PANTOMIME season is upon us as Stevenage’s Gordon Craig Theatre presents Beauty and the Beast.

Bernie Nolan heads a cast which also includes Leanne Jones, Chris Clarkson and Rachel Jerram, although it is a particularly special year for ‘Stevenage’s favourite dame’ Paul Laidlaw.

The 2011 show marks the 25th anniversary of Paul’s 1986 debut appearance on the theatre’s stage, a place he has returned to almost every year since.

The Comet caught up with the panto’s Dame Derriere ahead of Saturday’s opening night to take a look back at his “silver jubilee” and look forward to the latest show.

Asked to pick a favourite performance from his quarter of a century at the theatre in Lytton Way, Paul said: “All of them - they all have their highlights. The first one was very precious to me though and I got to work with Barbara Windsor twice (in 1989 and 1993) so that was great.

“I’ve never done Beauty and the Beast as a panto but as a musical twice. It isn’t often done but there’s no reason it can’t work - I think it’s going to be magical as the music and dance is very similar to Cinderella.”

Of all the dame-type roles Paul has played, Mother Goose and Widow Twankey are his favourites.

“Widow Twankey I think I’ve played five times for Aladdin! Each time it’s the same basic story but when there’s a new cast there’s always a new take on it,” he said, adding that this year’s audience can expect “at least three very good visual moments”.

“The lovely thing about panto is it’s a mixture of the familiar and the novel but we always try to put something a bit different in to keep it fresh.”

And what of performing almost 100 times between now and January 22?

“It’s the longest running panto in the country and the world as we (the British) are the only ones stupid enough to do it,” said Paul, who hails from York but is renting a place in Stevenage for the duration of the run.

“Someone once asked me ‘how do you know where you’ve got to?’ And I said ‘well I keep putting clothes on until somebody tells me to go home’.”

But rehearsals are just as intense, Paul revealed.

“We have 10 days but we effectively lose four days of that to technical work on set. We’ve about six days to learn the show - that’s very fast but you’ve just got to get on with it.”

Paul is joined on stage for the second year running by Chris Clarkson, who swaps the role of Herbie the Huntsman for Potty Pierre, Dame Derrier’s son.

“When we first worked together we got on well almost instantly last year and now coming back this time it’s even easier as we know what we’re each going to do,” said Paul.

“Bernie Nolan is a delight too. We all get on terribly well.”

So can we expect to see you at the Gordon Craig Theatre for many years to come?

“I’ve got a lovely rapport with the audience here and I’d love to continue to do it as long as people want me to, but it’s not up to me.”

It’s fair to say that Stevenage audiences are likely to see their favourite dame annually for a few years yet.

Beauty and the Beast runs at the theatre from Saturday until Sunday, January 22, including morning, afternoon and evening shows.

Tickets range from �10.75 for school shows to �21.50. For the full list of performances or to book visit or call 01438 894802.