Wining & Dining with Rory McGrath: Actor Matt Crosby
Best-known for donning wig and slap as Cambridge Arts Theatre’s pantomime dame, actor Matt Crosby joins Rory McGrath for lunch at Pint Shop
I can't possibly write a piece about going out for lunch with a pantomime dame without doing panto gags, can I? ("Oh yes you can!")
Rewind a few weeks and it’s Matt Crosby’s - Widow Twankey's - only full day off from the Arts Theatre panto in a punishing run of two (sometimes three) performances a day. I hope he won’t mind lunching on the first floor of Pint Shop, which has an uninterrupted view of the Arts Theatre only about 20 metres away. "No, it's great to see the back of the front of the Arts Theatre, even for just a day."
Pint Shop is an agreeable and lively city centre watering hole; more than a cut above your average town boozer with a huge range of craft beers, quirky gins and myriad whiskies being served by efficient, fun and friendly staff.
When Matt and I arrive, it’s clear we are the only ones there not part of an office Christmas party. The upper rooms are wall to wall festive knitwear, Santa hats and flashing light-up sweaters. To me these occasions always look like forced jollity on a bed of glumness but still, they've all made an effort.
Looking around, Matt says "I feel under-dressed." This is not something I expected to hear from a man who spends most of his day in a dress with spotty bloomers and huge false breasts and a ton of lippy and mascara. "Some days I can hardly keep my eyes open," he tells me. "Is that because your schedule is so tiring?" "No, it's because my false eyelashes are so heavy."
Being a pantomime dame is one of the most outrageously out-there, in-your-face, over-the-top roles the theatre can offer. So it is surprising and welcome to discover that in real life Matt is a quietly spoken, charming and totally self-effacing young man. (A lot of actors are none of those things, believe you me.)
"Hey, I'm a father of two young girls. I need to work and earn a wage. It's just that my job involves wearing massive false tits and falling over a lot." So Matt, it turns out, as they say in South Pacific, "ain't nothing like a dame!" When he's not filming or treading the boards, he is a carpenter, so has his feet firmly in the real world.
Matt’s very faint Merseyside accent betrays his origins. He is a son of New Brighton on the Wirral peninsula. Aha, a plastic Scouser, I think. I hope his provenance means he’s a Tranmere Rovers supporter and therefore as an Arsenal fan I can feel superior, but it turns out he's an ardent fan of Liverpool F.C. Yes, a proper die-hard LFC man, he is. I bet if you cut him, his blood would be red. This means, of course, that all football chat has to be put on hold. Indefinitely.
The timely arrival of the charming waitress means the subject can be moved quickly on to something else. Food. Pint Shop is a bit of a hidden gem when it comes to dining. Those of you, like me, who think of it as merely a top-notch pub will be pleasantly surprised at the range and quality of the food.
For his starter, Matt orders octopus carpaccio. I go for the potted smoked mackerel. Both are wondrous and don’t need washing down with several pints of Adnams, but we do it anyway.
Matt is hugely entertaining company and possesses that sharp and ready wit that one associates with Merseyside. Of course, I realise I'm heading into racist hate crime territory here and ask Matt for guidance. "The trouble is that there are a lot of Scousers who are genuinely very funny and quick-witted. This means that the large number who aren't at all funny *think*
I'm intrigued to know how Matt's two young girls feel about daddy being in a Christmas panto. It can only be joyous, surely? "My wife and I were a bit worried about what the girls would make of it," Matt reminisces. "So when they came to see me in the panto for the first time we didn't tell them it was me dressed up as the dame. We told them it was Aunty Martha. The aunty they'd never met before. So after one show they came backstage at the end and, still in costume, I came out to see them - pretending to be Aunty Martha. 'You must be Clara and Beatrice,' I said to them. And they both said without hesitation ‘Hello Daddy!'...”
Matt has eaten at Pint Shop before and insists that whatever we have for our mains, it should include a portion of truffle chips each. Matt orders pork belly and I go for the plaice. I am a huge fan of fish but plaice I tend to avoid as I've always thought it was the staple of old ladies for whom 'a nice bit of plaice' is perfect because it doesn't actually taste of anything. But this was a recommendation from the manager, James, whom I trust in all things (even though he's a Spurs fan) and it turns out to be wonderful - certainly the best plaice I've ever had. And, yes, the truffle chips are a great accompaniment and probably would be for anything.
I've never been involved in a commercial pantomime myself and I only dress up as a woman privately. I did play a mad wizard in the 1976 Footlights pantomime; a wacky version of Snow White. My abiding memory of that was spending an hour and half before each performance attaching gold sequins to my hair with tiny blobs of Blu Tack. The dame in that show was played by one Nick 'Specky' Hytner. who went on to be the artistic director of the National Theatre; yes, Sir Nicholas Hytner. I remember lots of corny sexual innuendo and topical jokes crowbarred into the script to make us sound edgy and satirical.
Matt tells me they have kept topical jokes in Aladdin to an acceptable minimum. There must be at least one Brexit joke, surely. "Well," Matt confesses. "There is a line which goes roughly: I call this my EU dress. Some of you want to see me in it, some of you want to see me out of it and some of you didn't want me in it in the first place." Ah, Brexit; whatever happened to that?
Cambridge is a famously academic place and I would have thought that pantomime would be looked down upon as an inferior art form for the proletariat here. But no, Matt informs me. Many a famous academic has turned up to the show to revel in the custard-pie hurling and the feeble puns.
One of Matt's highlights in his years with the show has been the arrival in the auditorium of the 17th Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, Sir Stephen Hawking, may God rest his soul. "He used to love the show," Matt tells me, "and you could hear his unmistakable voice joining in with the ‘He's behind yous’."
It’s a fun and fascinating lunchtime and Pint Shop manager James and his staff do us proud. I could spend the rest of the day chatting to Matt and listening to his wicked showbiz gossip (which I clearly can't share with you, dear reader) but, alas, our table is needed for another collection of festive knitwearers.
If you missed Aladdin, I'm sure Matt will be back for Christmas 2019, complete with balloon breasts and false eyelashes. Book now!