EastEnders actress Gillian Wright on swapping Albert Square for pantomime in Norwich

Theatre Royal panto, Sleeping Beauty.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Theatre Royal panto, Sleeping Beauty. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

From an Albert Square icon to a pantomime baddie - EastEnders actress Gillian Wright is starring in Sleeping Beauty at Norwich Theatre Royal this Christmas. Ahead of the show opening today, she spoke to arts correspondent Emma Knights.

Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime 2017 Sleeping Beauty.
Photo: Simon Finlay Photography

Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime 2017 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Finlay Photography - Credit: Simon Finlay Photography

EastEnders actress Gillian Wright is well known for playing Jean Slater in the BBC soap but this Christmas she is having fun being the villian in the Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime Sleeping Beauty.

She is taking to the stage as the evil Aunt Vipera in the festive spectacular that opens at the city venue today.

It is the latest in a long line of panto characters the stage and screen actress has played over the years, and she said that, for her, Christmas just would not be Christmas without being involved in the magic of pantomime.

'A few years ago now I chose not to do a pantomime...It was very odd when you are so used to doing pantomime every Christmas. It didn't feel like Christmas. It was so strange. I felt like I was missing out on something!' she said.

Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime 2017 Sleeping Beauty.
Photo: Simon Finlay Photography

Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime 2017 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Finlay Photography - Credit: Simon Finlay Photography


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She is most definitely not missing out this year and said audiences were in for a treat with the Theatre Royal's festive show which sees the classic fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty set in the 1920s in the Downton Abbey-esque Norbridge Abbey.

'It's just delightful. I think the singing is fantastic, the dancing is wonderful. I'm so impressed with the set and the costumes, the production standards here are really high and it's very impressive,' she said.

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'Everyone's getting on really, really well and everyone's being very supportive to each other, so hopefully that will all come across to the audience and they will enjoy themselves!'

Describing the role of Aunt Vipera in the show, she said: 'She's haughty, she's sure of herself when she shouldn't be. I hope that she's a likeable baddie in that she has flaws and they are fairly obvious. I hope they are fairly obvious!

Theatre Royal panto, Sleeping Beauty.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Theatre Royal panto, Sleeping Beauty. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

'But she's after power and fame and money, but most importantly she wants youth and beauty.'

Aunt Vipera is clearly worlds apart from Jean Slater, the EastEnders character Gillian said she felt very privileged to play. A Walford resident for many years, Jean now pops back into Albert Square every so often, and Gillian said she always felt very moved when members of the public tell her how much they love the character.

Since Jean first appeared in EastEnders in 2004, viewers have watched her battle with bipolar disorder and difficult relationships with her children Sean and Stacey but also enjoy lighter moments, including regularly serving up her famous Sausage Surprise! culinary creation.

'Bipolar and the storylines that she has had over the years create this person, and she has the ability to turn on a sixpence and I quite like playing that, to do something that is not expected, or to look for the unexpected, or the unusual, the different, but for it to still remain truthful,' Gillian said, adding that in every episode, whether funny or not, she challenged herself to deliver something that would make the audience at home smile.

Gillian Wright as the evil Aunt Vipera in Sleeping Beauty, the 2017 Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime.

Gillian Wright as the evil Aunt Vipera in Sleeping Beauty, the 2017 Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime. Photo: Dave Guttridge The Photographic - Credit: Dave Guttridge The Photographic

She also said she felt a huge amount of responsibility to portray accurately what it was like to live with bipolar disorder.

'I took it very seriously. I did loads of research and homework...The one thing I didn't want was anybody who is either suffering bipolar, or who knew somebody who has bipolar, to be shouting at the television and going, 'it's not like that, how dare you portray it like that.' I wouldn't be doing my job properly if that happened, I would be mortified, so those people that have written to me or actually gone out of their way to come and speak to me about bipolar, or bipolar being detected as a result of watching one of the episodes, I really take to heart.'

Looking back at some EastEnders highlights, Gillian said one of Jean's very first storylines with her daughter Stacey, when Jean had boarded herself up in her house, was one of the darker storylines that especially sticks in her mind, and that she also really enjoyed it when Jean lived in the soap's most famous residence.

'I do cherish the time when Jean was living at the Queen Vic with Kat and Alfie. That was a lot of fun, and working in the Queen Vic meant that you were catapulted into other people's lives and other people's stories,' she said.

Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime 2017 Sleeping Beauty.
Photo: Simon Finlay Photography

Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime 2017 Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Finlay Photography - Credit: Simon Finlay Photography

'That opened up a lot more storylines for me and most of them were a little bit more flippant or a little bit more fun I suppose.'

When asked if she may return to Eastenders in the future, she said: 'I do pop in and out. I don't know, Jean's still alive and that's a plus isn't it!'

But for now she is looking forward to entertaining audiences in Norfolk throughout the Christmas season and also enjoying exploring some of the county.

'I did have a few hours the other week when I had a little mooch around the shops and I think I found the Lanes - I got lost! But everybody I met in the shops was so friendly and asking if I was enjoying Norwich,' she said, adding that Cromer, Norwich Castle and the Roman town Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund are among the places she is hoping to visit during her stay in Norfolk.

Sleeping Beauty is at Norwich Theatre Royal until January 14. Tickets £7-£24.50. To book, call 01603 630000 or visit www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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