Dozens of excited children are lining up outside Blackburn’s Empire Theatre preparing to board the coaches which have brought them to see Beauty and the Beast.

The noise levels are high; partly the product of some interval sweets but mainly because of the thrill of experiencing live theatre. For many it’s been the first time.

Stee Leahy is an incongruous figure backstage, dressed in a festive onesie and with full-on panto dame make-up. As Tilly Teapot he’s an integral figure in the family show acting as narrator, guide, and purveyor of many a bad joke.

Messenger Newspapers: Stee Leahy as Tilly Teapot in Beauty and the Beast at Blackburn Empire

He only came off stage five minutes earlier and he’s due back on to do it all again for another full house in less than half an hour.

“There really is no rest,” he said, a huge grin on his face. “You come off stage and grab a quick drink and maybe half a sandwich and then you’re back on. There’s just as much going on backstage as there is on stage.”

Stee’s an old-hand at panto. This year is his 10th Christmas being part of what he calls ‘a glorious tradition’.

But for Emma Pinnington, who plays Belle in the show, it’s a whole new experience. This is the first pantomime she has appeared in, in a starring role.

“I’ve been a dancer since I was little,” said Emma. “So every Christmas with the dance school we’d be part of a panto. I just love the whole festive season.

Messenger Newspapers: Emma Pinnington as Belle and Johnny Wright as the Prince at Blackburn Empire Theatre

“This is a dream come true to play the princess, especially Belle as she’s my favourite Disney princess. The whole thing is just magical.”

Both Stee and Emma are delighted that Beauty and the Beast was selected as the panto for the Empire this year.

“It’s got a great story to it,” said Stee. “Many of the kids will be aware of the story maybe from the Disney film but we also have a chance to add things to it. That’s l what I love about this panto; it’s that little bit different.”

Beauty and the Beast also stars Nineties chart sensation Lolly as the Enchantress and Johnny Wright who plays Prince Michael whom the Enchantress turns into the Beast to teach him a lesson.

“I have to say this is one of the nicest casts I have worked with,” said Stee. “Everyone is just great.”

“Coming into a pantomime for the first time has been a massive learning curve for me,” said Emma. “I’ve just come in with an open mind and taken on board everything that’s going on around me. But when you have such a lovely team around you and helping you it makes such a difference. I’m absolutely loving the whole experience.”

Stee is passionate about pantomime. Not only is he one of the stars of the show, he also designed and made the majority of the costumes. He’s also helped cast the show and even worked on the props.

“I came out of education and went straight into pantomime,” he said. “I’d always known that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t dream of the West End or anything like that, it was pantomime.

“I like the dramatics of it; how camp it is; how inclusive it is. A lot of the time it’s a child’s first exposure to theatre. You can always tell the ones who haven’t been before. They sit there with big eyes and don’t make a sound. Once they’ve been a couple of times they are screaming their heads off.”

“The reaction you get from kids is amazing,” said Emma. “It took me completely by surprise even though Stee had told me about it. It gets like a football stadium in there sometimes, they are just roaring. I love it.”

As someone who clearly loves panto so much it is not surprising to hear Stee has strong thoughts on this theatrical art form.

“I stand by this - not every actor is a pantomime actor. You could be the greatest actor but they could suck at panto.

“You have to understand the skillsets and different disciplines required. Can you do slapstick? Can you roll with it when something goes slightly wrong, what do you do if you’re being heckled? Is your character one who would respond to a heckler or would just ignore them?

“There is a lot of theatrical politics within a pantomime.

“You have to have a passion for panto. A lot of performers think ‘oh it’s panto season, I’ll just get a job’ and that’s all it is to them - a job. But if have passion you will have the best time and the audience will love it. Without that passion, it shows and the audience can soon spot that.”

Messenger Newspapers: Emma Pinnignton with Dean Raymond  in Beauty and the Beast at Blackburn Empire

As Belle, Emma appreciates that probably every little girl in the audience wants to be her.

“I know I’d want to be her if I was in the audience,” she laughed. “When I come out in the big yellow dress you can hear the ‘aahs’ from the audience. That’s pretty special.

“It’s a beautiful dress but it’s really big and very heavy but I’ve learned how to walk like a princess in it now.”

“I think there are 18 or 19 steel hoops in that dress,” said Stee, “but it had to look spectacular and it does.”

Although Emma can blame Stee for some costume discomfort he’s only got himself to blame for his various costumes as Tilly teapot.

“I know, every time I put the teapot costume on I think ‘this is so uncomfortable’,” he laughed. “But that’s part of the job - I’m a teapot after all!”

Stee has been to the Empire several times with various half term pantomimes with producer Tom Rolfe.

“I love this theatre,” he said. “It’s so intimate. You can see every false eyelash I’ve got on from the back row.

“Being the Dame it’s great that I can see every single seat. I can wave to anyone in the audience, I can see every smiling face.”

Beauty and the Beast runs until New Year’s Eve and after that Stee will immediately start work on designing costumes and looking at productions with producer Tom Rolfe.

“I’m off on a cruise ship from March until October,” said Emma, “but I’m really hoping that I can come back and be in panto next Christmas.

“I’m loving the whole experience and I definitely want to do more.”

Beauty and the Beast, Blackburn Empire Theatre, until New Year’s Eve. Performance times vary. Visit