Dame awash with excitement over panto role

With a seagull plunging through a wave of flame red hair, this is not your typical laundry boss. Particularly when, under the garish clothes and make-up, there is a 34-year-old west countryman.

His appearance in a Norfolk launderette, to the bemusement and amusement of customers, signals that the curtain is soon to go up on the pantomime season.

Russel Hicken plays Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Sheringham Little Theatre – and has been in Norfolk for dress fittings as preparations for the production get under way.

The actor and singer from Penzance with a penchant for musical theatre is relishing the opportunity to appear in the seaside theatre show.

'I grew up in a small seaside town so this will be home from home for me,' he said.

It is not the first time he has donned a dress for a panto role. At Mountview drama school, he played the Sarah The Cook dame's role in Dick Whittington, and his first major role after graduating with a musical theatre degree in 1999 was as an ugly sister in a Star Wars spoof show called Luke Back in Anger – ideal as he is also a sci-fi fan.

Russel played Princess Perrins, alongside saucy sister Princess Lee, which involved wearing a latex miniskirt and corset.

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His North Norfolk panto wardrobe will be equally extravagant – including the seagull-topped Sheringham dress adorned with sandcastles, buckets, spades, and blue frilly 'waves'.

His love of panto is fuelled by the chance to 'get interaction with the audience' which was 'dangerous but exciting as well'.

Sharing a London flat with another panto actor, Martin Ramsden, who specialises in dames, means he has a ready supply of useful tips on hand.

'He has helped me so much preparing for this. There is such an art to it. It is a comedy role which is obviously a man in a dress – so you must tread the fine line between masculinity and femininity'

But it does lead to bizarre flatmate discussions between the two, which can revolve around make-up hints.

Russel does not come from a showbiz family but enjoyed dance classes from the age of four, which gave him performing confidence.

It was when the family went to a local karaoke session and the youngster sang that his father realised he had a good voice and suggested singing lessons.

That led to joining local operatic and dramatic societies in and around Penzance, and could see him rehearsing three different shows in a week as he immersed himself into the entertainment world. He began to enjoy the great buzz of being on stage.

'You cannot put the feeling you get when you go on to stage into words – the emotions it gives you when open up to the world,' he said.

He is a also a keen artist – which was another career option – but having chosen the acting path he still enjoys painting and drawing as a hobby.

After drama school his longest run in a role was between 2000-2007 as the baker in a touring Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat show, which twice visited Norwich, and was headlined by stars including Darren Day, H from Steps, and Stephen Gately when it went into the West End.

Other roles have been as varied as Jean Val Jean in a Les Miserables workshop, a college Shakespeare play As You Like It, and a television advert for VO5 shampoo - which proved to be a hair-raising experience for the young actor fresh from drama school.

'The advert was my first job after college. I was 'party boy' among a group of lads playing music and computer games, eating pizza and get a visit from the girl next door who has been washing her hair. They think she is going to complain but she comes and joins in.

'I spent hours eating cold pizza to get all the close up shots of my reaction. I felt quite sick. Nobody told me I could have spat it out,' he smiled.

Now, a bit older and wiser, he getting his teeth into learning the 'big speeches' for his dame role, with rehearsals due to start in earnest on November 22.

During spells between roles he has been working in the wardrobe department at the London Palladium during the staging of Sister Act, which has starred Whoopi Goldberg, Sheila Hancock and Simon Webbe from Blue.

'It's good to be there amongst the energy. It's the next best thing to performing.' added Russel who has a realistic rather than starry-eyed ambition.

'Some people say they want fame and stardom. I just want to work,' he said.

l Aladdin runs at the Sheringham Little Theatre from December 6 to January 3. Tickets and information are available through a box office on 01263 822347.

l Preparations for the festive show at Cromer Pier are also under way. Today the cast are gathering to launch the show amid rehearsals.

l See next week's News for pictures and a story about the Christmas Seaside Special.