Panto! As much part of Christmas as turkey and trimmings. Here, Andy Gray gives the Evening News a festive peek behind the scenes of The King’s Theatre’s Cinderella.
It’s The Half, which in actor speak means there are only 35 minutes until the curtain rises on another performance of Cinderella.
Actor Andy Gray appears to be arriving at the stage door, his woolly hat and winter coat keeping the cold at bay. However, like the panto he stars in, nothing is quite as it seems.
Out of shot, his attire is completed by a pair of pyjama bottoms and slippers. He’s been resting between performances – there was a matinee at 2pm. To add to an already bizarre sight, one of the show’s dancers nips past. He’s just popped out to the shops, resplendent in green football shorts, trainers, jacket, spiky hair and a full face of stage make-up. He looks like something out of Christmas TOWIE. These are the sights that audiences never see.
A few minutes later, now with less than half an hour to go, the house is open and the sound of excited voices filters through the dressing room Tannoy. It’s time for Andy to start his pre-show routine, which means make-up and music.
His Spotify playlist is an eclectic mix of Amy Winehouse, Doris Day, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Joe Pesci and the Captain Scarlet, Magnificent Seven and Thunder- birds themes.
Pots of vitamins pills, throat lozenges and potions of every description nestle to his left. Before him, his make-up, which he sits down to apply. Cinderella is Andy’s tenth King’s panto. His first, back in 1995, was also Cinderella, when he played an Ugly Sister alongside Edinburgh’s most famous actor/angler Paul Young.
“I remember Paul was doing the fishing programme Hooked On Scotland at the time and wouldn’t shave his moustache,” laughs Andy. “So he kept it and we made lots of HRT jokes.”
Andy’s next King’s panto was another Cinderella four years later, when he played Baron Hardup. The following year, in Peter Pan, he turned baddie as Captain Hook.
“Peter Pan was instrumental in the current team of Allan Stewart, Grant Stott and I coming together,” he recalls. “The director had made it a very English show, and that was a difficulty.
“At the time the King’s said, ‘We need to have a bit more Edinburgh identity in our panto’.”
The Perth-born actor returned in Dick Whittington, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Jack and the Beanstalk – twice – and Aladdin, in which he played Elvis McSporran. “I had a great Elvis suit made for that, which was brilliant because I am a huge Elvis fan.”
Mother Goose in 2005 saw Andy as Hamish McFly and, a year later, he came full circle with another Cinderella when, to celebrate its centenary, the King’s again looked to the tale of the girl with the glass slipper to enchant audiences – it was Cinderella, starring a 16-year-old Phyllis Dare, that had opened the Old Lady of Leven Street 100 years before.
In the 2005 production, Andy again played Baron Hardup.
“That was great but turned out to be my last before my wilderness years,” he says.
Indeed, Cinderella would be Andy’s last King’s panto for three years.
“Thankfully, Edinburgh wanted me back,” he adds. He returned last year in Jack and the Beanstalk.
As he slips on Buttons’ famous bell-boy uniform, the actor admits that, despite now being one of Scotland’s “panto legends”, he still gets nervous before going on.
“You get nervous about the gags. By the time you open, you have heard them so often you are going, ‘is this at all funny?’. Now the show is bedded in I can go on and enjoy it.”
In Paul Elliott’s new take on the age-old fairytale, Buttons has been transformed from Cinderella’s infatuated best friend into the family’s paternal old retainer.
“There’s a lot more to Buttons in this production,” says Andy. The Tannoy announces the actors’ 15-minute call and it’s all starting to kick off. Allan Stewart runs in to get his bodysuit zipped up, exiting even faster when he spots a camera being pointed in his direction.
He’s not wearing his wig and no-one gets to photograph this dame before he’s had his hair done.
Grant Stott follows a moment later, a vision in his dressing gown, net covered hair and black lipstick. It’s time for the pre-show ritual Andy shares with his co-stars as Allan returns, complete with wig.
“Can’t miss that,” he says, as the trio come together for a group hug, which ends with an explosive holler.
“I’ve also got a private ritual I’ve done ever since I started acting,” reveals Andy. “I never tell anyone what it is, but it’s a wee thing I do in the wings.”
He adds: “As far as superstitions go, I always get ready in the same order – take a vitamin, pop out for a fag, brush my teeth, put my mic on . . .”
The “Act One Beginners Call” issues from the Tannoy and it’s time to head to the stage, where Andy will psyche himself up in the ten minutes before his first entrance.
Leaving the Dunedin Suite – his dressing room – he passes the juveniles lined up on the stairs. Members of the Julie Mitchell Edinburgh Dance Academy, their hair is uniformly scraped back, giving one tiny little lass the impression of being a lot older than she is . . . “Hello granny,” quips Andy as he passes, eliciting delighted giggles. The gag has obviously become a standard greeting. “Granny” looks particularly pleased. Then it’s through the doors that lead to the stage, where an assortment of actors, dancers, stage hands and dressers have already gathered, poised to carry out their duties.
Grant Stott is there too, his long legs now encased in black leggings topped by a pair of outrageous pants – Grant’s pants, naturally. He’s waiting for his giant beehive wig to be popped onto his head, but that can’t happen until a ridiculously large gown has been, literally, lowered onto him by a pulley.
Meanwhile, Andy is in position upstage left for his first entrance.
Cutting a dashing figure in royal blue and gold, he bounces from foot to foot, singing along to the opening number, preparing to step out in front of 1100 panto-goers, many of whom have come to hear him utter his famous catchphrase, “Ah’m no very well!”
Spontaneous applause greets his entrance, bringing a smile to his face. Another show is under way and it’s almost 15 minutes before he escapes back to his dressing room. He’ll get all of ten minutes to himself and then it’s back on, the best part of the two hours plus performance still ahead of him.
Andy does this 12 times a week for seven weeks . . . it’s hard work making panto a laugh a second.
* Andy Gray stars as Buttons in Cinderella at the King’s Theatre, Leven Street, until January 22, 2012