At 12.30pm on a late summer day in the Grosvenor Centre, Northampton’s shoppers paused for a brief moment of showbiz.
The stars of this year’s Derngate panto Aladdin were gathered for the now traditional annual unveiling of the cast. It was a little bit like the theatrical version of The Cobblers announcing their big signings for the upcoming season.
Like your favourite footwear, Northampton is esoteric and down to earth at the same time, a kind of hobnail counterpart to Hollywood – so you can’t just bung anyone in front of us and expect us to be impressed. We know how to shrug and wander off in a bemused way in this town.
But in front of a small stage outside Primark (dominated by a giant replica genie) a decent crowd had accumulated to meet Union J singer Jaymi Hensley, actor Paul Nicholas and Sheila Ferguson from the Three Degrees.
Hold on. The actual Sheila Ferguson from the Three Degrees. Outside Primark. Paul Nicholas was the nation’s favourite cheeky chappie when Just Good Friends was pulling in millions on viewers on BBC1. Now they are part of the ensemble on The Marigold Hotel reality show which takes veteran celebrities to India and follows their adventures.
Jaymi kicked off proceedings, launching into a passionate rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. We were then introduced to Paul Nicholas, aka the evil Abenazzer, and I was mildly troubled to hear him attracting panto-style boos. In turban and sinister make-up he was unrecognisable as the likable twinkly-eyed geezer of his sitcom days but as soon as he started talking his voice took me straight back.
Sheila Ferguson then swept onto to the stage bringing what can only be described as magnifisassyness to proceedings.
There was a quick Q&A on the stage then Jaymi – like a busy young midfielder operating between two wily veterans – took it all home with a Union J number slowed down and balladed up.
Back at the Derngate he was excited to be working with big stars.
“The Three Degrees – there isn’t a dance floor in the country that has not had a boogie to the Three Degrees and Paul is such a household name. This year is slightly different for me. I’m with people I deem as massively famous. I would never call myself famous. I’m successful and recognisable to my fans but I’m just in a cast. The guy who is doing the lights is no different to me,” Jaymi said.
“I did my first panto as a lead last year. I did it when I grew up. I’m from Luton and I used to play parts in the panto at Stevenage, I was a horseman, a rat whatever, so it’s always been in my blood. Musical theatre is in my blood. I love being on stage and I love acting as well, and this is a lot of fun, camp and the audience can have a laugh with it. It was a no brainer to do it. It’s close to home, I’m such a home bird. To be away from my family, my loved ones and my fiancé at Christmas is difficult. It’s going to be great this year I’m looking forward to it.”
Jaymi is currently planning his forthcoming wedding to his fiance Olly and has also thrown himself into cookery for Celebrity Masterchef.
“Right now I’m doing Celebrity Masterchef which is tough. I don’t cook. I don’t want to embarrass myself but rather than do something in my comfort zone I thought why don’t I push myself. It stresses you out. You don’t sleep. I’ve spent so much money on all this bloody equipment but I’ve got a new life skill.”
Union J fans needn’t worry either, a third album is in the pipeline and due to be recorded in America next year.
Paul Nicholas, I discovered to my shame, is a true gentleman actor. As we sat down for a chat I mentioned what a huge fan I was of his in the sitcom Rings On Their Fingers – which he wasn’t in. He did give an awkward twitch and I deduced he didn’t want to go on about it and why would he? He wasn’t in it. But he didn’t correct me or take offence or make my life difficult in any way, which he could have.
It emerged he was a friend and London neighbour of Tim Piggot-Smith who died in Northampton just before Death of a Salesman earlier in the year.
“I don’t really know Northampton. I was in Barnum here in the 90s and hadn’t been back since. Tim Piggot-Smith used to live four doors down from me in my street. I came to have a look around the town in the last week of his rehearsal on the Wednesday and I wondered if they were rehearsing inside. I thought I can’t go in and disturb them and he died on the Friday.
“It was Death of a Salesman and it was a rather strenuous and quite a depressing part. It is quite a heavy play, An intense and weighty kind of character to play. Pam his wife I know had been injured in rehearsal. He was under a lot of pressure and it is a great loss,” said Paul adding that although they were neighbours their busy schedules meant that when Paul welcomed Tim to the area, Tim laughed: “I’ve been living here two years.”
