There is nothing like a dame - former Sunderland teacher swaps books for bloomers.

UK Pantomimes June 2014

UK Pantomimes June 2014

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From the classroom to clowning around – this year’s Empire dame is drawing inspiration from his past as a teacher for his new role.

Playwright and actor Philip Meeks will be rouging his cheeks and donning his stockings to play Nurse Penny Well in this year’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Philip came up with the name after his time spent at the old Pennywell School.

“I taught English there and I was an awful teacher,” he recalls “It was like a parody, the only time I came to life back then was in the staff room.”

Philip will star alongside stage star Su Pollard and former Eastenders actor Matt Lapinskas in the Sunderland Empire panto.

The actor, whose brother is former Emmerdale actor Dale Meeks, said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to be at the Empire. My brother Dale has played Widow Twanky there, but this will be my first time as a Dame there.

“I love being a dame and can’t wait to start. I think the best thing about the role is the rapport you build up with the crowd, you become part of what they expect.” Despite the show not opening until December, Philip is already in the process of designing some colourful costumes for the show.

“A dame’s dress is like a clown’s face, everyone has their own look. Mine is all about block colour and good wigs,” he said.

In the meantime, the former Emmerdale script writer is turning his attention to his new play, Keeping Up With The Joans.

The comedy opens at the Customs House, South Shields, tonight and runs for three nights before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe and then to London’s Greenwich Theatre.

It stars Susan Penhaligon, famous for her role in ’70s drama Bouquet of Barbed Wire, and Doctor Who sidekick Katy Manning as eccentric rival amateur theatricals manipulated by sinister care worker Gary into facing the traumatic past that ruined their once precious friendship.

Philip, who now lives in London, said: “I’m thrilled with it. Going up to Edinburgh is really nail-biting as you are only given a day to tech. But this works out perfectly as on the way to Edinburgh we are stopping at the Customs House to preview.

“I was brought up in Cleadon Village but I see South Shields as my home town as my family are there and I get to stay at my mam’s.”

Philip is no stranger to the Edinburgh Festival.

His sell out Edinburgh Festival Fringe play Kiss Me Honey, Honey! won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 before commencing on a successful tour of Scotland.

Other successes include Edith in the Dark, inspired by the ghost stories of E Nesbit, which was a critical and audience hit at Harrogate Theatre last Christmas, where it was the first play to be commissioned for over twenty years.

Also, the hit play Murder, Margaret and Me about Margaret Rutherford and Agatha Christie completed a national tour during 2013 culminating in a brief West End season at the Ambassadors Theatre.

Speaking about the inspiration for his latest production, he said: “At some point or other I’ve been a member of all the amateur groups in the North East which helped to inspire this play. It’s an affectionate take on amateur theatre, while also getting in a sly dig.

“It’s about two women who were in an amateur group a long time ago, but they have a secret past. They meet again in an old people’s home, many years later.

“It’s a play about loss of self and a comedy about Alzheimer’s and people going through some form of dementia. I’m sick of age being dealt with as though it’s the end and depressing, so I wanted this to be comedy. There’s a lot to laugh about in old age. If you laugh, then they laugh, but if you panic, they panic.”

Actress Katy Manning rose to fame as Josephine Grant in Dr Who alongside Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, returning forty years on as Jo Grant in the new series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, opposite Matt Smith’s Doctor.

Her foe in the play, Susan Penhaligon, played Frank Finlay’s spoilt daughter Prue in the hugely successful A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, Lucy in the BBC adaptation of Dracula and Judi Dench’s sister Helen in four series of the award winning sitcom A Fine Romance.

She has also appeared most recently in the regular role of Jean Hope in Emmerdale.

Free tickets are on offer to see the black comedy make its debut – with one stipulation.

The Customs House is offering free tickets to see the show to anyone named Joan.

“We thought it would be a great idea to offer the Joans out there a free ticket,” said Ray Spencer, executive director of The Customs House.

“We’re not sure how popular a name it is these days but it will be interested to see how many might want to come along.”

Any Joan wanting to take advantage of the special offer will need to provide proof to confirm their name. For further information contact the box office on Tel: 454 1234.

•Keeping Up With The Joans is at Customs House, South Shields, tonight, tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are £10 tonight or £14 general admission tomorrow and Saturday. For more information visit www.customshouse.co.uk.