Brian Conley led the cast in Robinson Crusoe last year at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre.
This year he’s back, and this year he’s stressing it’s proper panto as Cinderella takes to the stage from Saturday, December 13 to Sunday, January 4.
“Robinson Crusoe was a lovely show, a swashbuckling adventure, but this is different, and I always think that Cinderella is the best of all the pantos. It’s the story of good versus evil; everyone can understand it; everyone knows the story and everyone really gets into the story.”
And Brian, he admits, feels much more comfortable as Buttons. Robinson Crusoe achieves his goal and gets the girl; but Buttons has the more interesting time. He gets the laughs, plus, just as importantly, he gets some real pathos en route.
“I love it when people say that they have been really moved by it. When Cinderella says that she loves me, but as a brother, I never ham it up. I just know that I have got the audience from the reaction.”
Brian has done so many pantos that he doesn’t know how many he has done. His first one, he says, was back in the 80s, in Swansea, when he was appearing with a comedy band called Tomfoolery: “I was 19. I am 53 now. You work it out.
“And I have done pretty much all of them ever since. I have done Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe, but Cinderella is the one that I always love doing. For the comic, it’s the best ever. You are integral to it. You get Cinderella the tickets to the ball, and you don’t end up having a happy ending!
“At the moment on Broadway, Disney are doing Aladdin, and it is like a cheap version of one of our pantos. They are all raving about it, like it is the best thing since sliced bread. But I just want to stand up and tell them ‘We have been doing that for years!” They think it is all brand new and cutting edge, but it’s nothing compared to what we are doing.”
For Brian, this year’s panto is a little interlude on his big tour of Barnum, a reworked version of last year’s Chichester Festival Theatre show. At the CFT the show failed to impress the critics, and Brian admits there was plenty wrong with it. Hence the reworking.
“The bottom line is that P T Barnum is a showman, and Brian Conley is a showman. When I talk to the audience, I really talk to them. I have tried to develop the comedy still in character. We knew that there were certain things that were wrong, and we eventually got permission to change them, and we are now telling a really cracking story.”
Brian admits when he saw it at Chichester, it wasn’t remotely clear that the wife had died: “That’s been sorted out now. And I do all my own opening. We have got some totally-new routines. I said ‘When I am funny, it has got to be funny!’ If it isn’t, you will lose them. You have got to be strong.
“We knew it didn’t work, and we knew we had to make the story work. We have added two new scenes so that the wife is not so forgiving. I said that the man has got to beg and realise that he has done wrong and that he shouldn’t have had the affair. It was all brushed over in the original.”
But it’s hard work: “I am on all the time. I have lost a stone already. I have gone from a 36-inch waist to a 32, and I have got muscles now I never even knew I had. And I have learnt brand-new skills.”
Brian went to circus school two or three times a week: “They said ‘You are a good pupil!’ I said ‘Do you know why? I have got to be!’”
Tickets on 02380 711811 or from www.mayflower.org.uk.