Bradford actor Andrew Ryan has fulfilled a lifelong ambition.
“I’ve become an honorary Sunbeam!” he grins.
“As a child, I went to Alhambra pantomimes and longed to be a Sunbeam but back then they were all girls.”
The Sunbeams are an Alhambra tradition, established by ‘panto king’ Francis Laidler nearly a century ago. In this year’s panto Robin Hood, the Sunbeams are youngsters from the Sara Packham School of Dance in Oxenhope – and Andrew is treading the boards with them as the Dame, Nurse Nelly.
Andrew, who last performed at the Alhambra in 1986 in The Rocky Horror Show, has had a varied career on stage and screen – his theatre credits include West End classic The Mousetrap and JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner, and he has appeared in children’s TV series My Parents Are Aliens and a BBC audio Doctor Who adventure – but panto is particularly close to his heart.
This his 26th panto, and his 21st playing a dame, and he runs panto roadshows in primary schools across Bradford district.
“We go into schools to try and make children aware of what it’s all about,” says Andrew. “We perform a mini panto, look at what goes on behind the scenes, and talk about the Alhambra. We use songs, poems, rap and memory games. It introduces panto to children who may not normally go to the theatre.
“Last year we went to my old school, St Barnabas in Heaton. I remembered playing Peter Rabbit in the hall.”
Andrew writes and directs pantos too, and says it’s an artform we should respect.
“There’s a lot of snobbery about it, which really gets to me,” he says. “I wrote and directed this year’s Blackpool panto, Snow White, and when I was staying there my landlady said, ‘It’s only panto, people don’t care’. How can anyone say that? There’s money thrown at the Alhambra panto, it’s like a West End show. For many people, panto is their only experience of theatre so it has to strike a chord.
“Panto is a melting pot of everything. It’s very physical and, unlike a play where you’re looking at other actors, you’re playing to the front.”
As a seasoned performer, what does he think of reality TV stars appearing on panto bills?
“Ever it was thus,” he says. “Pantos have always included notorious people, purely to sell tickets. In the past, panto players included women who had affairs with kings.”
As the dame, Andrew plays it straight. “I get requests from people saying things like, ‘can you come to my birthday party as a drag act?’ But it’s not drag. I’m not playing a woman, I don’t put on a woman’s voice.”
As Nurse Nelly, Andrew wears outlandish costumes, from a multi-coloured cup cake dress to a black leather suit, and spends all his offstage time getting changed.
“Even if I had time for a break, I can’t sit down in the costumes,” he laughs. “Panto is so much a part of the British psyche, there’s nothing else like it.”
Robin Hood – The Pantomime Adventure continues at the Alhambra until February 5. For tickets, ring (01274) 432000.