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Steve is made up by the continued success of pantomime

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

By Mike Byrne

  • Steve Bennett (above and opposite) making up as Widow Twankey

  • Steve Bennett in just some of the panto dame roles he has performed in Exeter over the past 25 years

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For the first time in a quarter of a century, Steve Bennett will not have them rolling in the aisles in Exeter this Christmas.

Instead he will be spreading his good cheer, big laughs and bigger false breasts among the good people of Yeovil.

For Steve, Exeter's acknowledged Mr Panto, and the man who helped establish Christmas pantomime at the Northcott, is taking up the chance to add directing to his many theatre talents.

He will be leading the cast of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on and off stage at the Octagon Theatre for 43 shows from December 12 to January 5.

"It really is quite sad not to be playing in Exeter this Christmas," he said.

"It will be the first time in 25 years I have missed out either at the Northcott or more recently at the Corn Exchange.

"It is a special audience in Exeter and of course I am Exeter born and bred.

"We achieved a fantastic standard of shows at the Northcott with over 22,000 coming along, but when I was offered the chance to direct as well as be the Dame in Snow White I really couldn't say no.

"They came looking for me and it is a great opportunity.

"I have done a little directing in part in the past but this is a really exciting challenge."

He added: "The other factor is that perhaps the Corn Exchange is not quite the same as the Northcott.

"It is an excellent all-round venue but perhaps not the best for pantomime – although I wish them all the best this year with Cinderella.

"I still think it's a bit of a shame that the Northcott does not do pantomimes any more."

Of all the Dames Steve has played in Exeter, he admits his favourite has to be his last role at the Northcott, as the Dame in Mother Goose – which he also co-wrote.

Steve lives in St Thomas with his wife Becky and two sons, Harry and Alfie, not far from his parents' home. He said: "I think Harry is perhaps old enough to come and see me in the show although Alfie is probably too young.

"Having said that, Alfie recognises me in the panto posters – which is a bit worrying!"

Steve was just 16 when he left St Thomas High School and, although he had dabbled in amateur dramatics, he set about learning a trade and took an apprenticeship, as an electrician with Colstons Electric, spending four and a half years at building sites all over the city.

He eventually auditioned for the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and won himself a place in London.

He said: "I had this idea that it would be all arty, which I'm not, and that I wouldn't fit in, but there were all sorts of people there.

"There were people who had just left school, people in their 30s and from all sorts of backgrounds.

"And the good thing is that they really prepare you for the job in a down-to-earth way."

He won a three-production contract at the Northcott, starting with the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea.

Other memorable parts over the years have included Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd, Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Magwich in Great Expectations, Gordon in Neville's Island, Toad in Toad of Toad Hall, Lucky Eric in Bouncers and Harry in Harry in the Moonlight.

"My love is theatre, it's why I went into the business and what I trained to do," said Steve. "You can't beat performing in front of a live audience."

That's what Steve does best – especially when he is playing the Dame in pantomime.

"I'd worked a lot for the Northcott's artistic director, John Durnin, and I always said we ought to do pantos," said Steve.

"I was constantly on at him saying 'Come on, let's do a panto, let's do a panto', and eventually, due to me boring everyone to death, they agreed and said 'let's do one'.

"As luck would have it, I did two for John. Ben Crocker – artistic director at the Northcott – happened to see me and asked me if I'd continue to do it.

"I love it! I'm very lucky that as long as I don't do anything terrible I'll have a job every year.

"Being the Dame is a bit sweaty: if you're not on stage running about, you're in the wings having your costumes ripped off."

He added: "I'm so used to putting make-up on, I don't think twice about it. It doesn't take me long to do – about 15 minutes and I'm ready for action. The main thing is I can get it off quicker than anyone else and head straight for the bar!"

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