Sleeping Beauty stars Sheila Ferguson and David Phipps-Davis prepare to dazzle Ipswich Regent panto audiences

Sheila Ferguson and the cast of Sleeping Beauty, this year's pantomime at the Ipswich Regent

Sheila Ferguson and the cast of Sleeping Beauty, this year's pantomime at the Ipswich Regent - Credit: Archant

There’s no such thing as a one-size fits all pantomime according to director and panto dame David Phipps-Davis, author of Sleeping Beauty, this year’s Ipswich Regent panto.

Sheila Ferguson and the cast of Sleeping Beauty, this year's pantomime at the Ipswich Regent

Sheila Ferguson and the cast of Sleeping Beauty, this year's pantomime at the Ipswich Regent - Credit: Archant

David, who trained as an opera singer before trading his tailcoat for a large multi-coloured dress and an outrageous wig, says that he carefully researches what each of his cast has to offer before writing a bespoke script which plays to each performers strengths.

Panto star Sheila Ferguson, who plays the Wicked Fairy, says there’s huge mutual respect between all the performers and David, who, she says, knows panto inside out.

“There’s a huge sense of trust. David knows panto and we bow to his sense of what’s right.”

But, David is keen to point out that rehearsals are a collaborative affair. “If someone suggests something that is as good as something I have come up with or better then it’s in. “If it’s not then we may have discussion about it and it may be quietly forgotten or lost because of timing reasons. I tell the cast: ‘I am not precious about adding material because it’s my name on the poster, so if it is good, then I am happy to take the credit,” he laughs.

Sheila Ferguson and the cast of Sleeping Beauty, this year's pantomime at the Ipswich Regent

Sheila Ferguson and the cast of Sleeping Beauty, this year's pantomime at the Ipswich Regent - Credit: Archant


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Once the show is in the theatre, there is less room for manoeuvre. “While we have a little room to deal with the odd heckler or to talk to the children when they come up on stage, the rest of the show is pretty well locked down once we are in the theatre. It has to be for timing reasons. You have got two shows a day. You have got to be disciplined to make the show work – both in terms of comedy and the songs.”

David is a self-confessed ultimate panto-fan. He performs, writes and directs a number of different shows each year but originally he had his sights set on a different stage career.

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“I trained to be an opera singer and I thought that training as an opera singer would make me love opera but it didn’t. I have always loved panto and I always wanted to be a panto dame. After I left college I did some opera but my heart’s never been in it. I moved into musical theatre, got parts in Phantom of the Opera and operatic roles in other musicals like Mr Bumble but as soon as I did panto I knew that this was what I loved doing.”

For Sheila appearing in pantomime is an unexpected bonus to a career which had always been centred on music. I’ve I had no idea I would be an actress playing in pantomime in Britain. At 14, when I started, I just wanted to meet Marvin Gaye. My first gig was at The Apollo Theatre I was on the bottom of the bill and Marvin Gaye was at the top. I went to get his autograph and I was so nervous. He opened the door wearing a blue tuxedo and he looked like a God. I stuttered something about wanting his autograph and he sat me down and told me to calm down. He was really nice and taught me a lot about how to deal with people.

“I knew the Three Degrees because we had the same manager. The girls were always coming and going because of parents and things like that. I was called in to cover one weekend and stayed for the next 20 years.”

The both said that they both shared a love of what they did. Sheila adds: “I love watching David work because you can see he’s always thinking – that’s what gives his Dame such a vitality and as a director he has a very keen eye. He misses nothing.”

She says that is what gives the show its quality. For David preparations start months beforehand as soon as the cast is finalised. “The first thing I do is watch videos of all the cast members and see what they can bring to the table. I knew while I was writing the show, I knew we had incorporate Sheila’s song When Will I See You Again? into the plot.”

Sheila adds: “David is great at writing for people. He has written my part exactly the way I would say it, so it is easier to learn and it is still right for my character.”

For David, the golden rule of panto is that there has to be a good plot. He likes there to be a dame, most shows benefit from a principal boy but there has to be a good traditional story at the heart of it. “You can adapt stories to some extent. Most pantos are based on traditional stories or fairytales which everyone knows, so you must stick to the story. The creative drive is to be found in how you tell them.”

Sleeping Beauty is at The Ipswich Regent from December 17 to January 2 2017.

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