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Emma Williams interview - 'Imagine the biggest production number you know, double it, and that's Dick Whittington'
Panto made a triumphant to its home, the London Palladium, last year after a 29 year absence with a record-breaking production of Cinderella. With the likes of Elaine Paige, Julian Clary, Charlie Stemp and Diversity set for this year’s follow-up, Dick Whittington, the show will be looking to build on last year’s mammoth success (oh yes it is).
Emma Williams began her professional career at the Palladium at the age of 18 in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and now she returns to the theatre to play Alice Fitzwarren. We caught up with her in rehearsals to find out why she loves panto, and what it’s like returning to the Palladium.
You grew up in Halifax in West Yorkshire. What was the theatre scene like there?
Many years ago, before I was born, Halifax have four or five theatres. Throughout my youth there were two or three that were mainly working. We had the Halifax Victoria Theatre, which is where we had the big tours, and the Halifax Playhouse, where I performed my first ever role when I was 13. Now it’s thriving; Northern Broadsides are based in Halifax and they have an amazing space at Dean Clough Mills there, and we have Square Chapel which does beautiful music and theatre. For a little town, it’s doing alright.
What was that first role at the Playhouse?
I played Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street, it was the first ever junior production of it in the country.
Did you ever do panto in Halifax?
I did, I danced in panto from the age of about 11 through to 17. Back then, a lot of the pantos were done by Cadbury, so I worked with some pretty cool people. Well, cool to me as a kid. People like Sarah Vandenbergh from Neighbours and Kathy Staff who was an absolute legend. I also got to work with the lovely Paul Nicholls who was just fresh off EastEnders at the time, and I had such a crush on him. I had the responsibility of zipping him into his Genie costume at one point – 17 year-old me loved it.
Have you always been a panto fan?
I remember my first panto experience when I was six years-old. We went to the Manchester Palace Theatre to see Aladdin. It had Sylvester McCoy, Eartha Kitt, it even had Garfield. I was furious because my big brother got dragged up on stage to tell a joke and I didn’t! For a lot of kids, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a theatre. It’s really formative for how some children think of theatre as an art form.
Panto at the Palladium is a bit of a different scale though, isn’t it?
Panto has set, specific things that you always do with it. The Palladium is the home of pantomime. It started there over 100 years ago, and the first panto there was Dick Whittington so it’s quite nice that we’re doing it again. Last year, Cinderella was the first panto there in 29 years, and it broke box office records. It’s really nice to see panto back in the heart of the West End, and I’m really honoured to be a part of it, frankly.
What can we expect from Dick Whittington?
Good, professional pantomimes are the most fun. It’s full of all the glitz and glamour, shtick and humour. Imagine the biggest production numbers you know, and double it. In fact, triple it and you’d be close.
We have the fabulous Gary Wilmot as our Dame, Julian Clary as Spirit of the Bells and Elaine Paige as Queen Rat. I think people will see a different side to Elaine than they usually do as the leading lady of musical theatre. She’s absolutely hilarious and plays the baddie really well. Being in a room full of legends it amazing. Add on top of that people like Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers who are returning. Paul is an amazing ventriloquist with his puppet Sam, and in rehearsals I find myself talking to Sam more than I do to Paul!
One person you haven’t mentioned… you’ll be working with Charlie Stemp again after Half a Sixpence…
My glorious Charlie Stemp. He’s such a star, and to be reunited with him for Christmas is absolutely wonderful. Charlie’s a real panto aficionado, he saw like five pantos last year, he loves the history and everything about it. And I’m an absolute Christmas ninja, so I think we’re going to have a lot of fun. Charlie heads to Broadway literally the day after we finish, so it’s a nice way to round off the year and a half that we’ve spent performing together.
It’s a bit full circle for you, too, as your first professional role was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Palladium.
The last day of the pantomime will be, I think, exactly 16 years to the day from when we started Chitty rehearsals. That’s sort of overwhelming in some respects, I can’t quit believe it’s that long ago. It doesn’t feel like that long ago I was a baby, I was 18 years old and in some respects stepping on that stage as an adult will mean more. I’ve spent time touring and I’ve spent time in the West End, so I can now see the grandeur of it. I possibly didn’t have that at 18 as I had the naivety of youth that allows you to take things in your stride.
Have you seen any shows at the Palladium since Chitty and thought: ‘I want to be back on that stage’?
It’s funny, six months before I started Chitty I went to see The King and I because I was doing a semi-pro production. And I was watching Elaine Paige as Anna Leonowens, and now I get to be on that stage with her. That blows my mind, ever so slightly.
Dick Whittington Tickets are available now.