With an MBE for services to drama and an Olivier award under his belt for musical theatre, Clive Rowe continues to don a dress every December. He tells Liz Hoggard why panto is vital to local communities
Clive Rowe is a true grand dame of pantomime. He played his first dame at Nottingham Playhouse more than 25 years ago and has regularly returned to the role in a range of different shows and venues. In 2009, he became the first pantomime dame ever nominated for an Olivier award for his performance in Mother Goose at Hackney Empire.
“I want people in the auditorium to have a great time. If you come to the panto and you don’t find a 20-stone black man in a frock funny, well…” he pauses, deadpan.
He is now donning the frock again to play Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Hackney Empire, directed by Susie McKenna, who steered him to that Olivier nomination a decade ago.
Rowe genuinely believes panto is good for us as human beings because it “destroys the formality of the fourth wall” between actor and audience. There’s nothing quite like that feeling of organised chaos, he laughs. And children get to experience real freedom. “I don’t have children myself, but I know they spend a lot of time being told: ‘You can’t, you mustn’t’, and when they come to pantomime, everyone is going: ‘Do, do, be, be’, which enables them.”
If the audience is full of kids, it offers a different challenge for the actors as they drive the show a bit faster. “The gags aren’t sat on quite as much. Kids are on iPads and phones – they want the next thing immediately,” Rowe says. For an adult audience “you can sit back and take a little more time landing the gag”.
But for all the froth, panto can touch on serious topics, such as bullying and loneliness. “There’s always been topicality. The best pantomimes are rooted in the community. The Nottingham Playhouse panto is about Nottingham and the Hackney panto, although it has global themes, also has very specific Hackney references.”
For Rowe, ‘dame-ing’ is an art form. He talks with reverence about the panto dames he watched as a kid – such as Oldham’s Nigel Marland – who were panto celebrities long before reality TV stars were being signed up.
Rowe’s own dames reference the strong women he grew up with, but he never sees himself as a drag act. “I’m not Lily Savage or Danny La Rue. That doesn’t mean I don’t try to feminise it, but I’m a bloke in a frock – trying to be a woman – commenting on femininity.”
You don’t have to be convincing as a woman, he says. It’s more about capturing an essence. Marland, for example, sported a beard and wore Dr Martens with his frock.
In these days of #MeToo and gender fluidity, a pantomime dame could seem a little outdated. But Rowe stresses: “It’s not even cartoon, it’s glorifying what a woman is, what a woman can be and how a woman is seen. It’s knocking those negative things that people say about femininity and saying there’s strength in being a woman. And – if I can be really deep here – as a man, I understand what those strengths are. I can take humour from them, but to do that I have to understand what their truths are.” In panto, it’s the older women who get the best lines, he says. In Aladdin, his Widow Twankey is a childhood friend of the Empress – played by Tameka Empson – and the two have a lot of fun on stage. “They know who they are and where they came from.”
The only panto role he’s turned down is Cinderella, because he doesn’t like the ugly sisters. “Dames are not evil, dames are not horrible.”
“Panto is never cruel,” he insists. “It’s very, very easy to humiliate people, and it is a tough line to tread.” Even during the obligatory audience participation, he makes sure the ‘victims’ keep their dignity.
“The minute they come on stage you know they accept the situation. It’s like a little contract, without it actually being one. If they’ve not been dragged on to the stage, that means you can have fun with them. If they have no hair, or they’re a little portly, you might mention that. But you wouldn’t ask what they do and then belittle them for their job.” Though tax men and estate agents might get a gentle hiss, he admits.
‘Panto is never cruel. It’s easy to humiliate people and it’s a tough line to tread’
Rowe is a perfectionist about his clown-style make-up, which he does himself. “That 20 minutes is part of my process. I always say it’s when I let her out. She spends most of the year in her cage, railing against the bars because I close her off. It’s not quite ‘method’, but I summon her up give her free rein. Once she goes, she goes… though obviously it’s me, I don’t have a split personality,” he chuckles. He never walks about in public in his dress and make-up in order to preserve the mystique.
