STEVE Wickenden suddenly had to divide himself into two in last winter’s Cinderella And The Golden Slipper.
This time he is playing a dame with a most divisive name, Nurse Brexit, in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs as the cheeky southerner returns north for his fourth successive Grand Opera House pantomime in York.
“I’m always one for a challenge. I love a challenge, and that’s what happened last year when we lost Ken [fellow Ugly Sister Ken Morley] from the show when he was taken ill at the first Friday matinee,” recalls Steve.
“I love Ken, he’s a dear friend, and it was sad he couldn’t continue, but then there had to be that element of ‘Come on, let’s make something of this’.
“By Saturday morning we were re-blocking the show on stage after I re-worked the songs on the Friday, with me now doing both Ugly Sisters’ lines.”
Steve Wickenden’s rival sibling double act as Ugly Sisters Calpol and Covonia pretty much stole the show, but he says: “When you’re working with people you trust and that trust you, like Martin Daniels and John Collins, they’ll have your back. It was the younger ones in the cast who were more nervous at first, but the thing about panto is you just have to get on with it, as the rehearsal process is so quick you just have to crack on.”
Was Steve paid double for his impromptu one-man double act? “I’m still waiting. Funny that!” he says.
Certainly, audiences more than had their money’s worth from Wickenden’s extra-quick wit. “That was the thing. The audiences were really sympathetic and just went with it, once it had been explained why there was only me when they were expecting two Ugly Sisters. Our audiences here are very understanding and supportive and that’s why they keep coming back.”
Last winter’s show turned into a learning curve for Steve. “The main thing I learnt is that normally, playing the dame, if I have a spot, a gag, a routine, I can do whatever I want. It just affects me, but what happened last time made me think about partnerships, and they’re about the other person and that relationship,” he says.
“It’s taught me to be more mindful of other people I’m working with in the rehearsal room, where it’s all so quick you tend to only think of yourself.”
Playing Ugly Sister was harsh and mean spirited by comparison with his latest dame, Nurse Brexit. “I’m looking forward to being someone softer this time, after the nasty wicked Ugly Sisters. She’s more gentle, and I’ve been working with Martin, who’s playing Muddles this year, to maximise our comic relationship, to create comedy vignettes for us.”
There ain’t nothing like the dame in panto, reckons Steve. “This is THE part to play. When I first came into panto, I always wanted to play dame. I’d done bits and pieces of comic roles and straight roles, but I always felt most comfortable doing this role,” he says.
“I started quite young at 27; they took a punt with me at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, when I played Hyacinth Horseradish in Rapunzel. It’s not a panto that’s done very often, but what was great was that it was a very Mother Goose-type role in a very dame-driven show, so it really gave me the full first experience.
“I remember they said I was ‘very good but far too pretty’ as this beautiful young thing as I didn’t do make-up like I do it now.”
Steve had been the youngest auditionee in the room, but he took everything in his stride. “My agent had fixed it up for me because I’d kept saying ‘I really want to play dame’ when people had said, ‘you’re really good but come back in two years’.
“The main thing I took from that was ‘be ugly’, and I can’t believe how lucky I was to be given that first chance, but the even luckier thing was then to come here, to the Grand Opera House, and develop my character and ‘find’ my dame,” he says.
“I really play on my ‘inner southerner’, taken from my grandmother and great grandmother, and that southern turn of phrase works really well in a northern theatre, where it’s a bit alien, and the dame is a bit alien anyway, and doing it in a northern theatre makes it stranger still!”
He can’t wait for opening show on Thursday (December 12) when he starts to “get Nurse Brexit done”, right on cue on General Election night. “One of the things I said about my first year here was the warmth coming off the audience towards me, which, to an extent, I’ve not been able to have since then because of the characters I’ve played: Mirabelle in Beauty And The Beast and the Ugly Sisters,” says Steve.
“I’m looking forward to having that warmth again, rather than last year’s boos, but it’s always exciting because it’s dame again but in a new setting. I just love coming back here and I think it’s become my second home now.”
In the year since he was last in York, Steve has been busy directing a children’s theatre show, the musical Annie, doing plenty of teaching, and performing with his Fifties’ rock’n’roll band The Bandits, even headlining The Vintage Rock’n’Roll Festival in the South West, “just beyond Stonehenge”.
“I’d love to do a rock’n’roll number in the panto. Why not? Maybe Tutti Frutti!” he says. “I always say that one of the wonderful things about here is that there’s absolutely no expectation that the dame will sing well. You can screech!”
Steve Wickenden plays Nurse Brexit in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Grand Opera House, York, December 12 to January 4 2020. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at atgtickets.com/york