Lesley Joseph: ‘I love pantos, it’s my favourite time of year’

The Mayflower Theatre pantomime launch - Robinson Crusoe
The Mayflower Theatre pantomime launch - Robinson Crusoe
The Handsome Family. Picture by Brandon Soder

Life Through The Trees is looking handsome at 20

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Lesley Joseph isn’t exactly what you’d expect. Known to millions as the man-eating and interfering neighbour Dorien Green in Birds Of A Feather, in real life Lesley is incredibly upbeat and bubbly, chatting excitedly about appearing at the Mayflower Theatre this Christmas in Robinson Crusoe.

Playing the enchantress of the ocean from December 14 until January 12, 2014, the actress took on the role this time last year at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

‘I love pantomimes and I love musicals. I’m a frustrated dancer in my mind,’ laughs Lesley.

‘There are always vibrant costumes and wonderful lighting. I think it’s an art really. You have to fill a huge theatre with more than 2,000 people and you have to give the audience what they want.’

Starring alongside comedian and presenter Brian Conley in the main role, Lesley has a lot of love for her co-star.

She adds: ‘He’s so good because he knows how to work an audience. A lot of people can’t really do it, but Brian is magic.’

The nature of pantomime means that things change all the time. If a prop stops working or someone forgets their lines, the show must, of course, go on.

Lesley, who has long had a house near Chichester, explains: ‘If someone forgets a line or something goes wrong, we all know how to deal with it. And that’s what is so great about pantomime.

‘What the audience sees in that theatre, on that night, is completely unique. You can never repeat the magic, it’s always something new.’

Her first time on stage was at a theatre in Northampton, at just seven years old.

‘I love theatre,’ says Lesley.

‘I loved performing to the audience then and I love it now. I remember when I was a child I had a toy theatre too. People always ask me if I would pick TV or theatre, but I would always say theatre.’

For young children and families at Christmas time, pantomimes are an annual treat – and it’s normally the first time the kids go to the theatre.

She adds: ‘If the kids come along and they have a great experience, they will come back in the future.

‘Or they might join a theatre group or pay more attention in drama at school. They won’t bother if they don’t enjoy it. I know it’s such a cliché to say, but it’s important for us to give 150 per cent.’

And playing at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton?

‘It’s such a big theatre, and I’m pretty sure it’s one of the biggest in the country. It can take shows as big as this pantomime. I’ve been in pantomimes for a long time and I did one of my first shows there, although it was very different back then.’

Lesley adds: ‘You can take the audience on a journey .’

Having done the pantomime rounds for years, and performed in theatre tours including Calendar Girls and Hot Flush!, Lesley is better known to many for her role in Birds Of A Feather.

The BBC sitcom, which ran from 1989 until 1998, featured Lesley playing a middle-aged married woman constantly having affairs with younger men.

She starred alongside Linda Robson and Pauline Quirke, who played sisters brought together after their husbands were sent to prison for armed robbery.

And the big news for the trio is that the sitcom is back for a series on ITV early next year. When we speak, Lesley has finished filming just a couple of days before.

‘We didn’t have high definition back then, so the lighting director is about to become my new best friend,’ she laughs.

But what exactly will the new series hold for new viewers and fans of the series?

‘It’s set 15 years later [the same number it has been off the air] and all the characters have moved on in their lives.

‘They all end up meeting at my book signing, and they haven’t seen each other in a long time. It was so great being back together again.’

There were rumours that the series was coming back, after a national tour took place two years in a row with the original actresses.

But it wasn’t set in stone until ITV picked it up.

Lesley explains: ‘We did the tour and we didn’t know what would happen next. The BBC wanted to do a Christmas special, but then it was offered to ITV and they wanted to give it a full series.

‘They have really put themselves behind it and it’s fantastic to see. It all feels so fresh now.’

She adds: ‘I really loved filming it and I just hope the audience reaction is good too.’

And the timing is proving to be a bit manic – she’s down in Southampton next week to begin rehearsals for Robinson Crusoe. But she’s taking it all in her stride.

Lesley explains: ‘I’m looking forward to it and I know we will have excellent fun. I love Christmas, and I know the Mayflower Theatre quite well.’

Even when the pantomime finishes in mid January, there’s not long before the actress heads back to theatres in a national tour of Hot Flush!

Written by Julie Benson, the musical tells the story of three women who are all learning to cope with their middle-aged lives – and all with extraordinary consequences.

Lesley plays a divorced barrister who helps form a Hot Flush club when her husband runs off with a younger woman.

She says: ‘I love doing musicals, just as much as I love being in pantomimes.

‘It’s a little bit like stand-up comedy in a way but it’s a very, very funny show. The tour is in the summer so I have a bit of a break, but it’s all still a bit manic.’

Lesley Joseph is appearing in Robinson Crusoe at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, from December 14 until January 12, 2014. Tickets: £15 to £35 on (023) 8071 1811 or go to mayflower.org.uk.