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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Clare Grogan and Karen Dunbar interview

Published in the Scotsman

KAREN Dunbar is remembering her very first entrance in the panto at the King’s, Glasgow. It felt like she was covered in bubble wrap, she says. For all her experience doing karaoke and comedy, she had never performed anything quite like it. Her nerves made her dead to the world.

That was in 2007, when she played Nanny Begood in Sleeping Beauty, a role she took to – nerves or not – like she was born to it. She matched the late Gerard Kelly laugh for laugh and turned in several songs to boot. She was right to be nervous because of the place the King’s panto has in the hearts of Glasgow audiences but, in the end, she needn’t have worried.

Today, sharing a couch with Dunbar in a rehearsal break, is Clare Grogan – and all this talk of stage fright is making her uncomfortable. As she prepares to make her own panto debut, the Gregory’s Girl star looks at Dunbar with a mixture of admiration and awe. Knowing Dunbar was in the cast was one of the reasons she agreed to do the show (“I think she’s amazing”), but rehearsals are intense and she’s feeling the pressure.

“The first couple of days in rehearsals, my head was exploding with ‘How am I going to do this?’” she says. “It’s much harder than I thought it was going to be. For me, it’s such a different discipline.”

As the King’s returns to the story of Sleeping Beauty – this time scripted by Ayrshire-born Coronation Street star Eric Potts – it is once again fielding Dunbar as Nanny and, this time, placing her opposite Grogan as the wicked fairy Carabosse. Also in the cast is Tony Roper, playing Grogan’s evil henchman Hector.

Now it’s Grogan’s turn to feel the trepidation Dunbar experienced four years ago, but she is taking heart from the fond memories she has of her own panto-going days.

“What was really lovely about the first few days of rehearsal was there was a lot of talk about the history of panto and our own experience as children going to pantomimes,” she says, recalling trips to the King’s and the Pavilion where she would see Francie and Josie, Rikki Fulton and Stanley Baxter.

“The more you think about it, the more affectionate you feel about it. It does take you back to being that child and the magic of that big night out. But it’s bloody hard work. It all looks like a laugh, but that laugh is very, very carefully orchestrated.”

After her own panto debut, Dunbar went on to star in Cinderella and Aladdin, but skipped last year because she was performing in Men Should Weep at the National Theatre in London. She’s delighted to be back.

“The panto pulled all my assets together,” says Dunbar, who rose to fame in Chewin’ the Fat. “Jumping up and down, telling bad jokes, pulling faces, singing at the pitch of my lungs and overacting. I was born for it. I knew I would enjoy it, but it far exceeded my expectations of how much I would enjoy it – and how much hard work it was.”

For Grogan it has been most fruitful to draw not on her acting work but on her early-1980s career with Altered Images. Her last stage appearance was in Lobster and Vantastic, a double-bill of plays by Russell Barr at London’s Ovalhouse theatre, where the audience numbers 250. Sleeping Beauty is on an altogether different scale.

“My singing experience and playing those big arena tours is the thing that helps me, because you have to connect with the big audience,” she says. “Your performance has to be so much bigger. You really do have to find that person at the back of the auditorium who’s not quite into it. I just can’t have that: I will find those people and force them into engaging. Otherwise, why are you there?”

Adding to the challenge, Grogan has had to hot-foot it to Bristol every time she’s had a day off from rehearsals. She’s starring in the next series of Skins – playing Shelley, the fun-loving mother of Mini McGuinness (Edinburgh’s Freya Mavor) – and when shooting overran she had to find a way of squeezing in filming around her commitments in Glasgow. “Why would it have to be Bristol?” she laughs. “We couldn’t get farther apart.”

For those of us who grew up in love with Grogan as the fey young singer with Altered Images, singing ephemeral pop songs about birthdays and being happy, it takes some adjustment to realise she’s now playing mothers of teenagers and pantomime villains. Also newly in the can is The Wee Man, a film based on the life of Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris, played by Martin Compston, with Grogan as his mum. She, however, is unfazed by her own altered image.

“Playing a naughty mum is not too much of a stretch,” she says. “When I told my daughter [seven-year-old Elle Lucia] that I was going to be in Sleeping Beauty my poor, gorgeous, lovely little girl was so excited because she presumed I was going to be the beauty! I had to tell her it came as a bit of a shock to mum too that I’m no longer eligible even for consideration for that role. But it honestly doesn’t bother me. I like it.”

For one thing, it shows she is not being cast for her reputation alone: “I started acting in earnest after I made Comfort and Joy [Bill Forsyth’s 1984 film about warring ice-cream vendors]. Up until that point, I was the pop star that was being allowed to make the Bill Forsyth films. From that point, I really wanted to be a jobbing actress. It was really tricky, but I feel at last people are seeing me as a character. I feel proud of that. I’m getting to play all these different parts and they’re not based on how you look.”

Playing against type or not, she’s relishing the chance to play the wicked fairy. She says she was never interested in having to look nice and this is a role that allows her to look quite the opposite. “I’m interested in how far I can push it because I really want to terrify the kids. The baddies are the best. I’m flattered and bemused that everyone has said they can’t imagine me playing the baddie. Believe me: I’ve got a lot of evil and bitter-and-twisted in me and I’m getting my chance to unleash it.”

So, finally, does Dunbar have any words of wisdom for newbie Grogan? “If there was any worthwhile advice, I would say don’t arrange to see anybody,” she laughs. “I’m a big ball of energy, I’m like a five-year-old, but I tire out so easily on this. In fact, I sleep in between the shows. I slept in the rehearsal room under the radiator yesterday for 20 minutes. It does feel like the marathon of jobs. At least in Chewin’ the Fat or The Karen Dunbar Show, I got to go home at night. With this, bed becomes the loveliest thing you’ve ever seen – and clean sheets on the bed … ah!”

• Sleeping Beauty is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until 8 January.

© Mark Fisher, 2011
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