He’s been in panto every year since 1987 but can still wrong-foot an audience. BARBARA HODGSON meets the villainous Neil Armstrong
HERE’S a tip for you. Don’t sit in the front row at a pantomime – or not one that Neil Armstrong’s in at any rate.
If you absolutely must then my recommendation for ladies is to wear boots, which may (or may not) deter the actor’s inner mischief-maker.
Armstrong has, he readily admits, been known to snatch – and cast aloft – easily removable footwear.
“I pinch women’s shoes and throw them up to the ceiling,” he tells me. “Or mess their hair up and run away.
“Sometimes people take offence but very rarely!”
After all, having done the pantomime rounds since 1987, he can judge in an instant who in an audience might be a “willing” victim and he tends to spare those who shirk from his evil intent.
And, to be fair, it works both ways: he never knows quite what to expect either. One year he was shouted at by a boy with Tourette’s who then chased him around the theatre.
“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” he says gamely.
Over the years Armstrong has played just about every theatre in the region, running the gamut of roles from the back end of the cow onwards (and upwards).
And now he seems to have found his niche with, not entirely traditional, baddies – “when you get to be 40 you’re old enough to play villains” which since 2009 has included a guitar-playing rock ‘n’ roll King Rat in Dick Whittington; Baron Gristle in Cinderella; Fleshcreep in Jack and the Beanstalk and currently Scorchard the Wizard in Sleeping Beauty – all at Gala Theatre in Durham where he’s become part of the regular cast of its homegrown festive favourite.
“I used to do a lot of comedy but villains I absolutely love,” he says. “You have the best of both worlds.
“You can use comedy; if you scare them you can release the tension by making them laugh.”
His Scorchard is currently winding up children to bursting point, which is far more fun than scaring them. Incidentally, on the night I saw the show, the women and their shoes were relatively safe (but the men weren’t as the flamboyant Dame Miriam is on the lookout for a new boyfriend).
Armstrong enjoys making his baddies “upper class, eloquent and urbane” who “always look at the audience as a bunch of chavs”.
He laughs: “It’s your job to make them boo and shout their heads off. I tell them to shut up and it’s reverse psychology as you want them to shout even louder.”