She’s a serious actress, who each Christmas embraces high camp in the York Theatre Royal panto. Phil Penfold catches up with Suzy Cooper.
It’s a familiar expression within the acting world. Many talk of getting “a lucky break” and of “being in the right place at the right time”.
Suzy Cooper is one of the few who can trace her current career back to a car accident and whose lucky break was in fact two – both in her arm.
At the time she was a dancer, who was just beginning to get good offers. The injuries put paid to all of that, and she had to reconsider where she was going in life.
“I rang my agent and I said ‘I can’t dance, so maybe I could act?’ You wouldn’t happen to have any acting jobs on the go, would you?’ A week later, the phone rang and they said ‘Get yourself down to Leatherhead, they’re auditioning for a revival of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. See if you can pull it out of the bag’.”
Cooper did pull it out of the bag and after Noises Off she came north and did another audition – this time to join a panto team being painstakingly built up by that Dame of the Yorkshire Empire, Berwick Kaler. Suzy joined the cast and has been part of the fixtures and fittings ever since.
“I was terrible. Absolutely awful. For a start, I’d chosen absolutely the wrong song – it was Cinderella’s number from Into the Woods which I adore when it is done well. I did NOT do it well. Then I did the dance audition where looked as competent as a Japanese wrestler in ballet pumps. So I knew that this was something that I wasn’t going to get. Except Berwick, for some bizarre reason, saw something in me. He thought I could bring a little something to the show. And he’s continued to believe in me, ever since, bless him.”
She pauses, and then says candidly:
“That is not to say that we always see eye to eye. He wants the very best. He has opinions, and so do I. But when it comes down to it, I genuinely love him dearly. He calls me ‘Daughter’, and I call him ‘Mother’, and being in the York panto is a crowning achievement in my life. I am, after all, a very unsuccessful actress away from it.”
Cooper is being far too harsh, but it is true that each year for a few brief few months in Yorkshire, she and her panto colleagues enjoy superstar status. For anyone who hasn’t experienced a Theatre Royal pantomime, it’s part Monty Python, part Punch and Judy, a little bit of Buster Keaton and quite a lot of the Marx Brothers.
“I cannot work out why we get the response that we do?,” says Cooper, very sincerely. “I mean, we don’t save lives do we?”
Perhaps not, but they do bring a large helping of the feelgood factor to York and for a few hours every single audience member has the stresses and cares of the world lifted from their shoulders.
“If that’s true, then I am genuinely humbled,” she says.
In the show, Cooper has a voice that could split an ear-drum, half whistle and half corncrake, and she is all angles and elbows. At lunch, and not long after the first of many costume fittings for this year’s production, Dick Whittington and his Meerkat, she is quiet, charming, very open and very practical. She is also 10 minutes early for our interview, which is not an affliction from which the majority of actors suffer.
“You know,” she says, “I really thought long and hard about the character that I was going to play for so many years. I did not want her to be the traditional Principal Boy, who always seemed to be very shallow, and without any substance at all. And Berwick’s scripts gave me the liberty to go away and create this strange little creature and audiences seem to like her.
“The thing is, that I take on this high-pitched squeaky voice, and, at the end of the run, it’s about three months or so until my throat is back to normal again. It didn’t help that, the other year, I also managed to develop pneumonia during our season, and – aided by medication – still went on, night after night. That totally knackered my vocal chords forever.
“Why did I do that?” There’s another raised eyebrow. “Because our show may look lavish, but we don’t have understudies or replacements. If I didn’t do it, who would? The show must go on, no matter what.
“There really is a ‘Doctor Theatre’ you know, you don’t feel the discomfort when you are on stage. Truly, you don’t.”
What she doesn’t say is that she was coughing so much that she also managed to break a rib, as her chest heaved against the pain. “I do get recognised and that rather startles me, because I don’t think I look very much in public like I do on stage. But people do pick up on what little bit of that voice is within me, and they do turn around in a shop or supermarket occasionally, and say ‘Excuse me, aren’t you..?’ I’m lucky, I don’t have the same ‘royal progress’ that Berwick, Martin Barrass or David Leonard have, but it is very sweet, and rather endearing anyway.
“Thinking back, I can only remember one adverse comment, and that was when I was starting out in the show. I was running a bit late, and I jumped into a cab at the station, and asked for the stage door. The taxi driver told me that he’d been to see the show, and that he’d loved it all. Except, he said, ‘For that awful woman playing the Principal Boy. She had such a stupid voice. I don’t like it, too squeaky’. So I plucked up my courage as I paid him the fare, and I said ‘That girl, she’s actually ME’. I thought that he’d blush and say, ‘Sorry, luv’, but he didn’t. He gave me my change, and he said ‘Well, aye. And tha’ were still bloody awful’. Which put me firmly in my place.”
Whatever that taxi driver might have thought, Cooper is a remarkable actress, who is at home in the works of the (very intense) playwright Howard Barker – she is one of his preferred interpreters of his work – as she is in Berwick Kaler’s flights of fancy. She is also proud mum to seven-year-old Louis and is married to Christopher Madin, the award-winning composer and musician, who gave us the soundtrack to the recent stage version of The Railway Children. The family live in Wandsworth, London, and regularly exercise the latest addition to their circle, Boo (a “more energetic than you can ever know Bedlington Terrier–Whippet cross”) on Wimbledon Common.
“Louis appears to have no interest in performing at the moment. Whatever he wants to do with his life, whichever career path he takes, both Chris and I will be there for him. It’s his decision, not ours. I go from actress to parent at the moment. When I leave you here, I’m going straight back into ‘mum mode’, picking Louis up from school, and deciding what I’ll be cooking for dinner.”
With York Theatre Royal closed for redevelopment, this year’s panto has moved to the National Railway Museum, but while the venue may have changed the spirit of the show will remain the same.
“I shall give away none of the secrets of this year’s show. Except that for some reason Berwick has set bits of it in Spain. Did Dick Whittington ever go to Spain? Morocco, I think… but Benidorm? That’s what one of the costumes looks like. Oh, I give up. Trying to find a rationale for what Berwick comes up with is impossible. But that’s why I adore it so much.”
As the time for the school pick-up ticks forward, the final question has to be ‘Did you love panto as a child yourself? Another deep chortle and another raised eyebrow. “Good God no. I’m told that the first one that I went to was at, I think, The London Palladium. And I had to be dragged, screaming from the stalls, absolutely in fits, by my lovely dad, because I was terrified.”
By what, Suzy? A fit of giggles. “Not the villain – by the bloke playing the Dame!” she laughs. “He was frightening.”
Mr. Kaler, take note.
Dick Whittington and his Meerkat, Signal Box Theatre, National Railway Museum York, to Jan 24. 01904 623508, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk