BACKSTAGE AT CHRISTMAS: An interview with Meriel Cunningham

It’s panto season! We get a behind-the-scenes perspective from first-time pantomime performer Meriel Cunningham. Meriel recently graduated from The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she trained as an opera singer. She spoke to Young Perspective about her experience performing in Charles Court Opera’s The Nativity Pantomime, which is currently running at The King’s Head Theatre.

The Nativity Panto is the first pantomime that you have performed in. Has anything surprised you?
The most unexpected thing was how workshopped it was in the rehearsal room. That’s the great thing about John [Savournin, Artistic Director] and David [Eaton, Musical Director], they cast basically knowing what you can bring and they are very much wanting you to put your stamp on the script and story. I come from an opera background so normally, from day one of rehearsal, you know all your music, you know everything, you just turn up to do your staging and blocking. Whereas this was very fresh and in the room.

Meriel Cunningham and the cast of THE NATIVITY PANTO. Photo credit: Bill Knight

You have child-friendly and more adult performances. How different are the two?
It’s mainly just some of the rude bits taken out and toned down on swearing. We kind of go off of the audience: on Wednesday night we were planning an adult show and someone came backstage and was like ‘a small person has just come into the audience’. So David [Eaton, Musical Director] goes through all of his cues and takes any swearing out. It’s all innuendo really so I think it all – hopefully – will go over their heads!

Do you have any fond memories of seeing pantomimes as a child?
All my memories of pantomime as a kid are just going to the Royal Court in Liverpool, where there was one on every year. At the Cathedral choir [that Meriel was a part of] that was our treat after having done all the Christmas services; they would take us to the pantomime and I just remember being so blown away by all the colours. I mean that’s probably a big part of it, how colourful everything is. I think everyone’s gone to see a pantomime as a kid, it’s such a tradition.

You mainly perform in opera – are there many parallels between pantomime and opera?
They are very different, but I guess it is that exaggerated style. Normally opera is in such a big space, in such a big house, that everything has to be over-the-top with all your movements and your portrayal of a character: it’s so big, like pantomime – even though we’re in a small space, it still has to have that over-the-top and that size to it.

Matthew Kellett & Meriel Cunningham in THE NATIVITY PANTO. Photo credit: Bill Knight

Has performing in a nativity-themed show increased your Christmas spirit or has it just become work?
I guess it’s made it bleed into ‘just work’ a little bit in November, but as soon as we got to the theatre at the end of November and saw the set and got costumes on, as always, it gives it a lift. I’d say the first time I felt Christmassy was when we had our first preview and Christmas songs were playing as the audience were coming in and I was like ‘oh yeah! Marah Carey, yes please.’ As everyone knows, that’s the sign of Christmas. It’s going to be interesting doing a show that’s about the nativity so far into the 11th January. Hopefully it’ll just get people more excited about Christmas 2020 – get the ball rolling!

How did you become interested in opera and what led you to being involved in Charles Court Opera’s pantomime this year?
Before I came to London, I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester’s Saturday school. that’s really where my eyes were kind of opened to conservatoire and music training and training how to be a singer. I always wanted to be a singer – no question about that – but whether it was musical theatre or opera, I was always kind of torn when I was a teenager. It was Royal Northern where I really decided on opera and that was an amazing experience.

In the past few years, I’ve kind of thought that any kind of musical theatre had been kind of sealed off: I’ve really been focusing a lot on opera and on developing my voice that way. As a mezzo, my voice is quite deep so basically if I go to a musical theatre audition they’re going to expect me to belt – and I can’t belt. This [pantomime] is really so great because I’m able to live that life of doing eight shows a week and singing songs on stage. I love it. Because it’s an opera company they kind of take your voice and run with it. I was worried about doing so many shows and doing damage to my voice, but David [Eaton, Musical Director] was great about it.

Why should people go to The King’s Head Theatre to see The Nativity Pantomime?
If you’re wanting an evening of silly, Christmas-related pratting about on stage with some great original songs, some great pop covers and some audience participation – book! And we’re in a pub so you can take your drink in with you!

Catrine Kirkman, Matthew Kellett, Jennie Jacobs, Meriel Cunningham & Emily Cairns in THE NATIVITY PANTO. Photo credit: Bill Knight

The Nativity Pantomime is running at The King’s Head Theatre until 11th January 2020. For more information and to book tickets, please click here.

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