Julian Eardley knew he wanted to be an actor as soon as he was old enough to climb onto a stage. As Theatre Royal Winchester’s ongoing pantomime dame he has performed in more silly frocks than he can remember, and this year takes to the stage once more as Dame Dottie in Beauty and the Beast.
“Playing a dame is rather like taking on the maternal role in a pantomime but with a good measure of feisty comedy thrown in,” he says. “Because there is so much audience participation, every show is different and that adds to the fun of it. You just never know what might happen on stage.”
As well as executing plenty of planned jokes Julian has had his fair share of impromptu comedy moments too. “In Cinderella my skirt began to fall down mid-song and another cast member came to my rescue and held it up for me until the number was over,” he says. “In Peter Pan a water pistol which was supposed to be empty was squirted full into my face. There was so much water that my make-up began to slide down my face and I had to dash off stage for a touch-up.”
Transforming himself for each performance takes over an hour. “There’s a lot of heavy-duty stage paint involved, plus boobs and a body suit to smooth everything out,” he says. “If we’ve got two shows back to back and I need to pop out, the make-up always comes off, but I quite often set off down the High Street with the body suit still on underneath my normal clothes. For a dame, everything has to be over the top and accentuated.”
Costumes are hand-made for each run, but it’s not unusual for Julian to pick up the odd extra accessory from around the city. “Primark proved just the place for some outrageous socks and slippers last year,” he says.
With over 60 performances each season, it’s the camaraderie of the cast and crew which makes pantomime particularly enjoyable, Julian says. “We’re with each other for long days, often with two performances back to back, and there’s a great team spirit. Many of us come to Winchester just for Christmas, so we head off together to the Christmas market or over the road to Cabinet Rooms for a drink or a coffee. The city is a lovely place to be over the festive period.”
Being part of a great tradition of pantomime adds to its appeal. “It’s a quintessential British tradition that no other nation has at Christmas,” Julian says. “You can’t imagine all the thigh-slapping, terrible jokes and audience participation being quite the same anywhere else.
“While Winchester outwardly is terribly respectable, the grown-ups do like a naughty joke or two. You can’t help yourself but get swept up in the sheer silliness of pantomime. It’s this that makes me leave the stage after every performance with a big smile on my face.”
Beauty and the Beast runs at Theatre Royal Winchester from 1 December to 6 January.
01962 840440 www.theatreroyalwinchester.co.uk