Meet Samantha Womack … multifaceted actress, former EastEnders star and now gracing the stage at The Birmingham Hippodrome in Jack and the Beanstalk. We caught up with her to get a glimpse into the enchanting world of panto and her role as Mrs Blunderbore, the archetypal villain.
You’re in a rehearsal room for a week which is learning your lines –actually we all came pretty much off the book because it just saves time – so really, your first week is just about positioning, getting the vibe with all the other cast members. Rehearsals seem to be faster and faster at the moment. I remember, back in the day, for a show you’d have four to six weeks, but the great thing about this is that it’s the Palladium’s pantomime from last year, and after the Palladium it’s the biggest in the country and so they really spend a lot of time casting.
You’re in the theatre every single day, you’ve got two shows a day, so for two months you’re living with this new group of people. But that’s lovely, it’s part of it. I’ve always done pantomimes over Christmas, and I have to say when I have chosen not to do them to give myself a rest, I’ve always really missed the festivity of them.
I did them a lot when my children were growing up. Lily, my daughter who is 18 now, was always with me and she’d often help off the side of stage or she’d come on as one of the villagers. We’d have the dressing room with mine and her names on the front. We’d decorate the dressing room, and she’d be getting inside the giant’s costume, throwing balls at the audience, and custard tarts, things like that. She absolutely loved it and that cemented the festive vibe for us.
(Laughing) Well, there all strange aren’t they, they’re all kind of made up so Mrs Blunderbore is the giant’s wife. She’s the archetypal villain. I’ve done fairies a few times but somehow the baddies seem a bit more fun. She’s quite sassy. She comes on, she’s kind of an arch villain, she has a little sexy number or two; she has a team of guards that follow her around and does what she says – I’m loving it!
Oh, they are all gorgeous. The ensemble is absolutely fantastic and we’ve got the most amazing Dame and cow! We’ve got Alison Hammond, from This Morning, who’s playing the fairy of the bean. She’s so funny, so generous, and just a good laugh to have in the room. And Matt Slack is just so funny. Half of the time in rehearsals is just us laughing at what he’s doing, he’s just so good. His routines are so slick having worked so hard and he’s such a nice guy.
Yes, I have, I have. There are some really funny moments in the show with Doreen … she’s called the Lazy Old Cow!
I think ‘singing’ would be stretching it slightly. We were very young, there were a lot of dancers in the background and I don’t remember much of it because it was a bit of a blur, but I do remember getting to do Top of the Pops. It’ so crazy, it was such a huge thing to be involved in, but it goes by without you remembering anything of it because the adrenalin is so pumped.
You’re best known for playing Ronnie Mitchell in Eastenders. How different is playing panto to playing a soap character?
It’s funny, the younger generation know me as Ronnie, but if you’re going up a generation it’s Game On. It depends which generation you’re referring too really. The younger generation really like Eastenders, so there is a lot of ‘Oh, I wish they hadn’t killed you’ and that kind of stuff.
Panto is really very different. You’re not really acting, you’re entertaining so everything is heightened, everything is delivered to the audience. It’s interesting when you take people to see it who haven’t grown up in the UK. Pantomime is such a strange tradition for other people because it sits somewhere between circus and a theatrical show, it’s a mish-mash of stuff. Everything you do has to be much, much bigger. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek stuff you know, the kind of “corpsing” with the audience, making them feel that they’ve seen something special; it’s a British art form and people are just so fond of it.
It’s hard at the beginning. You’re institutionalised a little. You’ve been in the same place – for me it totalled two periods of about seven or eight years, and that’s a long time. You become more nervous actually when you leave that kind of secure employment. It’s quite a challenge to go back to auditioning and having meetings again because you’ve become used to a secure income which actually is very, very rare in our industry, especially if you are a jobbing actor.
I’ve always been on the telly but I’ve always had to work. I’ve never made enough money to retire early. You go back to the anxiety of getting work again, and that’s something that all performers go through, so it takes a little time to adjust. At the time it was a bit of a shock to the system but I’m really glad it happened because I’ve done so many things since then. I wouldn’t have had such life experience – I’ve moved to Valencia, I’ve done films, I’ve done more musicals, I’ve done shows and I’ve done straight plays. I don’t think any of these would have happened if I’d stayed at Elstree Studio, I’d have just lived in that little bubble really.
Some people can be slightly snobby when it comes to actors who have done soaps. We’re more like that than they are in America. There, they don’t mind what you have done so long as you can do the job, but here we tend to put people in boxes and it can be a bit of a challenge. I didn’t do any of the reality TV sort of things, and they are very tempting because they’re very lucrative and fun, But I didn’t want to go down that path because it’s hard to get back to be taken seriously as an actor. It’s trying to gauge what’s acceptable and what you can get away with really. It’s not just as simple as getting a job.
I’m here for two months. I leave at the end of this month but I’ve got delivery of two of my dogs coming over from Spain. They’re being couriered over which is lovely. I’ve kept the really big one in Spain because he chews everything. They’re rescues. One’s like a Galgo-Podenco, which is very similar to a greyhound, bred for hunting; the medium one’s a very small Podenco, she’s very sweet; and the little one is a Cavapoo who is very spoiled. We’ll have two of them over with us and the large Galgo will stay in Spain because he loves the mountain walks.
I think I’ve done four different musicals here now. I’ve done Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Addams Family, and I think we bought Girl on the Train here, but you never really see much of anything if you’re on tour. Your travel day is getting to the place and then you’re straight in to the theatre. It’s funny, I was in the dressing room about ten minutes ago and I went to open a window and it opened up onto a kind of back area and I suddenly remembered that I’d been there before. It’s little things like that, that spark your memory.
We don’t get out. We just get Deliveroo! We have absolutely no time to get out. Like I said, we are literally in the theatre at 10 or 11.30 in the morning and we won’t leave until 9 or 10 at night. And you don’t go out in-between shows because you’ve got all the ‘baddie-slap’ on.
Yes, yes that’s right. My dad and his mom were brother and sister. He’s a lovely lad, we see each other here and there at charity events. He was hosting a charity event in Belfast, a football match in honour of George Best, and we went along to that, me and my son.
There’s a play at the moment which I am discussing about bringing back. It was actually a film, I can’t say which one it is because we’re doing a rewrite and getting the rights to it, but a straight play would be nice to start with.