Strictly judge brings his acting prowess to an unusual role

Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan in Annie, opening at the Bradford Alhambra next week.
Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan in Annie, opening at the Bradford Alhambra next week.
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These days he might be best known as the pantomime nasty judge on the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing show, but Craig Revel Horwood has a serious pedigree when it comes to theatre.

While his work is brought to a wider audience via the popular Saturday night show, he’s not on the judging panel solely for his catty remarks.

“I was performing 20 years ago, darling,” says Horwood (yes, he really does say ‘darling’. It’s not all a persona made for television).

The Australian-born musical theatre star began his career in his native country in shows like West Side Story, Me and My Girl and La Cage Aux Folles, also touring New Zealand with the Danny La Rue Show. Having established his career, he came to Europe in his twenties, initially to dance in Paris, landing the role of principal singer at the famous Moulin Rouge.

He made his West End debut in Cats and went on to direct and choreograph dozens of musicals around the UK and on world tours. So his credentials are sound.

“That’s why I judge the way I do on Strictly, I care, I want people to be better dancers,” he insists. This month Horwood will be bringing neither his choreographing nor directing skills to Yorkshire, but his acting prowess. The people in charge of a new national tour of Annie are the ones who have engaged his services.

“When I got the call from the producers I thought it was to direct and choreograph the show. I was thinking ‘kids and dogs, no thank you’ and then they said we want you to be in it,” says Horwood. “They said they wanted me to play Miss Hannigan. I couldn’t quite believe it.” That’s not a misprint. Horwood will be playing Miss Hannigan, the tyrant of the orphanage where the young heroine lives.

“I’ll be donning a fake wig, boobs and wearing high heels. Look, she hates children, she’s a complete alcoholic and she’s always lusting after men. I love it. I love to play villains. I did that in panto and I absolutely adored it – I played the Wicked Queen in Snow White. I think it was that show which the producers saw and gave them the idea.”

Not to be unreconstructed about the whole thing, but the notion of a man getting up in drag to play a role traditionally played by a woman, is it – well, is there anything at all wrong with that?

Horwood says absolutely not. “I’m an actor, playing Miss Hannigan. I think any actor should be able to play any role they want. Women have been trying to campaign for that for years. I feel like this is a natural progression for me. You have straight actors playing gay characters in films and vice versa – why should this be any different?”

Horwood has, however, faced some criticism from his peers for playing the role of a woman. “I have had a bit of flak from middle-aged female actors who feel I’m taking a part from a woman, but there is such a thing as putting bums on seats,” says Horwood, entirely aware that his name will bring people into the theatre. It’s not so much a mercenary attitude, as pure pragmatism and it’s an attitude that Horwood is clear is to the benefit of all.

“We have so many wonderful theatres around the country that would end up going dark if we don’t get people interested in going to the theatre and I consider it part of my job to keep people’s interest in theatre alive.”

• Annie is at The Alhambra, Bradford, September 29 to October 3. www.bradford-theatres.co.uk