August 31 2014 Latest news:

Soul singing legend from The Three Degrees, Sheila Ferguson chatted to Alistair McCluskey about being Fairy Godmother in Cinderella at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this Christmas

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Q: What can we expect from this year’s panto at the Cambridge Arts?

A: The production of Cinderella is a more traditional panto, with good acting and good singing, so I’m really looking forward to playing this one. It’ll be the first traditional panto I’ve done. Plus I’ll be using my African-American speech patterns wherever I feel comfortable, because there are certain things I just wouldn’t say, like ‘Jolly old chaps.’ I’ve lived in England since 1983 so I’m quite Anglicised, but I do feel that by bringing that to a panto it gives the kids something they can instantly relate to because that’s what they see in TV shows from America. So I’ll be giving it some African-American street cred and keeping it classy

Q: It’s not the first panto you’ve done though...

A: No, I’ve done Aladdin and Cinderella before. I’ve been the Fairy Godmother and the Wicked Queen, as these are the only two roles I can play really – it’s not like I’d play Cinderella or Snow White is it!

Q: As an American, how did you first become aware of the phenomenon of pantomime?

A: I’d never heard of it before I came to the UK. When my twin daughters were about four or five, I took them to a panto and I swore that I would never go to another panto in my life. It was dreadful! It just seemed so corny to me, as it would to Americans who aren’t familiar with it. Then, years later, after I came out of the jungle on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, I was offered the part of the Fairy Godmother. Eventually I realised that new kids come to panto for the first time every year, so they don’t know these jokes that come up again and again. But even intellectual people love panto, because it’s the only time adults can act like children and get away with it

Q: Do you think that’s why panto is so enduringly popular?

A: I think it’s an institution because it is so British. I don’t know any other country that has panto. It’s a great outlet for laughter, and lord knows we need laughter in this day and age!

Q: Do you enjoy all that interaction and the back-and-forth banter...

A: I do, particularly as the Fairy Godmother. When I played the Wicked Queen at first I was petrified because I’d never been booed on stage in my life, and with all these kids booing and ranting at me I thought I was going to cry! But eventually I got in to the role and gave it large, as they say!

Q: What do you know about the rest of the cast of Cinderella?

A: Everyone can really sing – Katie Rowley Jones has done Whistle Down The Wind, Grease, Aladdin and she was in Sister Act, so she’s a seasoned veteran. Adam Price has done Hairspray, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Eastenders and Grange Hill – so he’s done as much as I have. I’m looking to learn from these people and I like to learn all the time

Q: Have you performed in Cambridge before?

A: Only in concerts with The Three Degrees, but I left them in 1986 to raise my children and since then I haven’t had a tour that’s enabled me to come to your beautiful city. So I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll have a lovely flat there that will enable me to relax and chill out, and see some of the city when I’m not in the dressing room

Q: Being in panto looks like a relentless schedule – do you have any special ways of coping with that?

A: Yes – you shut up when you finish the show and you go straight home! I did Fame in Ireland last year with 28 kids who had just come out of drama school. They go out and party each night and then perform brilliantly the next day. But they’re 18 to 23-year-olds. When you’ve got three shows a day there’s no way you can go out the night before, you really have to get the sleep to rest your vocal chords. And I’m not a pub-type person anyway, After a panto finishes I’d rather go home and watch some telly.

Q: What other projects have you worked on?

A: My Soul Food historical cookbook is in its 11th print worldwide. People tend to think that all American dishes are junk food, which gave me the impetus for the book – to show that’s not true. I wanted to make sure all the recipes were authentic and I did a lot of research into the history of American food. A lot of ingredients came to America in the pockets of slaves, like sweet potatoes, yams and grits and food was used, like music, as a way to communicate.

Q: Finally, if your own Fairy Godmother could grant you one wish for Christmas, what would it be?

A: If I could be granted one wish it would be to find the man of my dreams, to live the rest of my life with love, lust and happiness!

Cinderella, 9 December to 15 January, Cambridge Arts Theatre, St Edwards Passage, CB2 3PJ 01223 503333

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