Isabelle Gerretsen meets Sharon D Clarke, Hackney panto’s scary fairy and star of stage and TV
Sharon D Clarke will be familiar to many of you as a regular presence in the legendary Christmas panto at the Hackney Empire. It’s the fifth time she’s taken part and this year she is the dark fairy Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty.
“The Hackney Empire is my second home,” she says. “I love doing the pantomime with such an eclectic, talented, glorious group of people. They are like family.”
One member of this theatrical tight-knit group really is family. Susie McKenna, who writes and directs the pantomime each year, is Sharon’s wife – they married on the Hackney Empire stage in 2008.
Every time she performs at the theatre she’s reminded of what she loves most about London: the diversity. “When I starred in Mother Goose, I saw a woman wearing a hijab with her kids, sitting next to an old Jamaican couple who sat near a Chinese couple, all with their heads thrown back, laughing at the same time,” she recalls.
She feels extremely lucky to have played such an eclectic range of roles both on television and theatre. “I go where the experiences will take me. I want to do work which stretches and challenges me, as well as roles which are fun,” she tells me.
Last year she appeared as Nurse in Romeo and Juliet as well as starring in the musicals We Will Rock You and Ghost. Her performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre this year was highly acclaimed. She fell in love with August Wilson’s character when, as a young actress, she saw Carol Woods play the role 20 years ago.
Despite her success on stage, Sharon is most widely known for playing consultant Lola Griffin on Holby City. People regularly come up to her in the street. “They ask me if I’m still acting,” she laughs. “When they no longer see you on telly all the time, they assume you’re not working.
Holby City cast her into limelight, but Sharon says that deep down she remains a theatre performer. “I love the energy exchange between the audience and a performer.” That connection brings her back to the Hackney Empire stage year after year.
What makes you most proud?
Seeing so many different creeds, colours, and ages, the diversity of the Hackney Empire panto audience.
Where do you hang out in East London?
Hackney Empire, Stage 3 & YumYum’s.
Best coffee in these parts?
Don’t do coffee. So it’s the King Creole Rum Slushy in Stage 3.
How has the area changed?
My second home, (the Empire) is where my mum and dad use to go dancing, then where my dad played bingo. My dad passed 21 years ago. I think he would marvel at the way Hackney is changing, with all the coffee shops and bars. The rise of the house prices – some of the young people who attend the Artistic Development Programme at the Empire have had their families moved out of Hackney to Luton which is a real shame. Many artists can’t afford to live in Hackney any more. However, gentrification and regeneration are always doing battle in London and it’s great to see a thriving evening economy in the area.
Anything you would change?
Do away with 11pm meters, back to 6.30pm please, and a Nando’s in Mare Street.
The area’s best-kept secret?
Stage 3’s Indonesian menu.
If East London were human?
Dame Barbara Windsor and Idris Elba’s love child.
East London in a word?