The Old Vic and the Barbican may have turned their hands to the art of panto-making of late, but Hackney Empire has been a purveyor of quality pantomime for years. Usually in the role of panto dame extraordinaire is Clive Rowe, who dons heels and a frock once more for this year’s seasonal send-up, Dick Whittington. The musical theatre star tells Caroline Bishop why he keeps coming back, and why panto deserves a little respect.
You can tell a lot about a man from his voicemail. At least, you can in the case of Clive Rowe, whose dulcet tones float down the line in a rendition of You’ve Got A Friend (‘All you’ve got to do is call / and I’ll answer, yes I will’) when his mobile picks up. The tuneful, cheery message seems particularly fitting for this musical theatre star and panto dame who is one of the friendliest and most mild-mannered people in Theatreland, and it almost makes me forgive him for the fact he didn’t answer his phone. Almost.
He had a good excuse though. He calls back a few minutes later, fresh out of an intense rehearsal at Hackney Empire, where he is playing Sarah the Cook, the mother of Dick Whittington, in Susie McKenna’s latest panto offering for the North London venue.
Rowe has taken on dame duties at Hackney so many times he stopped counting after four. I make it six – in a range of suitably attired roles that includes Dame Trot in Jack And The Beanstalk, an Ugly Sister in Cinderella, Mother Goose herself and Widow Twankey – “the Hamlet of pantomime dames” – in Aladdin. After a break from panto last year, as he was appearing in Laurence Olivier Award-winning musical Caroline, Or Change at the National Theatre, Rowe is back in a dress and heels (“they fit beautifully as well, even if I do say so myself!”) and enjoying it as much as ever.
“Oh it’s a busman’s holiday for me!” he laughs, explaining the appeal. “Even though I have a lot of very strict rules within the piece – because pantomime does have rules – I can, as the dame, kind of run riot. It’s kind of organised chaos with me, which is a lot of fun.”
It says a lot for Hackney Empire and writer/director McKenna – whom Rowe has known for years, and starred alongside in Chicago – that he returns so often. “Apart from the fact that Susie McKenna is a great director and she writes a good panto, actually just the atmosphere at Hackney is so lovely, the whole company and crew work towards it with a love for the piece,” he says. “You get the feeling that, even though it’s for a short time, you’re part of a family and trying to create something that’s going to be worthwhile. I think that’s really important because I think that transmits from the company into the audience and they have a better time because of it.”
“I can, as the dame, kind of run riot. It’s kind of organised chaos with me, which is a lot of fun”
Having worked on so many, Rowe is something of an expert as to what makes a quality panto, and he is clear on who it is aimed at – kids – and if adults enjoy it too, so much the better. “It’s for the five-year-old in everybody,” he says. Which means he keeps his dame firmly on the cleaner side of comedy: “I think there’s a difference between innuendo and smut. And this is where I think Susie is such a genius, is that she manages to write a piece that really does fall flat bang in the middle of that place where it’s not smutty. There are things that the adults will understand but there’s nothing there that should be seen as overtly rude or smutty. At no point should the kids be sat there thinking ‘why are all the old people laughing and not me?’ You don’t want to exclude them. There’s no formula for it… but Susie captures it in the way that she writes the piece and the way she directs us to perform it. She’s got a long tradition and love for pantomime and that comes out through the cast that she picks and the respect that we all have for doing it.”
Rowe’s respect for pantomime is something that comes across strongly. Though undoubtedly it is about fun and entertainment, and Rowe has a lot of fun performing, panto is certainly no holiday in terms of workload – with a schedule of 12 shows a week during the run, he couldn’t do it if he didn’t love it. “I always say when I stop enjoying it, unless I’m absolutely destitute and have no money, I will stop doing it. Twelve shows a week, 1,000 children, twice a day, you’ve got to be out there and enjoy it. Yes we have days when we get up, we’re a bit grumpy, a bit tired, but fundamentally I love getting the heels on, I love getting out there and I love playing around on stage and having a good time.”
