If you ever thought pantomime was same old, same old, then prepare for a burst of freshness in this year’s Devonshire Park Theatre production of Peter Pan.
For the key role of Wendy, director Chris Jordan has snapped up the sparkling talent of Ashleigh Drew straight from the West End.
“I’ve spent the last year in Matilda the Musical at the Cambridge Theatre. I’ve been swing, covering all the children in the show – so I got to do all the fun stuff on slides and swings and scooters and defiantly scaring off Miss Trunchbull. A swing, for those who aren’t sure, is a kind of understudy-plus – not simply for one part but ready to step into a range of roles.”
In the panto press call, before we chatted (writes Herald reviewer Kevin Anderson), she wowed the Winter Garden with one of the best Matilda numbers, When I Grow Up. And while Ashleigh’s relatively petite size may have helped her in playing down in age, there is nothing immature about this lady’s approach. “You need all your wits. Especially with children, they can just drop all of a sudden, and you have to swiftly pick out of the back of your brain which child you’re on for, and where you’re going to be standing at any given moment!”
You can’t escape the feeling that this lass was born to perform. “I trained for three years in Musical Theatre at Bodywork in Cambridge. I was about ten, I remember, when I went to watch my cousin in a show and I simply thought – yes, I want to do that!
“Then I went to college and studied Maths and Business – about as far away from the stage as you could imagine. Then I spent a kind of gap year with a Hip Hop dance crew, getting a bit of money together, and I got some funding to go for the Cambridge course.”
And after that West End year, now a first panto lead? “Yes! So excited! I know it will be absurdly hard work...But I am totally up for that.
“Everyone should know Peter Pan – it’s one of the stories you grow up with, and it catches the imagination... I do actually get to fly, I believe – I’m giving secrets away here, but I think the plan may be to have Peter, Wendy, John and Michael all flying!”
Do they teach you in your training to fly? “No, that will be a completely new experience, so please keep everything crossed for me! I know all about this fantastic pantomime tradition at the Devonshire Park Theatre: so beautiful, so family-oriented, just the perfect pantomime. As soon as I mention Eastbourne panto to any of my theatre friends, I get serious jealousy in return!”
Even at the press launch, Ashleigh found herself with some of the more notorious Eastbourne performers – the grandest of Grande Dames, Martyn Knight, and the irrepressible Tucker. The hilarity, the ad-libs and the upstaging were already in full flow, and Ashleigh fleetingly seemed the only sensible one there? “Oh, that won’t last. They seem like a really fun bunch and I’m already pitching in with them, so we are set for a mad ride.
“I don’t yet know Eastbourne well, but it’s a seven-week shift including rehearsals, so I’m planning to get cosily settled in. Home is actually Telford in Shropshire, but my parents are coming down here for Christmas week, so I’ll still get a family Christmas of sorts. But I do hope Eastbourne will adopt me!” No worries there for Miss Drew. Devonshire Park audiences this Christmas will fall in love with her.