Panto is hard work. (Oh yes it is.) All those big props and screaming children. Most performers complain about the workload but Jo Brand, the latest Wicked Witch to tread the boards, appears very much unfazed as she settles into the auditorium seat next to me.
“Actors just say that to make themselves look like they’re working hard. It’s easy. Come on, I’m not doing gymnastics or running a marathon. Although it’s a bit of a marathon for me to walk from one side of the stage to the other.” Looking up at the size of Richmond Theatre’s stage in front of us, she slightly falters. “Yeah I might sit down occasionally, see if I can get myself one of those little folding chairs, you know, those ones that turn into a walking stick! Perfect.”
Jo Brand seems unfazed about pretty much everything. Maybe it’s because she used to be a nurse and run a psychiatric ward – although her no-nonsense, dry sense of humour has ended up pioneering her alternative comedy career. She’s very busy and does a bit of everything. Acting, writing, comedy shows. She’s all over the place. “That’s one of the reasons I like doing pantomime – I like the routine of it. When you’re a stand up, one night you might be in Manchester doing a corporate for 1,500 sanitary wear employees and the following day you’re doing Women’s Hour. But panto is obviously going to be hard for me: a) not to be rude; and b) not to be sweary.
She has one day off over Christmas and will be spending it with her family (her husband and two nearly grown up girls). “I’ll have to pack all my arguments with them into one day, before I go back to work. As a nurse I always worked on Christmas Day and I liked that. I find Christmas is a bit like New Year. You’re forced into enjoying yourself even when you don’t want to. I always thought I would much prefer Scrooge if he started off nice and then became really
bad-tempered and mean by the end of ‘A Christmas Carol’. I think there’s too much expectation at Christmas. It’s been completely overtaken by commercial values – listen to me, Mrs Scrooge, just before starting panto.”
It’s been a tough year for Jo. She made a joke about Nigel Farage that didn’t land the way she intended it to. But she’s still loved for her deadpan honesty; she’s reached the status of National Treasure. “Shut up!” she laughs. I’m not – I’m a hate figure.” What else annoys her? She considers this. “I’m not saying that there aren’t loads of men who aren’t absolutely brilliant comedians. But when it comes to talking about the female experience, men can’t really do that. And I’ve heard lots of men talking about periods recently and it really annoys me. Because have they not got enough in their own physical life without nicking ours? Butt out of our menstrual cycles.”
She’s an unusual person to interview. She’s interested in people. She’s obviously funny but she’s also surprisingly warm. I end up telling her about my past jobs, my family, my favourite programmes. I can see why she gets approached by strangers in the street and talked at like she’s everyone’s best friend.
She’s had to make one compromise. She doesn’t really go to pubs anymore. “I’ve been caught out too many times when the drunkest person in the pub has made a beeline for me.” With that, Jo exits stage left. She’s straight talking and deadpan but underneath it I think she’s more Snow White than Wicked Witch. She’s got a heart of gold but she wouldn’t want you to know.
Snow White runs at Richmond Theatre 7 Dec–5 Jan. Click here to book tickets.