Express & Star

No slacking for Matt in panto world

They could just call it The Matt Slack Show. Because each year, tens of thousands of people flood to Birmingham to see an unlikely hero steal the show.

'Dick Whittington' - Birmingham Hippodrome. 3 October 2022.

But then again, calling it The Matt Slack Show would be unfair on another unsung hero, Michael Harrison, who is the producer of the UK’s biggest and best panto, at the city’s Hippodrome Theatre. Not only that, he produces about two dozen other shows around the UK and is besties with Sir Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

But then again, that would also be unfair. It would be unfair on the brilliant and unexpectedly funny Marti Pellow – a man whose jokes are as good as his heavenly voice. It would be unfair on Dr Ranj, a man Matt Slack describes as ‘a joy’. And it would be unfair on Doreen Tipton, Suzanne Shaw, and the dozens and dozens of brilliant behind-the-scenes creatives who make pantos tick on the UK’s biggest and best show.

But – and none of the other cast, crew and creatives would mind – it is all about that man Slack. And after years of being the figure-of-fun stooge, Mr Slack is finally stepping up. No longer is he the seemingly-dim-witted, down-on-his-luck, unlucky-in-love sidekick. This year, he’s stepping up and playing the starring role in Dick Whittington.

“Don’t worry, all the jokes are there. We’ve got two hours of them,” Matt says.

Ahh bliss. The man who’s funny – and saucy – for the adults, but who gets the kids laughing just as much with his it’s-okay-it’s-clean slapstick is back.

Dick Whittington is a colossal endeavour – one starring Marti Pellow, Matt Slack, Dr Ranj, Suzanne Shaw, Doreen Tipton (hurrah!) and the brilliant dame, Andrew Ryan. It runs from December 17 to January 29 and there’s something like 56 shows a week, or maybe it’s just 11 or 12. Who knows? It is, without question, a punishing schedule.

Matt is undaunted. He’s into his ninth year as the panto’s star turn and can’t wait to get started.

“I’m raring to go. It’s taking shape. All that hard work throughout the year, all those ideas and all that writing, it’s finally coming together.”

He loves the team, with its mix of new faces and old favourites.

“What’s good is that it’s a real combination this year; we’ve got Doreen, who I’ve worked with before; then Andrew’s come back as the Dame – so we have that familiarity of a team. That gives us safety. We know we’re onto something.

“Marti Pellow – let me tell you, he is hilarious. We’re having a real laugh. I’ve worked with him before, on Aladdin, a few years back. Back then I had real problems with my vocal chords so that year was a tough shift. It’s nice to work with him when I’m back on form.”

Who knew? Another Scotsman who’s as funny as Billy Connolly.

“Dr Ranj is just a joy. I’ve worked with Suzanne Shaw, in Cinderella. And with Dr Ranj it’s like we’ve known each other for years.”

But that schedule, Matt. You were going to tell us about the schedule.

“Oh yes. Well, I’ve been going since November 21, and that’s not including all the writing that went on through the year in a darkened room. That can be the most painful process because you’re trying to wrack your brains and come up with things.

“As well as this show, I direct the panto at Richmond – Goldilocks and the Three Bears – which is a different skillset. I have to have a very, very different head on when I put that panto on its feet, give them a great show, watch the Saturday evening and then go into rehearsals for this.

“It’s massively tiring. It’s mental exhaustion and the pressure of putting a show on. Other shows this size take three months. We have a week’s rehearsal to put it on.

“But it’s what we do. I’m in panto mode. I just have to take that director’s head off and put my Matt Slack head on.”

Kaboom. And he does. And he flies through the interview as the most personable man this side of, well, Dick Whittington.

Slack is something of a genius. A man who runs the show like an Olympic sprinter, he is a phenomenon. And that, perhaps, is why the people of the West Midlands love him. For, make no mistake, the Hippodrome panto is a Matt Slack love-in, with such big name stars as Marti Pellow and such hilarious characters as Doreen Tipton adding their own fairy dust.

“I never take it for granted. I appreciate that people welcome me back. I get that people are affectionate and I love the comments year after year. That’s why I keep coming back. There have been talks of me doing the London Palladium and the answer is: Why would I desert them in the West Midlands? Why would I want that to change? The loyalty that I get is given back by me. I love this show, the people I work with and the audiences who come to watch. It’s special.”

It is indeed. And with opening night this weekend, rehearsals are into the finishing straight. There’s time in London, then technical rehearsals in Birmingham. Matt says: “Those are very long days. But the chemistry between us all is great, so it’s fun to do.”

This year’s show has gone right back to basics. After the circus acts of such shows as Goldilocks, it’s more about the characters. “There’s a huge surge of adrenalin when we get going. Then you get that first day off, after you’ve done a dozen shows, and it just hits you. Once we have Christmas out the way, it runs like a machine. This is our work. Once we’re a few weeks in, your body adjusts and you can pace yourself. I just have to keep healthy, stay fit, and look after the voice – we can’t go out every night. We take it very seriously. If you are ill during a panto, it’s a nightmare – it’s no fun at all. You have to work doubly hard. We push through.”

This year, Matt is playing two parts. He’s still the funny guy, the one who cracks the jokes, but he’s also the star – Dick Whittington – his name is up in lights.

“I’m the hero and not just the stooge. I quite like that. There’s some lovely scenes that I get to play that would normally be played out by someone else. Whether we keep that theme going forward, who knows? But I’m loving playing that part. I’d normally be Idle Jack, but we’ve lost him, so I’m doing the funnies and lead.”

Seeing Slack in action is to watch poetry in motion.

“It makes me cross when people frown upon panto. I find great offence with those comments. It’s not right. It’s hard work and not everybody can do it. It’s a skill and an art form. It takes a lot of preparation and a lot of hard work. It’s comedy you won’t see anywhere else. It’s designed to generate laughter from all generations. You tread the line – what can we get away with and what can’t we get away with? It’s a minefield. It’s hard work. What we put on in the space of two weeks – other shows would get three months.”

There’s a word for the gifted Michael Harrison, the show’s producer, who first spotted the potential in Matt Slack. “He’s a unique person, he really is. He’s a creative, he’s a producer and he’s got a wealth of talent and vision. It was his idea to introduce me to the Birmingham audience. I owe him a huge amount for the success we’ve created. We work very well together. He allows me to get on with it and do what I want and he’s juggling a lot of balls and has a lot on the go. He’s an incredible man. He knows pantomime. He knows how to take it forward.”

The show runs until the end of January, after which Slack is planning a rest. Last year he went straight into another show, which was exhausting.

“My plan this year is to have a holiday, which is much-needed, and just have a rest and have some downtime. I’m thrust into this world of celebrity and glitz and it’s manic and then it stops. That hits you like a tonne of bricks. You need to rest afterwards, so I spend time with my wife and dog, and see the family in Devon. And then the process slowly starts again. We start thinking about what’s next – or I’m up for castings as an actor or on other projects. My main priority is what’s next.”

Oh yes it is. And Slack’s already been booked to appear again, Christmas 2023, at the Hippodrome. You really can’t keep a good man down.

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