“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”
We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.
“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”
“And now,” I said, you’re in Jack and The Beanstalk – New York’s first panto for 100 years,”
“Yes. The first major panto for over a century.”
“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”
“Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”
“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”
“Yes,” said Matt.
“OK,” I said.
“Mat and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”
“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”
“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”
“Someone?” I asked.
“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!”
“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”
“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”
“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”
“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”
“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”
“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”
“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”
“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”
“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.
“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”
“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”
“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”
“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”
“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”
“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”
“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”
“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”
“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.
“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”
“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”
“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”
“And you were…”
“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”
“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”
“So you are surviving,” I said.
Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”
“And a residency at The Slipper Room,” I said. “What is the Slipper Room?”
“It’s a burlesque house. They market it as ‘a house of varieties’ – It’s like a new vaudeville.”
“Is it the whole caboodle?” I asked. “Singers, dancers, comedy…”
“And we have sideshows and a little bit of magic and it’s all rigged-up so we can have aerial acts.”
“What does ‘sideshow’ mean in this context?” I asked.
“People who stick piercings through their eyes and stuff like that. Stuff that makes your stomach turn.”
“And you…?” I asked.
“I open the show sometimes as my character Wilfredo… Wilfredo is more-or-less confined to the Slipper Room, which pleases me.”
“Are you ever ‘Matt Roper’ in the Slipper Room?”
“Yeah. We have in-house shows and some out-of-house guest shows who hire the theatre and I’ve done comedy sketches and stuff like that.”
“There is a man in a gimp mask on your Facebook page…”
“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”
“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”
“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”
“Nothing surprises me,” I said.
Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.
“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.
“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”