Excited by her Wicked panto bow

IT WILL be Josie Lawrence’s first stab at panto, but she is relishing the task of taking on the role of the Wicked Queen.

“It’s a fantastic role to play – I’m hoping to make some small children very scared indeed!” she laughs, adding: “Let’s face it, at my age I’m not going to be Snow White and it’s always very good to be bad.”

IN CHARACTER – Josie Lawrence as the Wicked Queen

IN CHARACTER – Josie Lawrence as the Wicked Queen

Josie says the last time she played a villain was in Acorn Antiques: The Musical with Julie Walters where she played Bonnie, Mrs Overall’s nasty daughter. “It’s great being evil!” she says. “But, especially in panto, it’s going to be evil with a touch of humour, so there’s warmth there too.”

Surprisingly, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre will be the first panto for the 55-year-old comic and actress.

“I’d been asked before but I’ve always liked spending Christmas with my family and going to see other people in shows,” she reveals. “The only time I’ve ever worked at Christmas was when I was Anna in the King and I at the Palladium. Also, sadly, my mum isn’t with us any more – we lost her this year – and that’s who I used to always be with.”

Josie says she now can’t wait to get going with the seasonal favourite. “Some actors pooh-pooh panto, but I’ve never felt that way,” she explains.

“If you get it right, it’s a wonderful skill for an actor to learn. I’ve done Chekhov and Shakespeare – that’s my first love – and I’ve also done musicals and improvisation of course.

“Director Gerry Tebbutt has such an eye and everything he’s doing is great. I’m loving rehearsals, the script is wonderful, it’s very funny.”

The big question, of course, is that as the queen of improv – thanks to years of appearing on TV’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? – will she be ad-libbing her way through Snow White?

“There’s little bits you can add here and there but we have a script and we’re on a time limit,” she explains. “As a parent especially, you don’t want a panto to run for hours and hours. But I can improvise if something goes wrong, so I’m never nervous about that. I never ever worry about forgetting my lines.”

It’s a staggering 29 years since she helped blaze a trail for improv with the Comedy Store Players and she says: “There are improvisation workshops now but I think most of it came naturally to me. The main thing is not to worry if you make a mistake, a team member will help you out. Also, it’s key not to try to be too funny.”

Josie still performs regularly with the Comedy Store Players and says it’s been “the best part-time job in the world”. “I can take time off and then go back. I did 18 months with the Royal Shakespeare Company and then walked back in. It means for the past 30 years I’ve performed live every week of the year.”

It’s also what she remains best known for despite a long and very varied career.

“We went to Edinburgh this year for two weeks to do a show called What Does The Title Matter Anyway? because we weren’t allowed to use Whose Line Is It Anyway?” she explains. “There was me, Clive Anderson, Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie. We did a 1,000-seater and it was like being a rock star every night! It’s still so well loved.”

Even a stint in Britain’s biggest soap, EastEnders, hasn’t changed her reputation for comedy and improv – although she appeared in 49 episodes as Manda Best. “Everybody is so good and they work so hard on that show,” she says. “You have to get to Elstree studios by 6.30am every morning, but they were really like a family.

“Fantastic people, I loved it. But when my contract was coming up for renewal, I said I’ve loved it but I like to do different things.”

But it is possible Manda could make a return. “They put me in a cab and it just drove round the corner… so you never know,” says Josie. “You should never say never.”

Meanwhile, she’ll be playing the Wicked Queen alongside Amy Matthews as Snow White, June Whitfield on video as the Spirit of the Mirror, and seven dwarfs who include Ray Griffiths (from Willow, Star Wars and various Harry Potter movies).

SNOW White and the Seven Dwarfs will be at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, from Friday, December 5 until Sunday, Jan 4.

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