Being on stage during Edinburgh King’s tribute to legendary panto funnyman Andy Gray is ‘overwhelming’ says daughter Clare
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It's nearly a year since Covid took the 61-year-old actor from his family, friends and fans on January 18. That it came as a shock to everyone is an understatement. At the time, Andy who had undergone the best part of two years treatment for blood cancer, had just been given the all clear.
Some time later, as she looked ahead to this year's panto, Andy's daughter Clare told me, “It'll be so tough for Allan and Grant this year. The fact that we are all going to be together will be a comfort for all of us. When we weren't together, dad and I used to always say we were on each other's shoulders. That's how I'll be thinking of it. I know he will be with me and that I'll feel his warmth.”
Clare, who previously appeared in two King's pantos – Goldilocks and Cinderella – with her dad, had just been cast as Narcissa in this year’s Sleeping Beauty at the time, alongside legendary panto dame, Allan Stewart, everyone's favourite baddie, Grant Stott, and newcomer to the team, Jordan Young, a colleague of Andy's on River City.
Her casting was a move by producers to celebrate the life and work of the King’s stalwart and to keep his legacy alive.
All four actors are on stage throughout when this year's special moment takes place and, two weeks into Sleeping Beauty's seven week run, Clare describes the love shown for her “dad” by audiences during the touching salute in Act Two as “amazing”.
The tribute, which finds the cast reflecting on the fact that 'King Andy' would have insisted on a happy ending to the age-old fairy tale, involves a prolonged ovation for the popular star before a heartfelt song is performed by the Good Fairy, played by Nicola Meehan, as a projected image of Andy lights up the star cloth behind the assembled company.
His appearance brings a second spontaneous round of applause and an outpouring of love for the Perth-born actor who starred in the King’s panto for the best part of 22 years, having adopted Edinburgh as his second home after studying at Queen Margaret College.
If it's an emotional moment for the audience and Andy's long-time panto pals Grant and Allan, it's a particularly poignant moment for Clare.
The 31-year-old says, “It's such a great reaction and it's like that single every time. It can be overwhelming but it is always special. I've found that when I know there are people who loved dad in as well, like when my mum and Tamara [Andy's partner] were in, which was the same night, that makes me emotional because it gets me thinking about how they're feeling having never seen it before.”
She continues, “Luckily, I'm facing out to the audience when the picture of dad as King Andy comes up... I don't think I'd be able to compose myself if I saw that. But it really is just an amazing reaction that he gets.”
Andy himself got a taste of that reaction in 2019 when, during his treatment, he made a guest appearance during a curtain call of Beauty and the Beast. In an interview later that year, he told me, “I loved watching the panto and when I went down to the wings and didn't really think about it. I was just excited to be there. It wasn’t until I stepped on stage and got that reaction that I thought, ‘Oh, my god... It was lovely. I don’t think you ever realise just how much love is out there until something like that happens. It was overwhelming.”
Someone else missing his 'old mucker' this year is Grant, who has a picture of Andy, standing in the wings before making a entrance, on the wall of his dressing room.
A print of the photo was given to each of the cast at the start of rehearsals by one of the stage crew, ensuring that Andy was with them.
"Above that picture I have a poster from Peter Pan in 2001,” says Grant, “I've always had that poster up in my dressing room, originally it was my tribute to Gerard Kelly as it was one of the two pantos I did through here with him.
"I used to also have one from Aladdin, but I now just have the Peter Pan one because it was Kelly, with Andy and myself. It's over my right hand shoulder as I put my make-up on, so it's perfectly placed and if you've got those two looking over you before you go on, you're in safe hands.”
Allan Stewart, who has been performing despite hurting a rib shortly before the Sleeping Beauty opened, adds, “The other night when I was in pain with my rib they asked me if I was going to go on. I said, ‘Are you kidding, I watched Andy go on every night when he was ten times worse than after he came back in Goldilocks. He would never go off. Some nights we'd look at him thinking, ‘He's never going to get out the dressing room’, but when he got on stage he was just incredible.
“Most people never get the chance to think about how wonderfully loved someone close to them was by everyone, so the tribute and its reaction is a great moment for Clare.”
Grant adds, “God only knows what mischief Andy and Kelly are getting up to up there, pressing buttons and making magic happen and Andy is absolutely with us and always has been. From day dot of rehearsals he has been a presence, and continues to be, and will be until the end of the run, and we wouldn't have it any other way.”