Rula Lenska: I'll only do a proper pantoBy Phil Creighton
December 02, 2009
Rula Lenska is fussy about the pantos that she does – because she thinks they’re important. Thankfully, The Hexagon’s Cinderella meets her high standards.
Rula Lenska knows how to make me jealous. We’re sitting a room in South Street arts centre surrounded by panto costumes (I can see that one of the Ugly Sisters will be an udder cow) chatting about her love for panto.
Inbetween regaling me with tales of pantos past, she casually drops into the conversation some of the greats
she’s pantoed with, including Arthur Askey, Les Dawson and Lionel Blair. “I have worked with the crème de la crème,” she says.
And Rula’s not doing it to show off or name drop, she’s sharing it because she wants to show how passionate she is about proper pantomime.
“I love panto, it’s great fun,” she says. “But it’s a huge responsibility as it’s the first time that children experience live theatre. I want to get them so fired about it that they want to come back and see proper plays.”
To help them do just that, she’s about to play the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, her second panto at The Hexagon (the first was Aladdin many years ago in which she co-starred with Jet from Gladiators) and she can’t wait.
Cinderella is “the most magical and well-known of all the pantos,” she says. And one of the things that has attracted her to The Hexagon’s production is that “it’s traditional”. She’s harking back to her career with all those panto masters that she reeled off without pausing for breath.
“I personally have a huge dislike of a panto – that’s the most traditional of theatre in England – that’s been built around personalities. That’s not pantomime, it’s revue,” she says firmly.
“A proper panto is traditional and has all real actors, not personalities and sports people. I only do proper panto.
“This is a 100 per cent well-written, genuinely well-acted pantomime with magic, with wonderful sets and costumes, beautiful music and 100 per commitment from all the cast.”
And this commitment, plus her career with those aforementioned icons means that Rula is picky about her panto roles: “I’ll only do traditional panto with proper actors,” she says again.
Rula feels that Cinderella is going to be a smash hit. “It didn’t take much persuading,” she says of her decision to spend Christmas in Reading.
“It’s going to be beautiful.”
When we meet, the show had only been in rehearsals for a few days and the cast have barely got to know each other.
“There’s already a great cohesion among the actors and dancers,” she says. “Pantos are not one of those things that you can soft pedal on. Panto requires, probably more than anything else, requires 150 per cent energy, commitment and magic.”
Cinderella fits Rula’s exacting bill: “It’s magic if you’ve got a good script, which we have, a good cast, which we have and a good director, which we have. This mix is a joy.
“Everyone is pulling together in a very short amount of time – and there’s a great deal to do – to make it a real happening and ensure that it will pull emotions out of children and get them away from their Gameboys and computers and electronic gadgets and get them involved in live action.”
That pulling of emotions she hopes will help children rediscover the magic in their lives, something that includes her role as the Fairy Godmother. Especially as she needs some help from the audience to get Cinderella to the ball on time.
“The wand is a bit duff, it’s a bit second hand,” she says mysteriously, “which is why it’s important for me to ask for help. The Fairy Godmother is slightly bumbly and the magic goes skewiff.
“The children will have to help me.
“Children don’t believe in magic these days,” she laments, but it’s something that she wants to change, not least because it’s life-affirming. “If you believe in yourself, anything can happen. I think one of the most important things in life is to hold on to that great belief in yourself.
“If you don’t, then no one else is going to.”
Although she’s a panto veteran, it’s the first time that she’s actually played the Fairy Godmother – “I’ve played Prince Charming before,” she says – and, like any panto worth its magic beans, she’s promising it’s suitable for all the family.
“Panto is broad in its appeal. With this panto anyone from four to 94 will enjoy it,” she says. “The child has to be old enough to have concentration, with very young children it’s difficult to get them to sit still. The panto is very broad in its appeal with its singing and dancing.”
Rula’s enthusiastic about the musical numbers too, citing that there’s all the great hits from all the popular shows of the moment including High School Musical, The Wiz and Hairspray among others. “There’s wonderful songs that kids will know,” she adds. “I think that’s great.”
She has her own songs which she’s looking forward to singing, including one in a small comedy routine that has been specially written for her.
“I’m not a great singer, I have a low voice. I’m musical, but I’m not a great singer,” she admits, but her number she adds, “sounds fantastic”.
Throughout our short time together Rula makes it clear that she’s only doing panto because she cares so much about it. That’s something that’s probably been ingrained in her from working with those comedy greats.
And now she’s the icon heading the cast of Cinderella.
It’s going to be magical and, next year, when her fellow cast members do their interviews for their latest shows, sharing their love for panto no doubt they’ll be casually dropping Rula’s name in to the conversation.
Now that’s magic.
Cinderella opens on Saturday at The Hexagon and runs until Sunday, January 5. Tickets cost £16. For details, log on to www.readingarts.com or call (0118) 960 6060.