YORK actress, musician, comedian and writer Anna Soden is playing not only Dave the Talking Cow but Dave the Trumpet-Playing Cow too in the Walking On Sunshine finale to Jack And The Beanstalk at York Theatre Royal.
“Acting comes first; I trained in straight acting at Mountview [in Peckham, London], but I’ve explored writing and music and comedy too,” says Anna, on her return to her home-city pantomime after starring as a rapping, funky, blue and pink-haired, multi-tasking Fairy, more likely to hit the bass line than wave a wand, in The Travelling Pantomime, toured by York Theatre Royal to community venues in the Covid winter of 2020.
“I play bass guitar and trumpet mostly and love it when I can incorporate singing or playing instruments into a job, and it’s ace to put on my own work, but I’m an actor first and foremost.”
In a first for the Theatre Royal pantomime, Patricia the cow, with its front and rear-end actors, fluttering eyes and nodding head, has made way for Anna’s Dave, the female Friesian with the male name and plenty to say, delivered not so much on the hoof as upright on two hooves in a pantomime variation on the “Four legs, two legs better”mantra in Orwell’s Animal Farm.
“I’m playing the front and back because of the cost-of living crisis” says Anna. “There were whispering throughout the year that they needed someone who would dress up as a cow. I think Hayley [choreographer Hayley Del Harrison] was thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be fun if Anna played it’, and hopefully it’s exactly that – fun – and not, ‘oh, that woman’s having a mental breakdown!”
Before attending the pantomime launch in September, she had been expecting to play Caroline the Cow. “To be honest, I had no idea [about the role]; I hadn’t read the script. I just heard ‘cow’, and that I’d be working again with Juliet [director Juliet Forster], Hayley and Robin [dame Robin Simpson], and my new pal James Mackenzie [after doing CBeebies’ Shakespeare together], and I thought, that sounds fun and said ‘yes’,” recalls Anna.
“But big news, I’m going to be Dave the Talking Cow,” she announced that day. How did she react to writer Paul Hendy’s change of plan? “In terms of my panto career, Dave the Talking Cow is a big step forward! I feel like going from a Genie to a talking cow is a progression: it’s a great career moove!
“My first pantomime was the rock’n’roll panto at Liverpool Everyman, where everyone played instruments, It was Sleeping Beauty and I was the fairy and got to fly – and sing Golden Slumbers, a Beatles song, in Liverpool!
“Then I did Chipping Norton; they have a brilliant traditional show there, with original songs. I played a Boy Scout and a Weasel in Rapunzel – you know, the famous weasel in Rapunzel! – and that was gloriously silly. Last year I was at Derby Arena, which was a totally different vibe again, as it was massive! I played the Genie and a lot of other roles in Aladdin; it was a spectacle, I had a ball! Every city and town does panto so differently, so it’s really interesting experiencing them all.”
None was more “interesting” than the one-off Travelling Pantomime tour under Covid rules in York. “It was a really special thing. It kind of felt like a fever dream; it was a little explosion of glitter in an apocalypse,” says Anna. “Working in that cast of five with a skeleton creative team was a unique bonding experience. I really made such dear friends on that show, and I’m so happy to be reunited with lovely Robin [Simpson] this year.
“Performing on that little pop-up stage, our dressing rooms being disabled toilets or storage cupboards, touring to hotels, schools, churches, village halls… it felt like a really gorgeous way to do panto. It was bursting with a sense of community and local identity. I’d love to see more theatre being made like that, not just when there’s a deadly pandemic (although I’ll take a dressing room over a disabled toilet this year).”
Raised in York, Anna cut her stage teeth over a decade of York Youth Theatre shows. “I was in the young people’s ensemble for loads of York Theatre Royal shows growing up, including The Railway Children twice, The Wind In The Willows, Peter Pan and King Arthur, and the Cinderella pantomime in 2006,” she says.
“I moved away at 18, so it’s lovely to sporadically come home to York Theatre Royal. In the pandemic, the theatre partnered with me, with the support of Arts Council England, to make my one-person family adaptation of Five Children And It, set on Scarborough beach.”
Presented in association with Scarborough community producing company Arcade, this collaboration marked the formation of Anna’s theatre-making company, Strawberry Lion, whose online premiere of her storytelling, puppetry and musical account of E Nesbit’s 1902 children’s novel was streamed on Explore York libraries’ You Tube channel in April 2021.
As well as playing Feste in CBeebies’ Twelfth Night at Shakespeare’s Globe, with Theatre Royal panto villain James Mackenzie as Duke Orsino and choreography by Hayley Del Harrison, Anna has taken to making “stupid videos”.
“I love to make online sketches,” she says. “Digital comedy is at a really exciting place where it’s so easily accessed, so I make a lot of silly stuff for TikTok and Instagram. It’s also easier than persuading the BBC to give me my own sketch show/sitcom.
“I’ve started doing stand-up comedy, mostly gigging in Brighton and London, which I’m loving, but making video sketches is my favourite format. They are very stupid but I did win the British Comedy Guide sketch competition last year, and Harry Hill said they were ‘very funny’, so there’s definitely merit in stupid!
“My comedy is pretty absurd, more alternative, but not particularly child-friendly! All my digital comedy is not necessarily rude but quite scary. I’ll be interested to see if the kids like a talking panto cow!”
Since graduating from Mountview in 2017, Anna has spent only the Covid Christmas of 2020 at home in York. “That was lovely but keeping sopcially distanced of course, but it’s part of an actor’s job that you work at Christmas and won’t be at home, so it’s great that this Christmas I get to see my family” says Anna.
“It’s also super exciting to be performing at York Theatre Royal because I used to chaperone here while I was at training at drama school, when I was doing my serious roles and played Juliet twice.
“When I graduated, I thought, ‘that’s enough for me, I’m going to be silly now’, but if you’d said back then I’d be playing a talking pantomime cow…”
Jack And The Beanstalk, co-produced by Evolution Productions, runs at York Theatre Royal until January 7 2024. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
One final question for Anna
Do you have any unusual interests or hobbies away from the stage?
“Lying on the floor when it’s about to rain, producing dairy products, eating grass…” she says, slipping into Dave the Talking Cow mode. “…and tarot reading.”
Copyright of The Press, York