There’s no doubt panto is an extreme physical workout. There’s singing, dancing, acting, improv. And Rowe is the master of ceremonies: “I’m like the captain of the ship.” You can’t fake the smile – even when you’re bone-crushingly tired, he stresses. The Empire is a big house, with 1,400 seats – “my cardio definitely goes up”, says Rowe. As it gets closer to the run “I dampen down my external energy, because I know I’ve got to get through those six weeks of performing. I can’t be partying”.
Christmas itself is a precious day off, so he may spend it alone watching television, with a turkey in the oven and a few glasses of Prosecco. “I have a lot of friends who invite me over, which I’m so grateful for, but sometimes I wake up on Christmas morning and the last thing I want to do is go anywhere.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked at a Warburtons bakery.
What was your first professional theatre job?
After Guildhall, I went to Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 1986 and worked on Carmen Jones, directed by Stephen Pimlott.
What’s your next job?
Playing Badger in a new hip-hop musical reworking of The Wind in the Willows, from the award-winning Metta Theatre. And then Blues in the Night at the Kiln with Sharon D Clarke, directed
by Susie McKenna.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You don’t lose your puppy fat, or you’re not always going to enjoy it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
In pantomime: Nigel Marland. In theatre: great performances from people like Henry Goodman and Judi Dench.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Know the work, be confident and be yourself.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done?
Worked for Warburtons.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
All of them. Don’t whistle on stage, don’t swear in the dressing room…
Rowe was 14 when a friend took him backstage during an amateur performance of the Alan Ayckbourn play Absurd Person Singular. He immediately felt at home.
He got his first onstage laugh playing a eunuch in an am-dram production of the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Grange Arts Centre in Oldham. He chased some courtesans across the stage, then 30 seconds later, ran back, chased by them. It made him think: “That’s the kind of feeling I could do with every day of my life.”
He joined a Saturday theatre club and worked backstage at Oldham’s Playhouse 2. Academically he struggled, but with the encouragement of theatre friends, he got a place at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London aged 20, on a full grant. He landed a paying theatre job in his second year and has been in work ever since.
Today, his CV ranges from Doctor Who and arthouse films, such as Lars von Trier’s Manderlay – to musical theatre. He won an Olivier in 1997 for his role as Nicely Nicely Johnson in the National Theatre’s revival of Guys and Dolls, and in 2013 played King Darius in Tori Amos’ musical The Light Princess, also at the National.
He still marvels that he didn’t have to return home to become an electrician or work in a factory. “I’ve been very lucky. If it hadn’t been for the kindness and understanding of other people, I may not have been an actor simply because I didn’t have the nous to go: ‘Oh I’m quite good at this. This is what I should do.’ ”
Although he was thrilled by the Olivier for Guys and Dolls, he believes it was the nomination for Mother Goose that really changed things. “As a statement in support of an art form that was derided and treated as a second cousin to theatre for such a long time, to have a group of theatre people go: ‘Your performance has worth, integrity and meaning within the art form’ was a very, very precious thing.”
He loves the fact that Ian McKellen, “an established classical actor”, signed up for Aladdin at the Old Vic in 2004 and namechecks Paul Merton, who is playing a rival Widow Twankey at New Wimbledon Theatre this year. “It’s brilliant because Paul fulfils both things that you need. His background is in traditional British comedy, so he understands the format of the traditional dame, but he also carries the celebrity of doing shows like Have I Got News for You.”
Panto gets the whole family together, which is rare in theatre, he argues. “We need people to come into theatre, because they keep it alive. It doesn’t matter which door they use – as long as they’re coming.”
Aladdin is at London’s Hackney Empire from November 22 to January 6, 2019
Born: Oldham, 1964
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 1984-1987
• Carousel, National Theatre (1992)
• Company, Donmar Warehouse (1996)
• Guys and Dolls, National Theatre (1997)
• Caroline, Or Change, National Theatre (2006)
• Mother Goose, Hackney Empire (2008)
• Kiss Me, Kate, Old Vic (2012)
• The Light Princess, National Theatre (2013)
• Olivier award for Guys and Dolls (1997)
• MBE for services to drama (2017)
Agent: Maureen Vincent at United Agents