The magnificent High Rocks National Monument, dating back millions of years, provides a scenic backdrop as former EastEnders actor Michael Greco and the cast launch the Assembly Hall Theatre’s 2017 festive offering, Aladdin. He plays Abanazar, in the classic “rags to riches” tale, featuring a beautiful Princess, magic lamps and a hilarious genie – a million miles away from his role as Albert Square’s bad boy Beppe di Marco, a role that saw him win at the British Soap Awards in 1999 and 2000.
An accomplished actor on stage and screen, including lead roles in Chicago, Exposure, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Kiss Me Kate, he recently featured in BBC1’s medical drama Casualty and ITV’s reality shows Celebrity Love Island as well as Soap Star Superstar.
At the launch he told me about playing the baddie…
Yes, I’m playing the baddie, the best role. In fact I probably wouldn’t have agreed to do it if I wasn’t playing the baddie. I’ve played Abanazar once before, about 8 years ago in Poole, and I’ve also played Captain Hook in panto and they were both so much fun, so I know that this is just going to be incredible.
What’s the best part part about the role of the bad guy?
The very best part of playing a bad guy is that you don’t have to smile. You know when people want you to smile in photos well, when you’re bad, you don’t have to, but maybe that’s just me. No, the best part is that you be can be as bad as you like and you get away with it. It’s a great opportunity to dress up, put on the make up and then really scare the kids! They want to be scared, and I’m the man to do it.
So now it’s the calm before the storm for you.
Oh yes, the rehearsal schedule is massively intense. We don’t even get two weeks. Panto is very hectic, especially a couple of days before we open as it’s then that we sort out all the technicalities on stage and make changes to the script, and the costumes, and just about everything else. So you have to know your lines within the first couple of days so then you can concentrate on building the character. So yes, it’s a good challenge to be given such a short time to get it all together but, somehow, it does all come together.
Do you have to work massively long days to fit it all in?
No, not really. The rehearsals are pretty much just nine to five but then the last two or three days are much longer because of the technical rehearsals and then the full run throughs. But we get used to it. I’ve been doing this for 30 years now so I’m pretty used to it.
Yes, of course, because we all remember your days in Eastenders as Beppe.
I know, I know. It was such a long time ago. I think I started that show about 20 years ago now and it seems like an age ago but most of my life, and probably many people don’t know this, has been in the theatre. I started off doing youth theatre at Surrey Youth Theatre and then went on to drama school after that to train in dancing singing and acting. I’ve done a few West End shows since, and a lot more that have been on tour.
TV and film is always a bonus in our eyes but going back to the theatre is what I love most because it really gets the adrenaline pumping and the heart rate going. To see the peoples face being entertained live well, hopefully being entertained, right in front of you is far more rewarding than doing something on set where someone goes “Cut” every two seconds. I am just so looking forward to it.
Following her captivating performance on Britain’s Got Talent, Jess Robinson – the woman of a 1,000 voices – will play the role of the Slave of the Ring. The voice of CBBC’s hit show Horrible Histories, Jess has also voiced adverts for The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and BBC4. She is now a favourite on television shows and at the Edinburgh Fringe performing as Cheryl Cole, Hilary Clinton and Madonna.
She was very happy to tell me of her role….
I’m the Slave, or the Spirit of the Ring. I’m the one who makes the carpet fly. I come out of Abanazar’s ring every now and again and we have as lovely time!
Having seen you on Britain’s Got Talent, I know that we are in for a massive treat with you.
Well, thank you. Thank you very much. You know, I have never been so nervous in my entire life. We were waiting there for 12 hours and every few seconds you have a camera crew coming up to you and saying, “Can we interview you?”, “How much would it mean for you to win this?”, “Have you done anything like this before?”, “How nervous are you?” – “Can you just say you’re a little bit nervous?” – so I started saying “Yes, I’m really nervous” – and then I started to believe it.
But once you got on stage, you seemed so “at home”.
Once I was there, yes, absolutely. I mean I have been doing this for years. I played Little Voice on the national tour with Ray Quinn and Beverley Callard. It was a lovely show and, I remember that we came here to Tunbridge Wells, so if anyone saw that show – it was me!
How do you go about doing the impressions that you do?
Picking impressions, I just pick someone with a distinctive voice and it has to be a voice that is far enough away from my own that I can make a difference, because you never want to hear your own voice in the impressions. So, for instance, Billie Piper. I can’t really do her well because she sounds a bit like me. It’s the same sort of tone and pitch so that makes it much harder to be distinctive.
(Author’s note – At this point Jess launches into two of her faultless impressions)
People like Natalie Cassidy, Sonia from Eastenders she’s great because you just have to push your chin forward, do a lisp and it’s a completely different sort of a whole thing going on and that’s really fun and Cheryl Cole, you know like, she doesn’t move her face much but she’s very pretty – and my boyfriend likes it when I do Cheryl, I can’t imagine why.
I trained as a singer, a classical singer, so when it comes to doing people like Katherine Jenkins and doing other singers that’s really fun because a lot of other impressionists can’t do the singing. I’ve already been in talks about doing some of those in the pantomine, because I have quite a few of scenes with Abanazar, so I’ll try and get loads of impressions in, some singing impressions too and I’ll sing in my own voice as well.
Also at the launch party were Aladdin, who will be played by CBBC’s presenter Mark Rhodes. Winner of 2015 BAFTA Children’s Award as half of Sam & Mark, whose programmes include CBBC’s Big Friday Wind-Up, Junior Bake Off and family gameshow, Copycats. Mark has also appeared on Dancing on Ice, Celebrity Wipeout and was a runner-up in Pop Idol.
Tom Whalley plays the hilarious PC Pong. On television, he appeared in the BBC3 series Shoplife. On stage, Tom has performed as Dame Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk, toured the UK in Looking for Oz and played Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar at Durham Cathedral.
Also returning to the Tunbridge Wells stage is Chris Pizzey, who last appeared at the Assembly Hall Theatre in panto nine years ago. He will be appearing as Wishee Washee. Chris, known for his appearances in television’s The Basil Brush Show, will be joined by larger than life Quinn Patrick as he takes to the stage in a glorious flurry of fabulous frocks as Tunbridge Well’s magnificent Panto Dame, Widow Twankey.
Aladdin runs from Friday 8th December to Wednesday 3rd January 2018, with matinee performances on most days, at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells and is produced by UK Productions in association with the Assembly Hall Theatre, Choreography by Regan Shepherd, Direction by John-Jackson Almond, and Lighting Design by Joe Hornsby. Tickets are available at www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk or through the box office on 01892 530613