Paul Hendy: Twelve years at the helm of Sheffield’s Christmas panto – ‘We aspire to a West End standard’

The curtain has gone up on the Sheffield pantomime and its writer, director and producer Paul Hendy couldn't be happier.

Evolution Productions, the company he runs with his wife Emily Wood, has staged an annual festive show at the Lyceum Theatre since 2007 – and the latest, Peter Pan, is a box office hit.

Paul Hendy at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield where he is directing the annual pantomime. Picture: Dean Atkins

Paul Hendy at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield where he is directing the annual pantomime. Picture: Dean Atkins

Ticket sales have been up on last December, and Paul has a theory as to why. After a difficult 12 months filled with news of Brexit and the like, people are eager for a tonic, he thinks.

"Panto does well in difficult times," he says in the theatre bar, while the sound of rehearsing musicians drifts in from the auditorium. "When people feel uncertain they think 'We know we'll have a good time if we go there'."

Around 500,000 people have seen an Evolution show at the Lyceum over the past 12 years, enough to fill Wembley Stadium more than five times.

"Pantomime is very big at the moment," Paul observes. "It's quite an interesting thing, how it's developed and evolved and is still successful and relevant. I'm quite fascinated by that."

He knows the form inside out, having appeared on stage every Christmas for 25 years while holding down a career as a television presenter – The Disney Club, Children's BBC programmes, Don't Try This At Home and Wheel Of Fortune were some of his TV gigs.

"I think Peter Pan is a strong story, and I just think it's got the potential to be the best ever," he says excitedly. 

The bar has been set high – Mother Goose, last year's Sheffield production, came top at the Great British Pantomime Awards.

"There must be 400, 500 pantomimes across the country," says Paul. "I think over the years people have said 'You've got to go and see the Sheffield one', just for the comedy and the spectacle. But also it has a lot of heart, warmth and depth to it, it's not just people doing jokes. I know when I did pantomime, I look back now and think 'I was in some rubbish'. You don't realise it at the time. We aspire to a West End standard and I think we produce that."

Each show is the result of a long process, he says – 2019's pantomime, Cinderella, has already been decided upon.

"I'm thinking which set will come here, which costumes... Most people probably think it comes together in two weeks. That's the rehearsal period, but the production process, I'd say, is 14 months."

Evolution is responsible for eight pantomimes around the country – as well as Sheffield there is Canterbury, Crawley, Dunstable, Lichfield, Yeovil, St Albans and Shrewsbury. Is this a bit like spinning plates?

"It is, yeah," says Paul. "But we've been going as a company for 13 years."

Emily comes from a theatrical background; her great-grandfather toured variety and Pierrot shows nationwide during the early 1900s, and her parents are a theatrical producer and designer.  

"We know what we're doing and we know what works. It's always a challenge and we're always trying to raise the bar and make them better. What we try to do is not make it stressful, because this is the fun stuff."  

Paul starts with a base script – Peter Pan was in Canterbury last year, which gave him a starting point – then adds local gags and references to suit. Sheffield's hugely popular panto dame, Damian Williams, always needs a prominent role.

"You have to have a joke about Barnsley, a joke about Rotherham, and whatever's happening – obviously Brexit is very current. It's a pantomime's job to comment on that, without being too satirical. It might divide opinion but it will get a reaction. The dame comes on and says 'Do you like my Brexit dress? Everybody wants me out of it, but once I'm out of it, everybody's not so sure!'"

The appeal has to be broad. Paul knows three or four generations of the same family can be in attendance together, giving children their first taste of live theatre. "Which is why it's vitally important to get it right. Most pantomimes are good versus evil, and they all have identifiable characters... Star Wars is a pantomime."

Sheffield audiences are 'very responsive', which makes things easier. "They tell you if they love it – and if something doesn't quite work, they're very vocal. And they're very loyal as well, they come back and we have certain running jokes they will recognise. I sometimes sit in the audience and when I know a really great joke or something spectacular is coming up I don't watch the performers, I watch the audience – the joy that brings is amazing. Seeing 1,000 people laugh, roar, cry, jump – whatever it might be – is great, that's why I do it."

Importantly, a successful pantomime means Sheffield Theatres can invest in new work at The Crucible. "I write other stuff myself so I think new writing is very important. If some of this does go to help that, that's brilliant."

Paul grew up in Telford, Shropshire. He used to go to the Wolverhampton Grand with his mother at Christmas and 'just loved it' – at 18, he was acting in his first professional panto in Blackpool.

"I've always been very driven. You have to be, to work in television. We use a lot of people now who are genuinely 'triple threat' – they can sing, dance, act. They're incredibly talented, whereas I was just driven."  

Paul has three children with Emily and lives in Kent. He doesn't miss performing, he says. "It's really hard work. Two shows a day, you're running on adrenaline."

He doesn't mean to belittle Peter Pan's cast, led by Shaun Williamson of EastEnders fame and former Coronation Street actor Wendi Peters – in any case, he feels there is less of a stigma about doing panto.

"Twenty years ago they were right to be sniffy, maybe, because the quality wasn't there. It's never going to be everybody's cup of tea, but then Shakespeare isn't."

Paul hopes to work in Sheffield for the forseeable future. "I hope it continues forever. It's such a great city."

Peter Pan is at the Lyceum Theatre until January 6. Visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/peter-pan to book.

‘I want people to think: ‘How do they do this?’’

The Lyceum Theatre is Paul Hendy's first-choice pantomime venue.

"Oh, it's the best," he says. "I produce all over the country and with total respect to all the other theatres, this is my favourite. In the technical period, when I just sit and look around at how ornate it is, I never fail to love it. It's beautiful, and there's a sense of history - just think how many shows have been here over the years."

Peter Pan, he says, is 'big and spectacular'. "This is a Victorian theatre so having somebody flying over the audience is a technical and logistical challenge, but we're doing it and it's great. I think children in particular will look up and see Peter Pan flying over their heads and be amazed, I hope - I want people to think: 'How do they do this?'"