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Preview: Theatre Royal’s Rita Marks 30 Years As A Panto Dame

Theatre Royal’s Rita Marks
30 Years As A Panto Dame

Chris Hayward, A.K.A ‘Dame Rita’ – the opulently dressed star of the last eight record-breaking pantos at Newcastle Theatre Royal, is this year celebrating 30 glorious years as a panto dame.

Widely regarded as one of the leading lights in pantomime, Chris is renowned for his lavish outfits, wigs and multiple costume changes (14 in total for this year’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), all of which are designed by himself.

Aged 50, and from Newcastle, Chris starred as dame for the first time when he was just 19 years old, playing one of the ugly sisters in Cinderella at the Charter Theatre in Preston.  Not a year has gone by since when he hasn’t donned a wig and heels for the festive season in theatres the length and breadth of the UK and even around the world.

This year, playing ‘Dame Rita the Cook’ in Newcastle Theatre Royal’s record breaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, marks three decades as mistress of the boards for Chris.  In his career he has played one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters no less than 14 times and had multiple turns as Widow Twankey, The Queen , Nurse, Cook, Baroness, Empress and many more iconic dame characters.

Chris’s legions of fans also adore him for his family-friendly jokes and loveable on-stage persona.  Since his return to the region in 2006 when he starred in Aladdin at the Theatre Royal alongside Faye Tozer and panto favourites Clive Webb and Danny Adams for the first time, his local fan base has grown meteorically.  His entrance onstage is universally greeted with a chorus of “Hiya Hinney” from the audience and his finale hat and dress are always a source of much anticipation.

Chris's Nana
Rene Mills in 1937
Born and brought up in Byker, Chris comes from a long line of performers.  Infact, the Hayward clan is something of a theatrical dynasty.  Chris’s Great Auntie Helen Mills performed as a dancer in pantos Mother Goose and Robinson Crusoe at Newcastle Theatre Royal in the 1940s, but it was his beloved Nana Rene Mills who was his greatest inspiration, and whose photo is a permanent fixture on his dressing room table.  A renowned big band singer all over England in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Rene oversaw Chris take his first steps onto the stage at Newcastle Tyne Theatre in Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I at the age of 13.

Chris has performed Dame in all the UK’s biggest Theatres from High Wycombe to Hull, Bradford to Woking.  His work has also taken him as far afield as Dubai where 17 years ago he played at the World Trade Centre there in front of a sheik and his huge entourage. 

Chris’s many other professional performances include summer season, cabaret and revue working with Danny La Rue, Jim Davidson, Barbara Windsor, Bobby Davroe to name but a few.  He also appeared in the West End’s Cockney Club and his TV credits include Bergerac, Super Gran, The Little and Large Show and many more. 

Chris said: “The last 30 years seems to have gone by in a flash – I simply love what I do.  There’s nothing like the buzz of being onstage, and no more so than in panto – the highlight of the theatrical year.  I’ve had so many amazing experiences and worked with so many incredible talents. There have been highs and lows of course – I was hospitalised with a splinter in my bottom after being dragged across the stage by a faulty prop during Cinderella at the New Theatre Hull in 2000, and my shoes even melted to the stage once after I put out a fire from a faulty Fairy Godmother pyro at Darlington Civic Theatre in 1989.  At the Theatre Royal I feel like I’ve found my spiritual home though and working alongside Clive and Danny is a dream – they are incredible performers and great friends.  Plus, we put on a pretty good show – 95,000 people a year can’t be wrong! This is my true calling and I hope I’ll still be doing it in 30 years time…”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs appears at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Sunday 18 January 2015. Tickets are available from £12 (a booking fee of 95p - £1.95 will apply to most tickets) and can be purchased from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 08448 11 21 21 or select your own seat and book online at

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