Panto provides the perfect platform for Stephen Mulhern’s self-styled blend of magic and comedy, a format which is well-suited to his favourite role as Buttons in Cinderella.
“Cinderella is the best panto of all time,” he says, as he tries on his costume for size. “It’s in my top three, along with Aladdin and Sleeping Beauty.”
He’s appeared in panto for the past 12 years, but keeps his performances fresh by adding new elements to the mix. “With panto, you can ad-lib and change things, which I like to do to keep the spark going,” he explains. “You never know how the audience is going to react – that’s all part of the attraction!”
Stephen’s carefully polished routines are great crowd pleasers, but there was one time when things didn’t go as smoothly as usual, when Ant and Dec played a prank on him for ITV’s Saturday Night Takeaway. The cheeky duo took over the theatre during a performance of Sleeping Beauty, sabotaging the show and filming Stephen’s reaction on hidden cameras.
“Ant and Dec mixed up all my props… the water pistol didn’t work… they even put hidden cameras in the dressing room. It was terrible!” Stephen recalls.
“The rest of the cast and crew were in on it – even the audience knew… Now I can’t wait to turn the tables on them. it will happen, I guarantee it!” he grins.
While the fun side of panto is paramount, Stephen also likes to play on emotional scenes, getting the audience to symapthise with his character. “Buttons can be funny and he can also make the audience sad,” he explains. “I think it’s important to have these emotional moments. He loves Cinders but she only likes him as a friend, she doesn’t love him. It’s very sad, but in the end he has to accept that. All he wants is for her to be happy, so he has to allow her to marry the prince.”
While Stephen’s busy with all sorts of projects at the moment, including new TV shows in the pipeline for next year, he does have his eye on one particular role that he’d like to tackle in future, if he has the chance. “I would love to play Barnum,” he confides. “I would love to have a go at some of those things, like the high wire, that sort of stuff. Brian Conley is in that role at the moment. He’s the best, truly amazing – but when he gives it up, I’ll be ready to step in!”
As a veteran panto performer, he acknowledges that personalities are important to help draw in the crowds. “It’s a shame that you have to get someone who people recognise in major roles, but if that’s the way to get people into the theatre, then that’s fine,” he says.
A traditional family favourite for the festive season, the panto is often a child’s first experience of the theatre. “When a three or four-year-old sees that kind of spectacle for the first time, it’s an amazing experience,” says Stephen.
Christmas itself is a family time for him: “I’ll be spending Christmas Day with my parents, brothers and sisters. After the panto I have three days off, then I start work on Britain’s Got More Talent!”
He promises a fun-packed performance this season and has one last word of advice for anyone coming to see the show at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls: “There’s a different illusion which I’m going to put into the show, one that I’ve never done before, he says. “There will be a big surprise for the audience. So if you don’t like surprises, my advice is: don’t sit near the front!”
Stephen Mulhern will be appearing as Buttons in Cinderella at the Ashcroft Theatre, Fairfield Halls, Croydon, from Friday 4 December 2015 to Sunday 3 January 2016. Also starring Stewart Wright, Matt Daines, Lisa Davina Phillip and Joanna Sawyer.
Tickets available from the Box Office on 020 8688 9291