Pantomime has many elements. Heaps of shimmer and sparkle, costumes, special effects, heroes and heroines, songs that tug at your heart and dancing that leaves you dizzy. Oh, and comedy.
Chris Jordan has the comic dimension of his Devonshire Park pantomimes well covered, with two of the best and funniest men on the circuit. For this year’s production of Peter Pan (writes Herald reviewer Kevin Anderson), Tucker and Martyn Knight are back, as Smee and Mrs Smee.
I’d like to say the comedy is in safe hands, but after watching the slapstick duo’s plate-smashing routine last year, that might not be the best choice of words. Their inter-action on stage is almost intuitive. “We definitely feed off each other,” says Martyn. “From start of rehearsals onwards, we are working on moves, timing, quick-fire lines – taking a few liberties with Chris’s lovingly prepared script in the process. Actually Tucker is often the ideas man – there’s a very smart brain behind that hapless face!
“And once we are on stage everything buzzes. You draw on each other’s energy, and of course the audience energises us. Even on an exhausting three-show day, there is an instant buzz that lifts you the moment you’re on stage. Excited, expectant. This is my twelfth year at the wonderful Devonshire Park, and the rapport with the audience is incomparable. We’re just an extended family really: cast, crew, parents, kids!”
We retrace a few steps. “My very first panto is possibly the one I remember most fondly. I was a very young dancer at the Theatre Royal Newcastle, and I was facing a lonely Christmas Day – no trains to permit a quick trip home to Watford. And the star of the show, the wonderful and generous Dickie Henderson, just said – no problem, hop in and I’ll get you there. And I rode to Watford in Dickie’s Rolls Royce!
“I’ve loved every aspect of my career: dancing, acting, and nowadays also a lot of directing. Worked with everyone from Lionel Blair to Dame (that’s proper Dame) Anna Neagle. But panto is still an annual highlight for me.”
Now, an accomplished Dame can slip pretty easily out of role and back in to normal life. Talking to Tucker, you find yourself wondering if he is ever out of role. Even his personal website, for goodness sake, is titled www.funnytucker.com Last December, when he played Potty Pierre in a very Gallic Beauty and the Beast, my interview with him lapsed more than once into clumsy school French (Tucker’s grasp about as feeble as my own). This year wasn’t much more grounded.
Tucker’s quick wit and natural command of the one-liner make our interview both a joy and a nightmare, if you follow. Here’s a sample. Good to be back, Tucker? “It’s marvellous. Where has the time gone? I mean the summer – what a wonderful afternoon that was!” Did Chris invite you back, or did you just turn up? “Oh, Mr Jordan was on his hands and knees, saying I’ll give you a part if you’ll please stop bothering us.” Decent part this year? “Well, I’ll need to dig deep into my acting skills for this one. Smee is actually a nice guy working for a bad guy (Brian Capron’s Captain Hook). The depth, the reach. It’s almost Shakespearean.”
He did say almost. Actually, of course, Tucker is a seasoned performer who knows exactly what he is doing. Catch him in serious mode and he will enthuse about the Devonshire Park and its rich panto tradition. “The secret is, they really care here – about the tradition, about the story. It starts from upstairs and the Theatres Director, and then everyone else is really behind it. And it’s generations of families who come along. Even the shape of the theatre at the Devvy says welcome, you are a part of this show.”
His credits on UK tours read like a showbiz Who’s Who: he’s been on the bill with Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, Michael Ball, the Stylistics, Smokey Robinson, Bradley Walsh, the list goes on. He has headlined the Jounglers Comedy Club. And the panto roles – this is Tucker’s seventh or eighth – are tackled with no less professionalism.
But talking to these experienced performers, both with their natural, easy manner, something more comes over than their talent. Simply, Tucker and Martyn are two of the sincerest, nicest guys you could meet. They love Eastbourne. Unlike some other theatres’ pantomime offerings, these are not journeymen actors picking up a pay packet. Their enthusiasm for this panto is real, and their commitment to Peter Pan as a project is as total as Chris Jordan’s himself. And they will crease you up this Christmas.