Professional panto dame returns to former school to mentor young actor

The cast of Alice in Wonderland.

A professional pantomime dame has returned to his former school to mentor a young actor who is about to make his dame debut.

Stephen Longstaff returned to Richmond School and Sixth Form College after almost 20 years to do a workshop with sixth former Toby Watson.

Toby is performing the role of the Duchess in the school and college’s forthcoming production of Alice in Wonderland: The Curious Pantomime.

Stephen demonstrated tricks of the trade to play the audience and ways to work the features of the dame’s elaborate costume for maximum comic value.

He also shared tips about tone of voice and how both accents and pitch can be used to dramatic effect, depending on the mood of a particular scene.

Toby quickly picked up how to vary his voice, as well as using exaggerated gestures and melodramatic expressions to get into character.

Sixteen-year-old Toby, who is studying theatre studies, English literature and English language A-levels, said: “Although I have performed in many productions in the past, this is my first experience of pantomime and I’m loving it.

“The slapstick humour, double-entendres and liveliness of the script are fabulous.

“The cast is having so much fun and it is infectious so I am sure it will spread to the audience. I have really appreciated Stephen giving up his time to mentor me, it has been a privilege to learn from a professional dame with over 20 years’ experience.”

Toby Watson and Stephen Longstaff.

Stephen is a farmer’s son with his own stonemasonry and building business and a love of breeding Dales’ ponies and restoring vintage tractors.

Stephen said: “I performed on stage for the first time at Ravensworth School aged 11 and I’ve never looked back.

“I helped to start the Dalton Amateur Dramatics’ Society in 1999 and have done their pantos every year since, working my way up from being the front end of the cow to the dame.

“My first professional pantomime was in 2017 and I subsequently auditioned for the Majestic Theatre in Darlington and have been their resident dame for four years, doing four pantos each year.

“Toby is going to make a terrific dame; he already has impeccable comic timing and is all set to work the audience and appreciates the value of ad-libbing. I can’t wait to see him!”

With Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland being a former Richmond student, staff say there is a great sense of pride among the cast and a feeling that this show is very much meant to be.

The cast extends to 35 actors, plus a team of costume designers, lighting and sound technicians and a band made up entirely of students.

The lead role of Alice is being played by 17-year-old Georgie O’Reilly, who has plans to pursue a career in performing arts.

The show is being directed by Danni Manning, lead teacher for drama, and Stephen Birdsall, drama teacher, who said: “The students have been working incredibly hard and the show has all the essential ingredients that we have all grown to expect and love from a panto – plus a few more sprinkled in.

“With Covid preventing our 2020 production from going ahead, Alice promises to be a colourful, riotous and spectacular song and dance extravaganza bursting with slapstick comedy, lots of silly costumes and bags of audience participation and, of course, a ‘happily ever after’ show-stopping finale.”

Alice in Wonderland runs for three nights from November 30 to December 2.

Tickets are priced £9 for adults, £7 for children (age 16 and under) or £30 for a family ticket (2x adults and 2xchildren).

They are available from