Panto is back at Watersmeet. Meet the star of Cinderella, Lucy Benjamin
14th October 2021
Last Christmas, Cinderella never made it to the ball. The annual pantomime at Watersmeet Theatre in Rickmansworth has been a firm family favourite since it opened in 1975. But in 2020, as the Covid pandemic shut down the whole country, for the first time in the theatre’s history, the walls of its 500-seat auditorium no longer shook to the laughter of delighted children.
Happily, this year, panto is back at Watersmeet, and Cinderella will have her chance to meet her Prince Charming. The star of the show, Lucy Benjamin, perhaps best known for playing Lisa Fowler in EastEnders and Maggie in the BAFTA award-winning BBC Four series, Detectorists, is once again preparing to tread the boards. Standing in the theatre foyer at the photo call, she’s dressed top to toe as the Fairy Godmother - or Fairy G - as Lucy calls her - wearing tutu and black and white striped tights.
“I think it was round about this time last year, and they phoned me and just said, ‘look, it's not going to happen, we're not doing it, but would you commit to still doing it the following year if everything's back up?” Lucy remembers.
“I said yes, of course I would, because I love doing panto.”
The Essex-based star first played the role for Jordan Productions in Christmas 2019 in Chatham, Kent. Lucy is something of a panto veteran, having travelled all over the country over the years. But these days, she says, family takes priority and she prefers working closer to home.
“When the kids were little, I could pack them up and take them with me, and I'd often take my mum too, and when I was at work she'd do the child care.
“But as they got older, I chose not to do pantos quite so much if they were going to take me away from home, because I wanted to be with the kids at Christmas time. So I only tend to do pantos I can commute to now.”
When the first lockdown came at the end of March 2020, panto season had not long since finished and Lucy was in-between jobs. It was then, she says, full steam ahead into homeschooling her two daughters, Rosie and Bessie, with husband, Richard.
“That's what lockdown just says to me,” Lucy says, “the trials and tribulations of homeschooling. It was a tough, tough ride and I just have the utmost respect now for all teachers. It takes a certain breed to be a teacher, so I know it's not for me! It was tough, but it was what everyone else was going through.”
She acknowledges that she was better off than most. A couple of TV bits she had planned were cancelled although later rescheduled. But she says she has the utmost respect for the next generation of young actors starting out in the industry.
“There are lots of industries where people were finding it really tough all over the place. But for a lot of kids starting out in this industry it would have been make or break for them. Many would have just gone ‘it's not for me, I'm not really able to withstand this kind of unemployment level.’
“But you have to be resilient in this industry, always keep that faith and when times get hard, push on through.”
This summer, Lucy returned to the stage in a brand new musical called Love Letters at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.
“It was lovely to be back in a theatre with a live audience again, quite emotional,” she says.
“I had filmed a couple of things in lockdown and it was very strange with the social distancing and having to do my own hair and make-up on set with the make-up artist standing behind and directing me.
“Rehearsing scenes we'd have masks on and socially distanced from each other. It was very strange, because actors are normally all over each other, very touchy feely, but it was needs must. We were very scared that somebody in the cast or crew would go down with Covid, so it was really important to be strict with the rules.”
With Covid restrictions now fully lifted, rehearsals for Cinderella at Watersmeet will only begin a week before the first night. Lucy describes it as the classic Cinders and Buttons story, but with a modern twist.
“It's a beautiful pantomime, one of my favourites. We like to make things current and topical for what's happening at the moment,” she says.
“I love playing Fairy G because it's all rhyming couplets and done in verse. When I first played her I was like ‘how I'm going to remember all this’. But, I really enjoy it.
“I've made her quite quirky. She's not your typical nicey nicey, she's a bit ditzy, a bit quirky, and she's not the best fairy, she's a bit silly, and makes mistakes when casting her spells.”
And what of Lucy’s most famous role? Could a return to Albert Square be on the cards?
“I've been in it about three or four times and it's nice because I literally dip in and out. She (Lisa Fowler) went off again back to Portugal where she just keeps disappearing to.
“I was last in it two years ago or something for a six month stint which was lovely. It’s good to see old faces and new faces and for me it's like going home because I just know it so well and I know the character so well. And it’s handy to get to! (it’s filmed at Elstree Studios).
“You have to weigh those things up, you know, being a mum, as you have to make things work for you and for the family.
“I love the character and they always give me good stuff to do whenever I do go back, meaty bits and bobs. So unless I was committed to something else, I'd definitely go back. It's a good job.
“I can literally just get a phone call one day saying, ‘in three weeks time we've written her back in, would you like to come back if you're available?’”
Lucy is also actively involved as patron of a children’s charity, Rosie’s Rainbow Fund, which provides music therapy for sick and disabled children in hospital.
“It's still a very small charity but I help as much as I can. It's so difficult to raise money for charities. They struggle so much, especially the small ones,” Lucy says.
“I go to the hospital and see the impact that it has with the kids. You see their eyes light up, so it's lovely.”
In Summer 2020, Lucy celebrated her fiftieth birthday, posting a photo of her home decorated with balloons on her Instagram account.
So, is it true that fifty is the new forty?
“What I enjoy about being my age now is you're just more comfortable in your own skin,” Lucy says. “I don't give myself such a hard time about the things that I do. I spent a lot of time worrying as a youngster, about making the right choices and getting things right. I just feel much more comfortable in who I am now and my capabilities and I have much more faith in myself than I did then.
“This industry is not about becoming mega famous, it’s about jobbing and making a living and knowing that times get hard, but if you’re meant to do it, stick with it and persevere. That’s my top tip. You just have to keep the belief that you’re doing the right thing.
“I adore doing panto and the joy that it gives to others. It's often the first time that kids get into a theatre and see a show. It might just give them the bug to go on and see more things or to become an actor themselves, or to work in the entertainment industry. If that happens, great!”
- Cinderella runs at Watersmeet Theatre from 9 to 31 December. For tickets and more information visit www.watersmeet.co.uk
- Interview by Tim Jones. Photos by Jordan Productions.