Paul is looking forward to the run in Northampton. As an experienced Christmas entertainer he appreciates being close enough to home to commute.
“I have no idea how many I’ve done but I am a panto veteran. I think the first one I did was about 1980 something or other. I was saying to the guy, when you start off you’re young and you play Buttons, and then when you get a bit older you play Prince Charming, and then a little bit older Captain Hook, when you get older still then you play Abenazzar – when you’re really old you end up playing Cinderellas dad Baron Hardup. I’m not quite there yet. But once you get into panto you can play it for life. You can see what I’m saying.
“But it is not as hard as it used to be, the runs of pantos have shortened a bit now. I did the Palladium panto with Des O’Connor and that was still playing in March. I’m going to commute this because I live in north London. It’s only an hour an twenty minutes. I can be home by 9.30pm which is a real luxury when you’re in panto.”
Sheila Ferguson will be staying in the area during the panto and likes the feel of being in a town that is bigger than a lot of UK cities.
She said: “I played here with the Three Degrees in 1985. It’s lovely to be here it really is. There was a really good vibe in the shopping centre. Usually when I’m in a panto I’m the only black person in the area but I’ve seen a lot us here, it’s going to be really good fun.
“I have twin daughters, 35, and Alexandria graduated from Northampton University so she is flying in from Dubai so she is having a reunion with her school mates to come and see the panto. It’s really cool.”
In addition to her hugely popuar Soulfood Cookbook Sheila’s autobiography is coming out next year and she has joined the show Loose Women.
Aladdin will be her 12th and last panto.
“It is hard work but I don’t talk about it much because people don’t want to hear it. People want to hear that its wonderful, so its wonderful. It’s my last one,” she said with no-nonsense honesty.
For twelve Christmases she has sacrificed time with her family to spend the festive season with other people but knowing that Northampton will be her last means she is determined to make it special.
“I make the magic come true. I’m not like Mary Poppins. I play it with street cred. I like to whoopi it up a bit. Musically it should be good.
“I’m a workaholic but this is my last panto, it could end up being my favourite because its my last. The last night, on New Year’s Eve is going to be something. It could be a bit weepy.”
Actor, singer and musical theatre legend Paul Nicholas stars as the evil Abanazar, the sorcerer hell-bent on finding the magical lamp capable of granting three wishes. In a career that has spanned pop music, musical theatre and television, Paul is best known for originating the stage roles of Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats, and played the lead roles in Hair, Grease and Barnum in London’s West End and throughout the UK on tour, both as leading man and as a producer. Most recently Paul was seen in Albert Square in the recurring role of neighbourhood nasty man Gavin Sullivan in EastEnders and earlier this year Paul travelled to India where he spent a month with seven other celebrity faces in The Real Marigold Hotel for the BBC.
Union J boyband member Jaymi Hensley stars in the title role of Aladdin, having made his pantomime debut for Qdos Entertainment last Christmas playing Peter Pan. Having trained at the prestigious BRIT School for Performing Arts, Jaymi joined the boyband Triple J in 2011, a popular trio who entered the ninth series of ITV’s The X Factor. With an additional bandmate the band reformed as Union J, winning over the judges and audiences and coming fourth in the annual television talent competition. Since then Union J went on to great success releasing the popular hit singles Carry You, Tonight (We Live Forever) and You Got it All as well as two studio albums, their self-titled top ten album Union J and You Got It All – The Album. Later this month Jaymi will be appearing on Celebrity Masterchef.
American singer, songwriter, actress and author Sheila Ferguson joins them as the Spirit of the Ring, Scheherazade. Best known for her music career as lead singer of the Three Degrees with hits including When Will I See You Again, Sheila has forged a successful career including with musical theatre roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Soul Train, Fame and Daddy Cool in the West End and on television, including her own sitcom Land of Hope and Gloria and appearances in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Celebrity MasterChef and The Real Marigold Hotel, alongside her Aladdin co-star Paul Nicholas.
Aladdin, which runs from Friday 8 to Sunday 31 December 2017. Tickets are priced from £11 to £31* and can be booked by calling 01604 624811 or visiting www.royalandderngate.co.uk. Discounts are available for all performances.