FOR most of his adult life James Gwynne has been treading the boards at the Kenton Theatre and many others just for the sheer fun of it. Now, at the age of 38, he has decided to launch himself head-first into the profession that he loves.
The idea fills him with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, as you might expect from anyone joining such an overcrowded and competitive profession. But this is not a decision that’s been made on a whim.
Regular theatregoers in Henley have been well aware of the acting talent of this confident, affable and thoughtful man — and he has built a reputation in the am-dram world as being... well... a cut above the rest.
Over the years fellow actors and audience members have advised James to give up the day job as client services executive at Invesco Perpetual. And even though balancing his desk job by day with the donning of greasepaint by night has been a rewarding combination, he now feels the time has come to take the plunge. This month, he will be seen in his first proper professional role at the Kenton as PC Pong in this year’s professional panto, Aladdin.
He said: “I am going into this profession without any formal training and I have a full-time job — I have bills to pay. I am lucky that Invesco are giving me time off to do the panto in December. But now I think of myself principally as an actor. Someone did mention to me that the later you are in going into the profession the more chance you have. We shall see.”
Born at Townlands Hospital and brought up in Sonning Common, where he attended Chiltern Edge School, it was James’ family that sparked his interest in the theatre.
“My first interest in amateur dramatics came from my grandparents who lived in Kingston,” he said. “I can remember seeing them in old time music hall. My first part was in a nativity play at the age of five.”
Indeed his parents still loyally follow his career, and they have only only missing one key performance — when James won a best actor award at the Kenton Drama Festival in 2003 — as they were on holiday.
He graduated from De Montfort University with a degree in Media Studies and Theatre Studies and settled into corporate life, while at the same time playing key roles with a number of local am dram societies, including HAODS, the Henley Players, Reading Operatic Society and the Maidenhead Players.
Theatre fans will remember him as Seymour in the 2011 HAODS production of Little Shop Of Horrors (he met his girlfriend Sally during the show and now lives in Henley with her) and as Cosmo Brown in Singin’ In The Rain in 2003. He says the latter was one of his most memorable roles, alongside playing Mozart in a production of Amadeus.
Earlier this year he won the part of Sean in Tea And Cake, a feature film about how young people interract through social media rather than drinking tea together. Working alongside Rochelle Parry, who plays the Genie of the Lamp in Aladdin, it was a life-defining moment for him.
He said: “It made me think, ‘how do I get to do this on a permanent basis?’ I have the self-belief to go ahead and do it and the thought is that if I don’t do it now when will I?”
He has been supported in his move into the professional ranks by Heather Simpkin, the director of Aladdin. He has also received support from his employers, who have allowed him time off to do the Kenton panto, and he will still be seen around the Invesco Perpetual office while he waits for more professional roles to come in.
Meanwhile, he is very excited about the prospect of playing in panto.
“I will approach the pantomime in the same way as any play,” he said. “You do your homework and aim for the same standard.
“I remember reading that when Priscilla Presley came over to do panto she couldn’t work out why people booed her during the show. It is a very British thing. At the end of the day panto is just a huge amount of fun. You can overact, talk to the audience and get a great response from them.”
James already puts his years of experience on the amateur stage to good use by teaching young enthusiasts at Stageworks, and his next role after panto is Reading Operatic Society’s production of The Wedding Singer, also showing at the Kenton Theatre next April.
Heather Simpkin, who has directed James several times, said: “The amateur groups in Henley are peppered with some very instinctive acting talent and James is a prime example of a very talented performer who stands out in every production he is in.
“To make the decision to turn professional is very brave, challenging and exciting. What he needs more than anything now is encouragement, professional credits and contacts, and for the Kenton Theatre — the place where he has been developing his talent over many years — to be able to do that for him is what is so special.
“He is playing the knock-about comic character of PC Pong — perfectly suited to his immaculate comedy timing and sense of the ridiculous.”
She added: “James is very much the local boy making good.”
*Aladdin is at the Kenton Theatre from December 19 to 28. For tickets call (01491) 575698 or visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk