NEILSON’S COLUMN (December 11, 2014): The secret to a great panto – avoid ‘stars’ who can’t act

Christmas is just around the corner, which can only mean one thing in theatre land, it’s panto time!

This year I find myself in Shrewsbury.

It’s a long way from home, but the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan is just too good an opportunity to turn down.

There are no “stars” in the Shrewsbury panto, but the performers I’m working with are an extremely talented bunch.

Our Dame is played by Brad Fitt, who the Daily Telegraph called one of the UK’s leading pantomime dames.

Brad is also the director of the Shrewsbury panto and I can tell you that directing and starring in a show is no easy job.

We also have BBC Radio Shropshire host Eric Smith as ‘Eric the overacting Pirate’, a role he seems very suited to although I’m told his overacting is deliberate.

We have talented actors playing Peter Pan and Wendy and a team of performers and dancers who can not only eat fire, but juggle with it in the finale of act one.

You have to see it to believe it. It’s amazing.

In my thirty plus years as an actor, I have seen countless pantos, some excellent and some atrocious.

By and large, the not so good ones have a “celebrity” playing a leading role that they are wholly unsuited to or worse, that they are unable to do justice to as they have next to no acting experience and are just famous for being on the television.

I mean, you wouldn’t go to see a West End musical and expect to see a sporting personality playing the lead, so why are they able to get into a panto?

Well, the answer is ‘bums on seats’ as they say.

The theory is, if you put a star in a panto, no matter what they are famous for, more people will come to see it. Personally, I’m not so sure.

I think audiences come back to see their local panto year after year because it offers a high standard of entertainment for kids, parents and grandparents.

You need good performers for that to happen, not someone off the telly who doesn’t have the necessary skills for theatre.

Dame Judy Dench opening the batting for England at Lords would put ‘bums on seats’ but I doubt she would score many runs.

Next month I’ll be discussing rocket science...oh no I won’t!