Meet the King of the pantos

Graeme Henderson as Candy, Richard Gauntlett as Buttons and Ian Belsey as Flossie in Norwich Theatre

Graeme Henderson as Candy, Richard Gauntlett as Buttons and Ian Belsey as Flossie in Norwich Theatre Royal pantomime Cinderella. - Credit: Archant

He is Norfolk's best known panto dame, but this year Norwich Theatre Royal panto mainstay Richard Gauntlett has left his lavish outfits in storage. He talks more about starring in the production and why he is loving the chance to play cheeky chappy Buttons. SIMON PARKIN reports.

As a pantomime script writer, director and star performer, the run up to Christmas is the busiest time of the year for Richard Gauntlett.

Year after year this slapstick supremo delivers his witty one-liners, wacky themes and powerful lyrics which keep audiences laughing until the curtain comes down midway through January.

Cinderella is Richard's 13th Theatre Royal pantomime and he has been thrilled to return again — though this year there has been something different; he has left his usual lavish and outrageous Dame outfits in storage to instead play cheeky chappy Buttons.

'I know that people are used to seeing me play the Dame but I did not really want to play an Ugly Sister as they are baddies and I like to play a more friendly lady,' he explains.

'They are the villains of the show and we needed to find two different people to play them, and we have found two fantastic performers in Ian Belsey and Graeme Henderson.

'It is great to play Buttons. This is the second time I have played him in Norwich and the fourth time overall. Before I started playing Dames, he was definitely my favourite character. He is just a simple lad who gets on with everyone. He is in love with Cinderella. Even though he has no chance of winning her, he still adores her.

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'Buttons is really the goodness of the story and also can't help getting himself into scrapes, as well as having a lot of fun with the Ugly Sisters, often at their expense.'

As you'd expect the show is packed with the usual panto antics.

'I don't want to say too much about what happens as I am sure there are people who still have not seen the show but I do end up getting drenched with water, there are some great quick-changes and of course a coach and horses. If you want to know more, you will have to come and see the show.'

Richard's acting career began at Bunny Infant School in West Wickham, Kent when he and his twin brother played Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. He recalls: 'I remember all the paint from the costumes coming off on our hands and neither of us could remember who was Bill and who was Ben.'

At school, Richard managed to get some good qualifications without working particularly hard, but when he tried the same tactic for A-levels, it didn't work out in his favour.

'I left school and went to The Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. I didn't particularly enjoy my time there; I just spent most of my time playing Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream because they didn't have anyone else lively enough. But then I gate-crashed an audition for a show in London, got the part, and left college to go straight into working in the West End.'

Since then Richard's theatre credits have ranged from starring in Barnum in the West End to performing in the English National Opera's Der Roskenkavelier at The Coliseum and featuring in the original West End cast of Beauty and the Beast. One of his theatre highlights was starring in The Lion King in London's West End where he played the character Timon.

'The show is amazing; it really is one of the best shows I've ever been a part of. I was operating a puppet in front of me and my face was covered in green paint because I was also supposed to look like the bush behind Timon.

'Even two months after I left the show, I pulled a cotton ear bud out of my ear to discover it was covered in green paint; it went absolutely everywhere.'

But Richard's acting credentials go beyond treading the boards as he has starred in a whole host of popular TV shows from Doctor Who to The Sooty Show (which he now also writes) and even played Bob Hoskins' stunt double in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Since performing in Norwich's production of Aladdin last Christmas, in which Richard resumed his popular panto partnership alongside his comedy partner and lifelong friend André Vincent, it's been another non-stop year.

'I have been doing a bit of jetsetting and appearing in concerts all over the place,' he said.

'One of the highlights was doing one in Sydney, Australia. I was flown out there to perform at a Gilbert and Sullivan gala. What an experience.

'I have also been performing on some cruise ships and writing a few episodes of the new series of Sooty for ITV. Of course, you don't write for Sooty himself because he doesn't speak [laughs]. I was approached by the producers as they were after some new scriptwriters as they have modernised the show a bit. They asked me if I would write one to start with, which I did, and they asked me to do a few more. It has been a bit of a departure for me but great fun.'

As ever his heart is never far from panto, and he couldn't wait to starts on this year's production which sees him appearing alongside Hollyoaks and Emmerdale star Matt Milburn as Prince Charming, with actress Michelle Pentecost playing Dandini. The Three Degress soul diva Sheila Ferguson is waving the wand as the Fairy Godmother.

'It has also been fantastic being part of Cinderella as well,' he said. 'We have an amazing cast this year and the audiences have been fantastic. If you have not booked up yet, hurry up. It is very popular so get in quick to make sure you see the performance you want.'

? Cinderella continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until January 19, no show Jan 13, £18.50-£5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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