The Resident catches up with choreographer and former Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips as she gears up for her role as Fairy Bowbells in Dick Whittington at the New Wimbledon Theatre this month, alongside Matthew Kelly and Tim Vine...

Words: Madeleine Howell

On Friday 9 December, world renowned choreographer Arlene Phillips will tread the boards of the New Wimbledon Theatre in the guise of a feisty, fierce Fairy Bowbells. It’s an exciting step for the 72-year-old (I know – I can’t believe it either.)

While her theatre credits include The Wizard of Oz, Starlight Express, Saturday Night Fever and We Will Rock You, and she has spent time judging on television shows including Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance? – she has never before taken on the gruelling schedules of panto season.

When we catch up, rehearsals are yet to begin and she’s preparing for her dress fitting. How does she think she’ll fare? ‘I have no idea how I’m going to cope doing the same thing every day for that length of time,’ she admits.

‘As a choreographer, you’re constantly inventing and reinventing. I’ve never done anything where day after day you say the same thing, and make it live as if it’s fresh every time. I teach other people how to do that – now, I have to learn it for myself!’

Phillips is modest, but incredibly excited, and most looking forward to dressing up. ‘I’m the least fairy-like person you can imagine,’ she giggles, ‘so this is like all my childhood fantasies come true. I can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like stepping out on stage and first talking to the audience. I’ve been dreaming about it, and then sometimes I think “gosh, it’s going to be a nightmare”!’

Joining her on the stage will be award-winning actor Matthew Kelly playing Sarah the Cook, and comedian Tim Vine as Idle Jack. We’ve no doubt the talented trio are sure to be a winning combination as they set out to tell the classic tale of the poor boy who travels to London with his cat to seek his fame and fortune.

I’m the least fairy-like person you can imagine – so this is like all my childhood fantasies come true

‘I think I’m going to be lost in the middle of those two wonderful giants of theatre and comedy,’ enthuses Phillips. Kelly’s television credits include Dickens’ Bleak House, and he has performed on stage in everything and anything, from Legally Blonde to Waiting for Godot – not to mention the fact that he was praised by critics and audiences alike for his previous roles as one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella and as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the New Wimbledon Theatre.

Meanwhile, among Radio 4 chat show host Vine’s many comic accolades is the fact that he won The Funniest Joke award at the Edinburgh Fringe in both 2012 and 2014, and also met with rapturous applause as Buttons alongside Kelly in Cinderella. It’s a tradition Phillips can’t wait to be a part of herself. ‘Pantomime as we know it is unique to this country,’ she explains.

‘There are so many entertaining moments geared towards children, but it’s something adults can share, and find wonderful and humorous things in all its ridiculousness too. It’s over the top. You can’t be shy in pantomime,’ she declares. She’s much better, she says, at making things up than at learning words – so the audience can be sure to expect a decent dose of ad lib.

The New Wimbledon Theatre is sure to provide an audience willing to participate, and the space is another attraction for Phillips. ‘The theatre itself is very special to me because I’ve worked on shows there for many years. In a sense it feels like home. I know every part of it, every dressing room, front of house and the back of the stage – and it’s always a great audience.’

Next up, after Christmas, she’ll be going straight back into choreography, with a production of Grease going out on tour, and she’s also hoping to transfer a musical she co-directed about the infamous rock stars of the 27 club to the West End. ‘It had a brilliant run at the Cockpit Theatre,’ she says. ‘There’s just so much going on!’

Her energy seems to know no bounds. What is it about the stage that never fails to get her going, even after all these years? ‘For me, music and movement together, and creating dance, is something that gets inside you,’ she confides. ‘It’s constantly pulling at you.’

Other choreographers and dancers she admires include the Alvin Ailey company and Matthew Bourne, and she’s a fan of contemporary dance and hip-hop – ‘all the genres that are constantly evolving’. Her dream dance partner, she tells me, was always Gene Kelly.

‘He was strong and feisty, and as a woman, you felt you could be a really strong partner for him. It was my dream just to get one spin with him!’ Although that’s one dream that will have to remain a fairy tale, we can’t wait to catch her fulfilling her other childhood fantasy of performing in the pantomime this season.

Dick Whittington runs from Friday 9 December 2016 until Sunday 15 January 2017;