As Christmas approaches we get used to seeing big faces we vaguely recognise grinning out at us from posters, promoting a panto designed to part us from our cash. There’s nothing really wrong with theatres and thespians making a quick quid while they can – both lines of work are monetarily perilous – but it doesn’t exactly fill me with festive cheer, rather an urge to start muttering some of Scrooge’s more bitter incantations under my breath. How nice it is then to find the Bolton Octagon putting on a production of real merit this year, starring an actor who is doing it for reasons unrelated to his wallet. The production is Alice In Wonderland and the actor Alex Sawyer, best known for his role in Nickelodeon’s House Of Anubis.

Originally I planned to see the production on the press night, but had to reschedule as I was ill. It turned out to be a stroke of luck, because instead I saw it on a Friday morning with around 300 school children for company. This gave me an insight into how it affected its intended audience – after all, it is a kid’s show – and also meant I didn’t sustain any injuries in the scrimmage for free press drinks.

To say the children enjoyed it would be an understatement equivalent to noting that Kim Kardashian occasionally takes selfies. At every opportunity they were out of their seats dancing, waving and generally behaving in a fashion not far removed from that of a Pentecostal congregation. It’s not hard to see why either. The play takes the surreal charm of Carroll’s original and adds in a narrative and message that is more relatable to present day reality. Sawyer, who plays a number of characters in the play, has a smiling face and engaging presence that fits the work perfectly, and his easy charm was wonderful to watch. I caught up with him in the Octagon’s café afterwards to find out how he came to be in the production and what his plans are for the future.

First, could you outline your role in Alice in Wonderland for us?

Initially I am a schoolchild in year 6 at Alice’s school. We’re trying to get our teacher to let us take home the class rabbit for the holidays. Alice really wants to, but she is too shy and doesn’t say, so then it is her journey into finding herself in the Wonderland part of the story. The school kids take on the different characters in that world.

What did you do before Alice?

It’s my first theatre show. Before this I was on a TV show called House of Anubis.

Has it been hard adjusting to theatre?

With Anubis we would film it and not get a reaction back. But with this you’re immediately working with an audience as if they were another member of the cast, and they help you as much as you help them. It keeps it interesting. Each show is different, which I really like.

I took this on because I wanted to get better at what I do – improve my craft. There’s a lot of stuff you can get from theatre that you might not working in TV. It’s not that you have to be a better actor to work in theatre, but there is a focus on different things like enunciation and making sure you’re heard. Performance is the priority, whereas in TV there are other elements like marketing that you need to consider.

How does the rehearsal process differ?

Elizabeth [Newman, the director] focuses on creating real characters with real experiences who go through a story with every performance. TV is in short bursts, and the director has to worry about camera angles and sticking to a schedule. It was nice to have the experimental side too. I’d only been there five minutes when Elizabeth told us to do an improv where we had to run around and be school children. That was very shocking for me at first, but it’s so helpful once you’re actually doing it.

You play a few instruments in this production. Had you played them before?

I’ve played guitar since I was 11, which helped. I bought a bass last year, and generally I love music and do a lot of music production myself. It was really fun telling a story while you’re playing an instrument. You’re driving the two things at once.

Is that hard?

At first. It’s one of those things where the less you think about it the easier it is – otherwise you end up falling over. A lot of this production for me is just about not falling over.

Of the characters you play in Alice, do you have a favourite?

That’s a lot like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. You shouldn’t answer it. However, I will, and I’ll say it’s the Gryphon. Because of the simple nature of the production we didn’t want to go down the usual route of wings and a lion’s body. Originally he was just going to be your average guy – everyone else is extravagant but I could just play him as me. That worked for a bit, but never felt comfortable. Anyway, I am half Ghanaian, and that came up in conversation with Elizabeth and she asked if I could do the accent and would I use that for the Gryphon. I am very careful about things like that, because I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. I wanted to get it so if the entire audience was Ghanaian they wouldn’t think I was butchering their accent. I spent a lot of time on it.

What do you have planned once Alice is over?

I’m going to Los Angeles for pilot season. I’ve got representation there. It’s a semi holiday slash work. It’s better there for minority actors, which is why a lot of black actors are going over to America to find work. Hopefully that leads to something, but only about 5% of pilots actually get commissioned. I also started my own production company with two of my friends, shooting music videos and stuff like that – behind the camera. Actually, before I got Anubis I wanted to be a mechanical engineer.

Those two career paths don’t normally go together.

No, they don’t. At school I remember when I told my tutor I wanted to do maths and science, he said, “Really? Not music or drama?” and I laughed because I thought there were no careers in those things. But I guess there are, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Anyway, being in LA will give me a chance to find people to work with for my music projects too. I’m one of those people that has a hundred plans at once. I’m really excited to see what comes of it all. It’s another step into the unknown, another way of pushing myself.

Alex Sawyer is appearing in Alice in Wonderland at the Bolton Octagon, which is on until 10 January.
octagonbolton.co.uk/alice
Photo by Michael Shelford Photography

Andrew Anderson