Pastimes: Jamie Stone the pantomime dame
In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Jamie Stone becomes a pantomime dame – oh no he doesn’t!
When Jamie Stone was being turned into a pantomime dame, he looked in the mirror. “Halfway through making my face up – my God! – I was my mother,” he recalls. “I was shook.”
The Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross played Dame Tilly Trott in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Duthac Centre in the Scottish Highlands town of Tain, just before he was elected in 2017.
For Stone, 67, the biggest challenge of the role was the wardrobe changes. “I had to haul myself into a massive bra and fake boobs, the wig, the tights, the boots,” he says. “I’d have a team ready in the downstairs kitchen to do a quick change.”
Then there were the difficulties of becoming a cartoonish version of a woman, from walking in heels to moving and holding himself differently.
“The other problem is going to the loo,” he laughs. “You walk into the gents, pull up your skirt and get some funny looks!”
Stone, who comes from a family of cheese-makers, fell into his acting hobby by accident while studying at the University of St Andrews. After drinks with a friend, he saw a sign on the walk home advertising auditions for the Samuel Beckett play, Endgame. “We were half-cut, so we went for a laugh and – blow me down – they offered me a part!” he recalls. “I‘d never been near the stage.”
He was “completely bitten” by the acting bug, and ended up in everything from Shakespeare to Joe Orton. On stage, he feels “terror initially, then something clicks – and I become calm.”
What he loves is that panto brings people together from across society
However, disaster struck in 1977 when he performed in a friend’s play. Stone jumped from a line near the start to one almost at the end, truncating the play and prompting the writer to swear and walk out: “It was a catastrophe. And I swore I would never tread the boards again.”
He didn’t act for 12 years until he was invited to join the chorus of an amateur operatic company, rekindling his old passion. Then, about 10 years ago, he chatted to a director who needed a King John for her panto production of Robin Hood. She cast Stone. The following year, he played Snivel, the witch’s assistant in Sleeping Beauty, then he was Abanazar, the evil magician in Aladdin.
“I‘d never played an arch-baddie before,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “A little boy was in tears on my last night, saying ‘we can’t let him win’. This was in the run up to the next local election, and I realised in horror that I had hundreds of my constituents booing me.”
He believes acting has helped him in the Commons, teaching him the power of pauses, and the importance of timing.
What he loves is that panto brings people together from across society: “You’ll have a local solicitor playing the back half of a cow, and some of the children in the chorus come from the toughest backgrounds, while others come from posh private estates,” he says. “Being in the chorus gives them confidence, and a couple have gone on to think seriously about [a career in] music.” Panto aids social cohesion more broadly, he adds, by bringing the audience together in laughter.
Stone feels the industry has not had enough help from government during the pandemic.
“There won’t be a panto again this year – will we lose the enthusiasm of the audience for next year? I hope not.” He has offered to perform a cameo in 2022: “I don’t want people to think I’m pompous now and I’ve forgotten what I used to love doing.”
He could even see a role for the PM. “I suspect Boris would be the buffoon whose trousers fall down,” he laughs. “He’d be booed off stage at the end.”
Ros Urwin is a Sunday Times journalist
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