A hectic season beckons as veteran Steve goes from being dad to dame
Steve Bennett is trying to fit in a bit of Christmas shopping on a rare day off in the run-up to the opening night of Aladdin at the Corn Exchange in Exeter tomorrow.
He's about to take on the mantle (not to mention fake boobs, wig and outrageous dresses) of the pantomime dame for the 18th season, and he couldn't be happier.
"I always loved panto as a kid. I grew up in Exeter and used to go to Torquay or Plymouth to see people like Freddie 'Parrot Face' Davies. And in the summer season we'd see variety shows as well – people like the Carry On team and Terry and June.
"I'm an actor and not really a song and dance man. I trained at Rada but that love of entertainment was always there inside me.
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"For me, panto is what Christmas is all about."
Last year's pantomime rehearsal schedule was disrupted on day one with the arrival of baby Alfie in the car on the way to the hospital. Steve is married to theatre designer Becky Hawkins.
Showing some respect for the demands of the theatre, Alfie's older brother, Harry, arrived on January 8 nearly five years ago on a day off during the panto run.
It's clear Steve, "knocking 53", adores family life.
"Alfie's great. A bouncy little baby. And today we went to Harry's nativity and saw him perform for the first time. He was a shepherd... and a little bit of a show-off!
"It's very fortunate for me to have been in panto in Exeter for 18 years now. I don't have to travel through the night on Christmas Eve to get home to my family."
Joining Steve in Aladdin is Linda John-Pierre as The Genie of the Lamp who has appearances in The Lion King and Chicago to her credit. Daniel Page, playing delightfully evil and slightly scary Abanazer, is no stranger to the West End, having performed as Mr Braithwaite in the hit musical Billy Elliot.
Dan Oliver, who played Dick Whittington last year and who has toured in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, will play hilariously naughty monkey Karim.
Completing the company are Bethany Moorhouse, from Exeter, as Princess Yasmine, Catherine Howard, Mamma Mia! cast member Michelle Crook and in his first professional role, Will Trafford as Aladdin.
"The great thing about panto is that they are quintessentially British," says Steve. "It all goes back to music hall and that love of variety. We think it's a new thing to put celebrities in panto, but it isn't.
"At the old Theatre Royal in Exeter in 1925 they had the women's Olympic rowing team and they came on and sang Michael Row The Boat Ashore and walked off again.
"People go to the panto wanting to be part of the entertainment. They shout and boo and get involved. The Exeter audiences are fantastic. I've been very lucky. I've got a little bit of a following now, which I'm hugely touched by."
Ian Trafford, the show's writer and director, has ensured all the traditional elements are there – Widow Twankey's laundry scene for example, with people falling in and out of washing machines and mangles.
"And there's a fantastic flying carpet scene at the end. I'm really looking forward to that."
Aladdin is at Exeter Corn Exchange from tomorrow until January 6. Tickets are on sale from 01392 665938 and online at www.exeter.gov.uk/cornexchange