FOR Ian Smith and Michael Batchelor, playing the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella at the Lyceum Theatre is a labour of love.
From a chance pairing as the sisters in a panto in Bolton four years ago, they have worked their way up to the Lyceum, which they consider among the premier league of theatres for panto performers.
Michael said: “We’ve done panto as individuals and then were thrust together in Bolton. Something clicked, something worked.
“Ian’s thinner than me, we always think as sisters you should have a fat and a thin one, that’s how it should work and it did work together. It seemed silly to split up and try and do Dame on our own when we had a formula that worked.”
He added: We work so well as performers together because Ian’s got a proper man’s voice. He does it slightly posher and quite deep and he’s the older and more sensible sister, whereas I’m the young, silly camp one at the back. It tends to be you’ll set the gag up and I’ll be the punchline and with the insults it’s always me who gets put down. We both understand that. I always look more ridiculous because I’m fat.”
Ian said: “What a lot of people who play sisters don’t realise is that a sister is alway a dame split between two people, so whether it be Damian (Williams) being silly and then playing more serious moments, you have to split that between two people, and I think we’ve got that balance right. Even when we get the script we say ‘I wouldn’t say that, you’d say that’.”
Michael said: “You’ve got to have a rapport with each other and no competition. We have known people in the past to play the Sisters and it’s just a fight! Neither of us care who has the laugh, as long as we get the laugh. That’s how we work.”
They admit there is a lot of pressure playing the drag role in the theatre where Damian Williams, who is Buttons this year, has been the well-loved Dame many times before, so they have tried to turn it to their advantage.
Ian explained: “There’s a bit of pressure go to any theatre as there’s been a resident dame, because that is what theatres always do. I think with Damian we’ll all bounce off each other and it wil be really funny.
You couldn’t make Damian play Ugly here because he is very popular. If you put someone else with him they would fade into the background and it would be Damian on his own.
“Because in Sheffield they do love Damian and he does an amazing job here, the moment we turn on Damian like we turn on everyone in the show – we’re absolutely horrible – we can hopefully make that audience absolutely hate us and then, when he gets his own back, that is come-uppance.”
One of Michael’s favourite moments is when the Sisters really turn on poor, downtrodden Cinderella (Kate Quinell).
He said: “From our first entrance, where everyone cheers and whoops and boos, then you‘ve got that moment where the stage freezes and you’ve got Cinderella’s ticket to the ball and tear it up. You can hear the audience go silent and think, how can two fat, funny men turn so nasty?
“The Sisters up until then are not nice, they’re catty, but that point it turns from being off and nasty to being evil. All the lights come down with the ticket in Cinderella’s hand and we say ‘tear it up’ and it’s like tumbleweed – completely quiet.”
The rest of the year Ian is a jobbing actor doing all sorts of roles but Michael says he has been “a man in a dress” ever since he invented the character of Tanya Hyde five years ago. He said: “Basically she’s a miserable woman, a bit common but thinks she’s better than everybody else and is very quick-witted, reacting to what people are doing and wearing.”
He has a love-hate relationship with Tanya but she has given him the chance to perform to the Bahrain royal family, TV celebrities like Jonathan Ross and Vernon Kay and cast members of EastEnders and Hollyoaks. He added: “Even though she is the bane of my life I’ve made quite a lot of money off her. It’s fab.” But panto is definitely the main focus for both actors, who are playing the Ugly Sisters for the fourth time together. They even design and make their own costumes and each do something like 15 costume changes in Cinderella, so it’s a huge undertaking.
Michael said: “Some of our stuff is massive, one of Ian’s wigs with feathers is four feet tall and mine is four and a half feet across.”
Ian added: “As high as mine go, Michael’s have to go that far across. We’ve got that visual look with all our costumes.” He laughed: “With all our costumes people can look at them and actually go, ‘they think about it a bit toooo much’ but it works.”
When you have to wear a hat as big as a sofa for one five-minute scene, the logistics mean that the duo have one place to put on their “face, boobs and tights” and a different area where they do the quick costume changes that is big enough to accommodate all the frocks, gloves and jewellery.
They say that they are very much blokes in dresses as that’s what gets the laughs, not the convincing drag queens wearing Danny la Rue-style glitz that some other shows go for.
Both loved seeing the Lyceum for the first time this summer.
Ian said: “I’ve only been here once when I saw a friend in Chicago six years ago, so I’m excited.”
Michael added: “The auditorium is beautiful. We’ve done the last two years in brand new venues and we create the atmosphere but with a venue like this you’ve got it there. People will be coming in from the cold and the little lights on the walls and the drapes are just something more magical from the word go.”
Cinderella is at the Lyceum until Sunday.
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