Preview: Sinderfella

Playing a fairy in adult panto Sinderfella, Shameless star Alice Barry tells Kevin Bourke why she only came to acting late in life

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Classic panto has always been a bit of a grey area when it comes to sexuality. Oh yes it has. So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to find drag artist Miss Thunderpussy, something of a legendary figure around Manchester’s gay village, playing Cinderella in the adult “pantomime with balls” Sinderfella at the Dancehouse over this year’s festive season.

A sell-out hit at London’s Leicester Square Theatre a couple of Christmases ago, the show starts as the actor scheduled to play Cinderella for the night hasn’t turned up. So it’s left to Fairy Godmother Lillian (Shameless’s Alice Barry) to conjure up a plan. Loitering around the auditorium is Miss Thunderpussy, who has always dreamed of playing Cinderella and is gagging for the chance to step in. As Sinderfella works her magic, she manages to ensnare both her Prince Charming and Buttons (Gaydio’s Nicksy), neither of whom realise that she’s a drag queen.

“To be honest, I turned it down a couple of times because I really wanted to be in a proper children’s panto,” observes the bracingly honest Barry. “But they kept on asking and they seemed to really want me and I just thought, well, you’ve got to take it as it comes. I’ve got two mottos – whatever’s meant for you won’t pass you by, and also, life’s like a lemon – you’ve got to squeeze it as hard as you can.”

You could say that sixtysomething Barry’s own rise to fame has had something of the fairy tale about it. She only took up acting relatively late in life after bringing up her family, although she says it had always been something she wanted to have a go at doing.

“There came a time after my son had grown up when I thought, it’s my time now,” remembers the Burnley-born actor who also runs a Blackpool B&B with her “partner-in-crime and soul mate” Jeff Hewitt.

“I decided to audition as an extra and did that for about a year. Then one day the director sent for me and I thought, oh no, I’m getting sacked. But he said: ‘You’re such a character, Alice, we’d like to see you act.’ I was in the right place at the right time and since then I’ve never looked back.”

Her first regular TV role was playing Peggy Hargreaves in Clocking Off, followed by Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, Bob & Rose, Linda Green, The Royal and Coronation Street. But it was only when she took on the role of downtrodden seamstress-turned-brothel madam Lillian Tyler in Shameless that Barry became a familiar face.

“I absolutely adore playing Lillian. As soon as I put on Lillian’s glasses, I’m her. She’s such fun to play because I get away with so much. When she first came on, she was a right scruff. They used to paint grey in my hair and veins on my face because she‘s had a hard life, but gradually I’ve got them to let her be a bit better dressed.”
She did have one problem, though.

“Before Shameless I never swore, so saying the F-word was a bit difficult at first, but now it just comes out. I even sometimes say it when I’m not acting.”

Inevitably, that tough edge means the show has its detractors too.

“It’s just acting. It’s tongue in cheek, not true. We have such a laugh doing it,” Barry sighs. “I was signing autographs on the seafront once and this old lady came up to me and said: ‘Your programme is disgusting.’ I said: ‘If you don’t like it, love, switch it off.’”
On the other hand, Morrissey has invited her to visit his home in LA and even George Osborne is apparently a fan.

“At the start, none of us had any idea it would last more than one series,” she admits. “It just took off and now we’ve got a ninth series coming out next year. Me, I just go with the flow.”

Sinderfella is at the Dancehouse, Oxford Road, Manchester, on
15 December-7 January

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