Equally he says it upsets him when people assume that pantomime is a lesser form than other types of theatre, and Rowe is its staunchest defender. “It’s not as easy as it looks – it’s not as easy as it seems to write, it’s not as easy as it seems to perform and it’s not as easy as it seems to direct. There is a formula and there is a way of doing it, just like you would do the same with Pinter, Shakespeare, all those forms. You wouldn’t approach them with a group of people who had never done them before and expect it to work.” He continues: “People who see panto, they see people running about and what they perceive as messing about in chaos, but there is a very, very tight core to what’s happening there with a group of people who really understand what they are doing and understand the boundaries of where they can work within that. In general what you need is a great script and a great director, and then you need good and great actors.” He stops and laughs, adding with what seems like typical modesty: “That sounds really arrogant, I don’t mean that about me.”
Actually, though, he is right – even if he is too self-deprecating to say it. In Rowe, Hackney has found itself a dame with Laurence Olivier Award-winning acting pedigree. Since his professional debut in Carmen Jones at Sheffield Theatres, 43-year-old Rowe’s stage career has included drama, Shakespeare, operetta and many, many musicals, from Lady Be Good to Candide, Company to Chicago, Sadly Solo Joe to Simply Heavenly. He received his first Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Carousel at the National in 1993, winning the same award four years later for his performance as Nicely Nicely Johnson in Richard Eyre’s Guys And Dolls, again at the National. The fact that he has also performed in many pantomimes along the way has surely enhanced the genre’s reputation as a quality form of theatre – though Rowe passes the credit for that to Sir Ian McKellen, who caused a sensation by playing Widow Twankey at the Old Vic in 2004 and 2005. “Ian McKellen has done for pantomime one of the biggest services in this country, because he took that veneer off of second rate theatrical performance, which is ridiculous, because pantomime has probably been going in this country as long if not longer than most theatrical forms that we see.”
“I always say when I stop enjoying it, unless I’m absolutely destitute and have no money, I will stop doing it”
Having experienced many a panto as a child himself – both as audience member and amateur performer – Rowe is also passionate about the value of theatre for children. “If the family can take the kids out and have a lot of fun and they’re talking about that for weeks afterwards…then that’s a wonderful, wonderful gift that we can pass on, and we should do that, it’s important that we pass on these gifts to our children. Even if it’s only at Christmas time, those people will come back, they’ll get a little bit older and they’ll go ‘oh I remember Hackney panto’, and it becomes something the community can love and be proud of.”
His own performances as a dame are inspired by the shows he watched growing up. “I come from a tradition of beards and moustaches and hairy arms and doc boots, that’s where my dames come from,” he chuckles.
It is indicative of his versatility that Rowe’s outlandish (though not moustachioed) Sarah the Cook ends a year in which he has played the Dryer and the Bus in Caroline, Or Change, Amos in Chicago, the Baker in Sondheim’s Into The Woods, a short stint as the blood-thirsty plant in Little Shop Of Horrors and the part of Morvin (about which he is sworn to secrecy) in the forthcoming Doctor Who Christmas special alongside David Tennant and Kylie Minogue.
He admits he was a bit blasé when he first got the part in Doctor Who, only realising quite how big the show is in the national consciousness when he went down to Cardiff to film. Perhaps, though, this is because Rowe’s real love, he tells me, is theatre – hence he picks Into The Woods at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio as his highlight of the year. “It was one of those things that when it came up I just looked at it and thought I really don’t see what the down side to this piece is,” he says. “There are some pieces that you do because you want to do them,” he adds. “I don’t base my career on doing things because I think it’s going to progress me. Because the only jobs I’ve ever done like that, two or three like that, that I’ve gone ‘oh I must do that because it will be good for my CV or good for the future’, I’ve generally hated. My heart has to be in what I’m doing.”
Which seems to be what draws him back time and time again to panto at Hackney, despite the hectic schedule that means he only gets Christmas Day itself away from the stage. What will he do on his one day off? “Sleep, eat and watch TV,” he says, “and not watch Doctor Who because I’ll feel too nervous!”
Dick Whittington And His Cat plays at Hackney Empire until 12 Jan.