If you want to spend the festive season dressed like a panto dame or a Christmas fairy, Helen Leavey meets the woman who might just be able to help.
Pauline Rourke has a seemingly unending supply of anecdotes about her time as a drummer and singer working with everyone from singer Paul Young to comedy legend Ken Dodd. “I supported The Krankies for a summer season and in my dressing room was asked if I was Jimmy Krankie’s body double. I’m only 4ft 11ins and Scottish, so I ticked all the boxes.”
She no longer performs and for the last 22 years has run York Theatre Royal’s costume hire department. She whirls around in the basement of the historic De Grey Rooms, next to the theatre, her hands on all sorts of costumes for various productions. If nothing suitable can be found, new outfits need to be made. The public can also come in to hire costumes and accessories, for fancy dress parties or school plays.
Pauline gets even busier towards the end of the year, as she often helps the actor Berwick Kaler – the UK’s longest-serving pantomime dame – and his sidekick Martin Barrass with costumes for photo shoots and promotional activities. A few years ago she also worked as Kaler’s dresser, poised at the side of the stage for quick changes.
“He’s delightful to work for,” says Pauline, “although he did accidentally punch me once during a very quick change!”
Today Pauline spends most of her time sorting through piles of clothes, including period outfits, pantomime and animal characters, shoes, hats and wigs. Some pieces are original, like two naval bicorn hats from the 1800s, the department’s oldest items.
Other items are made on site, not by Pauline, who has no formal costume qualification, but by the wardrobe department on the floor above.
“Everything I know about costumes has been learned as I’ve gone along, but I’ve a vivid imagination and an encyclopaedic knowledge of what’s here.”
The mother-of-two, from Dundee, says she always loved the arts and as a child sang constantly, in choirs, church and at parties. She went for a position doing costume and make-up for an am-dram group in Dundee aged about 17.
“I ended up playing Joe Egg for a summer tour in the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. My drumming started as a bit of a gimmick. I didn’t play a full kit, just snare, hi-hat and cymbals.”
Pauline was a fixture on the Dundee music scene for several years, including singing and drumming with the late singer-songwriter Michael Marra.
However, her adult life in the entertainment world was not a foregone conclusion. She was steered in a scientific direction by school and careers advisors, even beginning a science degree. However, she dropped out to follow her passion and became a full-time musician, moving to the tiny Channel island of Guernsey in 1985.
“It was for a six-week job singing in a posh hotel. I ended up staying seven years. Lots of bands came to Guernsey to record as there was a huge residential studio owned by Paul Young’s keyboard player. I sang backing vocals with Paul – a lovely chap and a fantastic cook – The Christians and blues band Chicken Shack.”
She also did a gig with Ken Dodd at which the late actor Oliver Reed got “ridiculously drunk” and was eventually removed shirtless by security.
She ended up in York after she felling in love with a Yorkshireman.
“I was still singing then. My stage name was Precious Little. I think my last gig was when I was seven months pregnant with my first and finding it difficult to reach my drums. After my maternity leave, I started up the costume hire department and 22 years later I’m still here.”
The costumes were housed on Walmgate, but have been kept in De Grey Rooms – leased from York Conservation Trust – for several years.
“It’s a wee bit small given that we were full when we moved in and have since produced and acquired thousands of new costumes. We have another storage unit in James Street,” says Pauline.
Her spare time is also full of drama; she’s trying to write a sitcom or play based on her costume hire shenanigans. “It’s an endless source of entertainment. A fly-on-the-wall documentary would be good too. I’m jotting down anecdotes and developing characters.
“Recently, a man came in with his parents’ uniforms from the Second World War. His mother was a Wren and had spent time at Bletchley Park, the top-secret home of the war’s code breakers. The outfit is absolutely stunning, but unfortunately may have seen a moth or two, so it’s in our freezer,” says Pauline. The cold kills the moths.
Not long ago the department received some original 1920s, 1930s and Victorian costumes.
“They are a wonderful addition to our collection,” says Pauline. Among her favourite items is a mouse costume made for Martin Barrass, a pair of original Edwardian cream suede ladies’ shoes and an Aladdin Abanazar outfit. Pauline’s job satisfaction “is incredible. My team and I generally make people happy, it’s a joy to be here.”
With the panto season underway it is now full steam ahead for Kaler as he embarks on his 39th year as Dame, but the York panto legend emphasises the show is a team effort. “It’s people like Pauline that make theatre work,” he says. “She treats it like a vocation and at York Theatre Royal she’s as much a part of the place as I am.”
For more details about the costumer hire and opening times visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk