christmas Day I intend to make it all about Jackson. He’s already posted a letter to Santa to say he wants a remote control dinosaur and a train set.”
As the final buzzer to show time goes off in her dressing room, I take my cue to wrap up the interview, asking what she’ll be up to when she’s finished performing in panto? “I’m off to join a cruise ship in Barbados where I’ll be singing,” she says.
And with that the multi-talented performer says she has to get her harness on. Well, how else is an evil flying fairy supposed to get around the stage?
For Sleeping Beauty tickets and timings, visit assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk