Des lines up for a Parky-style chat

Richard Batson He’s known to Norfolk theatre-goers as a panto dame and director, but a live “chat show” this weekend will lift the curtain on the many faces, and showbiz memories, of Des Barrit, reports Richard Batson.

Richard Batson

Actor Des Barrit steps into a new role as a storybook wizard on the West End stage next week.

But the man well-known to Norfolk theatre audiences through helping pantomime and summer theatre will be conjuring up some showbiz memories in the county the night before.

Des's 26-year career has ranged from Broadway shows and Shakespeare plays to touring repertory and supporting local theatres.

And on Sunday night he is back at Sheringham Little Theatre, where he is a patron, for a Parkinson-style on-stage chat that also gives the audience the chance to quiz him about the industry that has been his life.

“It will be very much theatrical gossip - a nice, light, cosy chat,” he says in his lilting Welsh voice. “But if people ask questions I will tell the truth.”

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His link with Sheringham, dating back to 2002, results from the theatre spotting he was missing from the billing at the Theatre Royal Norwich after a seven-year stint as panto dame, and asked him if he could help them.

“Like an idiot I said 'yes' and ended up writing it, casting it, directing it, and performing in it.”

But the move helped the Little Theatre gain production skills that helped make its panto, and summer rep, money-spinners.

“Actors have a conscience. People say we only do these things for self-publicity, but we feel responsible for keeping provincial theatres open.

“If they closed people would not have access to local theatre and actors would not have jobs or the training ground of touring repertory, which is where I learned.”

Des also helps Gorleston with its panto, producing this year's Aladdin in which TV and radio presenter Helen McDermott plays The Slave of the Ring, and provides similar support for theatres around the country, including in South Wales.

Accountant-turned-actor Mr Barrit won his first acting role after accepting a bet at a party, worked with a children's theatre company, and got his first big break in the National Theatre's Scarlet Pimpernel at Chichester.

Des has starred at the National in parts including Toad, in Wind in the Willows, Dick Cheney, in Stuff Happens, and Brazen, in Recruiting Officer.

An associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he has played parts ranging from Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, to Falstaff in Henry IV Part One and Two.

He appeared alongside Peter O'Toole and Joely Richardson in the 1996 swashbuckling movie Rebecca's Daughters, and with Tom Selleck and Bob Hoskins in the action adventure Lassiter.

In the West End, Des has appeared in plays such as Three Men on a Horse, Constant Couple and Then Again, while TV credits range from Dalziel and Pascoe and Midsomer Murders, to Poirot and The Bill.

Sheringham Little Theatre artist director Debbie Thompson, who does the Parky role at the weekend, said: “I am just delighted that someone of his calibre has been kind enough to give up his time to support the theatre.”

The last time Des was in Sheringham, as a summer rep director, he flew straight out to the States to appear in the History Boys on Broadway.

This time he heads straight off to the Apollo Victoria in London to open in Wicked, which he says is “the story behind the Wizard of Oz.”

He steps into the Wonderful Wizard of Oz role, taking over from Nigel Planer, who was lank-haired Neil in the Young Ones. But Des is slightly concerned that he is “the old one” and newcomer into an established cast.

“I am terrified. I am the oldest person in the cast, and have to sing and dance a bit, but it is the best-looking show in London,” he said.

If his chat show sees him asked “what is the highlight of your career?” there is no one-off answer.

“There are many for all different reasons; like when I won my first Olivier award for Comedy of Errors; my first musical, singing My Fair Lady with Lesley Garrett in front of 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl; but also my first panto at Gorleston when you see your sets and costumes come together and give birth to a show.”

But one of the most enduring memories was seeing a 14ft picture of himself on Broadway - and thinking: “not bad for a miner's son.”

In Conversation with Des Barrit hosted by theatre artistic director Debbie Thompson is at the Sheringham Little Theatre on Sunday, July 6, at 7.30pm. Tickets, priced £8, are available from the box office on 01263 822347.