When you encounter someone who loves their job and just fizzes with energy, you know you’re in for a fun interview. Hayley and I first met several years ago when, dressed as a masked highwayman, complete with britches and a tricorn hat, she held me up at gunpoint at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich as part of the immersive play, The Honest Gentleman. 

She’s currently gearing up for panto season at Bungay’s Fisher Theatre, where she’s appeared since 2017 (Dick Whittington), going on to take writing credits. 

The venue is close to her heart. She describes it as a home away from home. Not surprising, as Hayley got married at the theatre, having been proposed to on stage by fellow actor James Ducker. 

“I just love it here,” she says as she takes me into the auditorium, where the historic frieze work, once proudly displayed over the proscenium arch, is now protected by a sheet of clear Perspex at the back. 

She pauses to tell me about her absolute adoration of panto. 

“There is just so much for everyone to enjoy. Everyone can access panto on their level whether they're a kid or an adult. It is something the whole family can do together – and it’s fun. With the world so miserable at the moment, it’s a wonderful opportunity to go out as a family and have a good time.” 

She says mid-October was not a good time to be fine-tuning the script. “We always try and slot in topical jokes, and this year it really did my head in because not only did the prime minister keep changing, but no-one seemed to know who was in the cabinet. It became a case of ‘who’s our leader this week?’” 

East Anglian Daily Times: Hayley EvenettHayley Evenett (Image: Doug Jones)

The drama of parliament’s leadership carousel, though, cannot compare to one of the most harrowing summers of Hayley’s life. 

What started as a bright, sunny, optimistic period with the theatres re-opening and work starting to return, swiftly became something of a horror story. 

“We had just moved house in July, then I had gone on tour with The Three Musketeers. I came back for a week, then my gran got ill and I went to look after her in Somerset, leaving James at home. I ended up staying quite a while, and I was there when she passed away, which my cousin and I found quite hard.” 

When Hayley got home, she found herself playing doctor to James, who’d developed a sore throat. As his condition worsened, leaving him shaking, she was forced to call the 111 out-of-hours service. “And they were like, ‘it’s just a fever, he’s got a throat infection, just stick with it, he’ll be fine.’” 

She was unconvinced. 

“I had this nagging fear at the back of my mind, so before she rang off I asked: ‘what if it is sepsis?’. And she said ‘no, I don’t think so, it doesn’t sound like it.’” 

The next day James was worse. Delirious, saying strange things and slurring. When he could barely stand and kept falling over, Hayley called for an ambulance. 

“I have never been so frightened in all my life. Thankfully they came really quickly, but even they couldn’t work out exactly what the problem was, whether it was a stroke or a heart attack or something else. He was vomiting a lot, so they took him in and it turned out that he had an abscess in his throat and it had gone toxic. It had swollen, so it filled two-thirds of his throat, and if had grown any bigger it would have cut off his air supply. 

“They drained it really quickly. It was horrible. They sorted him out so well that he was back home in two days, but I was a mess. It was just a week after gran had passed and this was yet another emergency I was having to cope with. I had managed to hold myself together throughout that first day but once James was safe and in hospital I came home and broke down. I was just so worried when they took him away. I thought I might not ever see him again. 

“Also, I was feeling guilty because when he had the sore throat I made him inhale Vicks vapor rub which turned out to be three years out of date, and in that strange mindset you have when things get too much to cope with, I was convinced that I had poisoned him!” 

Once James had recovered, Hayley could turn her attentions back to the career she was born to do. 

For the actor, audience engagement has always been at the heart of a good show  – giving theatre-goers permission to play an active role in the entertainment, whether it is inside in a conventional theatre, at a site-specific location, or an outdoor promenade performance. 

“For me it is all about making a connection. It’s about making everyone present feel part of the performance. The audience is the cast member that doesn’t turn up until the night, and not only do they change every night but their contribution makes each performance unique,” she says. “You never know how they are going to respond.” 

Hayley adores doing outdoor performances in the summer, where she’s enjoyed scampering among the picnics as Alice or a White Rabbit, or as Robin Goodfellow (aka Puck) in A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Hayley performing in outdoor theatreHayley performing in outdoor theatre (Image: Doug Jones)

And she has notched up an impressive catalogue of scripts, finding writing to be an organic extension of her experience as an actor. 

It’s something she has always done, and now that is informed by years of getting laughs from audiences and knowing how to pace and shape a show. 

