Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Panto puss’s whiskers are twitching in anticipation!

Panto puss’s whiskers are twitching in anticipation!

IN James Clifford’s world paradise would be a pantomime season that ran for 12 months of the year. He has a passion for it that is extraordinary — whether as an actor, director or writer.

It is driven by his love of pantomime as a singular theatrical art. “People tend to think it’s easy. Dress up, throw in some jokes, some songs and you have a show — if only it was!” he says as we talk backstage at the Kenton Theatre, which is hosting James’s latest show Dick Whittington from next Saturday (December 15).

There may be a little confusion here, as James Clifford is the actor who will be playing Timmy the Tom Cat in Dick Whittington, while his alter ego James Tobias is the writer and director of the show, which is produced by his company Immersion Theatre.

It is James’s fifth Christmas run at the New Street theatre for what has become a traditional part of a Henley Christmas since it was started in 2012. And he loves performing as much as any of the children enjoy being thrilled, scared and rolling about laughing.

Walking with James through Henley town centre on the night the Christmas lights were switched on is to see a man in his element. Dressed as Timmy and walking alongside Kieran Parrott as King Rat, he entertained, posed for selfies and had time for everyone.

“I am a panto fanatic,” he says. “It is family entertainment at its purest. It’s very difficult to find anything that tops the thrill of creating a pantomime. If panto was a year-long thing I would be a very happy man indeed.

“A panto should have magic. You cannot assume the audience knows what is coming. The adults may know something but the kids don’t know that and you must lead them there. For most of the children it is their first experience of the theatre and you want them to fall in love with it and keep coming and eventually bring their own children.

“They have a lower boredom threshold nowadays because of the world of games and the internet. But you must never patronise children — you must produce a panto with the same integrity that you would bring to any play.

“I am very proud that Immersion is very much a team thing with me and Rochelle and we know what our strengths are. My strength is very much in creating the product and Rochelle’s strength is the real hard work, which is managing the shows raising the investment for them, the production accounting.

“I have to be honest — she is absolutely the driving force of the company. Immersion would not be where it is without Rochelle and the amazing work she does. Together we make a great team.”

Rochelle Parry has been a part of all the previous pantos at Henley but will not be treading the boards this year as the company is simply too busy.

James and Rochelle started Immersion Theatre in 2010 and one of their current successes is Seussical — a musical based on the works of Dr Seuss. It was the show that gave James his theatrical break, playing the role of the Cat in the Hat.

“It is a show that all our family love,” he says. “It is very special to me. It is going very well — we have a dream cast and have had terrific reviews.”

James pays tribute to his grandmother, who supported him in his ambitions as a child. “My Nana was wonderful, she would humour me, she would watch me dress up, she was incredible and was my best friend,” he says.

None of his family had anything in the way of a theatrical background, but James always knew that was what he wanted to do.

Immersion have four current productions on the go — Seussical, Rock of Ages, Beauty and the Beast and Dick Whittington — with another, The Amazing Adventures of Pinocchio, due to visit the Kenton on February 15 and 16.

The company’s other shows are playing in locations as disparate as Oswaldtwistle in Lancashire and Harrow in west London.

Oddly for such a talented and keen performer, James has no ambition to be a West End star and sees his long-term future in creating the magic of theatre.

“I want us to be making the best family entertainment that we can,” he says. “I think it is so important and rewarding. It’s what gives us both more satisfaction than anything. That it what would make me most proud.”

But for now it is back to the rehearsals to gear up for the opening on the show at the Kenton next Saturday at 11am.

The show is running for a total of 24 performances until Saturday, December 29, with two shows most days and three on December 22, 23 and 26.

So there is just over a fortnight in which to enjoy James’s talents rather than the 12-month panto run of his dreams.

“Now I can’t wait for the curtain to go up and the magic to begin,” he says — and I’m almost sure I saw his whiskers twitch.

• For more information, including a full list of performance times, and to book tickets, call (01491) 575698 or visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk

Interview by Jon Ryan

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