What a year it’s been for Charlie Stemp – and what a Christmas the Olivier-nominated leading man has in store.
Following the universally lauded reception to his breakthrough in Half A Sixpence, and the announcement that he’s to make his Broadway debut in Hello, Dolly! in January, it’s been quite the remarkable twelve months. And it gets even better this Winter: Charlie is returning to the West End stage, playing the titular role of Dick Whittington in the world-renowned London Palladium pantomime, as part of a truly all-star cast.
We caught up with Charlie to talk panto preparations, what it’s like to share a rehearsal room with theatrical royalty, and how he’s found true happiness in performing on the London theatre stage.
So Charlie, how are preparations going for Dick Whittington?
Really well! I’ve only done one panto before: when I was about 17, I did Snow White in Dartford at the Orchard [Theatre], where I was Craig Revel Horwood’s chariot boy! Watching this process has been completely different.
A lot of people say that because panto is panto, there’s a decrease in talent, but it’s actually quite the opposite for this particular show. The amount of love, money and time that’s gone into not only the choreography, but the set, the lighting, who’s been picked… it’s been done so well that everybody really helps each other shine, and I’m so happy with it.
You’re part of a truly all-star cast: yourself, Elaine Paige, Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Diversity… I could go on! What’s it like working with so many star names?
It’s really cool – I’m geeking out a little bit, if I’m honest! These are names that love panto, and when I used to go to the Orchard each year when I was a kid, I used to watch these people and think “that’s what I want to do”.
So to be working with them – I have a little smile every time I do a scene with Julian, or a little giggle when I sing next to Elaine Paige – it’s amazing!
Have there been any standout moments in rehearsals so far?
There have been a few! I don’t want to say too much, but there are a couple of songs that will make you laugh so much you will be glad you’re sitting down, and there are a couple of others that will shock you with sheer joy.
Dick Whittington’s maybe one of the lesser well known pantomime stories: what’s it all about?
Yeah – I actually found out the other day that the first panto at the Palladium, 100 years ago, was Dick Whittington! And when they did it in 1969, they did it with Tommy Steele – so I’m basically following in his footsteps!
Dick Whittington is about a young man who seeks fame and fortune by going to London. When he gets there, he realises there’s a massive rat problem – and the Lord Mayor has decreed that whoever rids London of the rats will become Lord Mayor, and take his chain and his office.
It’s a really old story, and it’s perfect for the Palladium because it’s all about London – it has so many great roots there. Normally you have one or two amazing moments each production – but instead of having one or two, we have ten!
And you’re back on stage with your Half A Sixpence co-star Emma [Williams] – are you enjoying your reunion?
Loving it! When I did Half A Sixpence, I had moments where I had a banjo in one hand, and a script in the other, and I had to learn all of this stuff. This lovely person came up to me and said “You know you’re doing really well? Everyone’s talking about how well you’re doing!”, and that person was Emma.
It’s great to bring that positivity and friendship that we have to another show, because we can bring that same little spark we have on stage to the Palladium.
Dick Whittington comes at a hugely exciting point for you, just off the back of an Olivier Award nomination for Half A Sixpence, and then onto Broadway in January. How would you describe the last year for you?
To sum up the last year is just an exhausted haze; I’ve never been so tired, I’ve never been so exhausted, I’ve never been so busy – but I’ve also never been so happy, as well.
I’ve loved every second of this year, and everything I’ve learned, whether it be good or bad, has hopefully made me into the performer that I want to become.
What do you enjoy most about performing in panto?
I think when you do panto, you can express yourself more – there’s no such thing as over-the-top! You can just go for gold, which as an attention-seeker is quite fun!
For anybody who’s dreaming of becoming a performer, what one piece of advice has really stuck with you?
Be happy. Happiness is the key. If you’re happy and you’re positive in this industry, you will surround yourself with positive and happy people. The best thing about performing is being able to hang out with the people you love, and that’s great.
Finally, why do you think pantomime so popular in this country?
Because we’re so stubborn, and it’s tradition! When you explain the idea of pantomime to people who aren’t from Britain, they have no idea what you’re talking about.
When I went and met all of the guys from Hello, Dolly! [on Broadway], they asked “What’re you doing next?” and I said “pantomime!”. They said “What’s that?!” and I said “Basically, a guy dresses as a girl, there’s normally a storyline that’s based on a Disney film, the audience shout back at whoever’s talking, and normally somebody sings a pop song!” and everyone was like “That’s so strange!”
It’s traditional for us: it’s British in its humour, and we’ve created it to be this beautiful bit of theatre that’s so different to anything else. That’s why we love it – because it’s ours.