“I started writing as a kid. I would write panto for my friends at school. My mum was a teacher, so then I went on to write them for her class at school. And at secondary school I persuaded the teachers to put on a panto for the students. I wrote that – it was Peter Pan and I still think of that as my earliest ‘proper’ panto.” 

Hayley has taught at drama schools in Essex and Norfolk, writing shows for her students. “So I think of writing as a natural progression. 

“As an actor, I know how actors work and how we want the dialogue to sound natural and conversational, so I am quite confident in my writing. But, having said that, in rehearsal I am quite happy for people to bring suggestions to the creative process because we all know that things change in the rehearsal room.” 

So how difficult is it to put your own stamp on a traditional family panto? Aren’t they all written to a formula? 

“There’s an art to panto, sure, but you can still make it your own. I tend to write in character. I work out who everyone is, what they are like, what their back story is and I take it from there. So everyone in one of my shows is a defined character with a personality rather than a stock villain, a townsperson or a village idiot. And that makes them easier to play. 

East Anglian Daily Times: Hayley as Constance in The Three MuskateersHayley as Constance in The Three Muskateers (Image: Dave Ayerst Davies)

“It also makes it easier to write, because I can write in their voice. I know what they sound like.” 

She said for certain stock sequences, which are expected in a panto, she will create a list of routines that should be included, then try and weave in as many as the plot and running time will allow. 

“I am quite traditional to an extent, but I do like modernising things for a contemporary audience. When I write a panto, I still see it as a play. My test is that if I took all the panto elements out of it, it should still stand up. 

“I think children really latch onto a proper story with peril, with characters they can love and hate – that’s when an audience gets invested in what’s happening in front of them.” 

A recent addition to Hayley’s ever-expanding portfolio of work is her regular appearances on the comedy-drama podcast Mockery Manor, which currently resides in the top 10 of dramatic podcasts in the UK, USA and Canada, and was nominated for best fictional podcast in 2020. 

Set in an 80s theme park, it is a character-driven story full of nostalgia in which she plays a pair of identical twins on the trail of a killer on the loose in an East Anglian fairground. “When I was cast I thought how am I going to make the voices sound different on radio? 

“I was on tour with Eastern Angles at the time and asked around: ‘How am I going to play twins on radio? How can I make the voices sufficiently different and yet still make them seem believable as twins?’ 

“We’ve just finished our second season and no-one has yet complained that they can’t tell them apart so I must be doing something right.” 

She said the work was appreciated because it helped get her through lockdown, but she also loves the imagination that goes into the production and the sophisticated sound design which creates an incredibly believable and nostalgic world to inhabit. 

Also, the team assemble the drama from a multitude of different takes and different delivery styles, so Hayley is never sure exactly what takes are being used until she hears the podcast transmitted. 

“They get you to say the lines half a dozen different ways and then stitch them together with contributions from the other cast members, so it’s like a complicated aural tapestry.” 

For someone with such a deep and abiding love for her craft I find it hard to believe that she originally moved to Norfolk to give up the theatre and live a ‘normal’ life but, as she says herself, fact is stranger than fiction. 

Looking rather sheepish, she confirms that a move from Essex to Norwich was an attempt to ‘reset’ after she managed to convince herself that acting was no longer for her – which to an outsider seems bizarre, given her ebullient, very theatrical personality. 

She explains: “I was tired. I was fed up. I had been touring constantly, living out of a suitcase. I had no home. I wasn’t settled anywhere. At the time I felt that if I moved to somewhere new, got a normal office job, I would become settled and happy. I tried so hard to make it work but I was miserable and it was my mum who persuaded me to go back to acting. Luckily I managed to get back into work very quickly, and jobs have sprung from previous jobs. I’ve never been tempted to go back to a ‘normal life’. 

“I can now say for sure that acting is my life. I love the dressing up box, being different people, cosplay. It’s the first thing you do when you are young and I have never outgrown it. 

“It’s such a blessing that I get to do what I love. They say: ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’. That’s not true because you work bloody hard, harder than most, because you love what you do and you want to get it right.” 

So, what’s next? More writing? Writing podcast dramas or outdoor shows which she can also star in? “Absolutely. I love a challenge. I love the opportunity to do something new, to push myself to go into new areas. I have written a version of Alice in Wonderland which would make an excellent outdoor summer show, I’ve also written a comedy which would be a great children’s outdoor theatre event, and it’s great that podcasts are providing a different type of drama and entertainment. I would love to write something where you can really let your imagination run riot. So, there’s plenty just waiting for an opportunity to get produced.”