Jack and the Beanstalk is Janice Honeyman’s 26th pantomime and for young Timothy LeRoux, the 10th year he is there as her assistant. It’s almost impossible to contemplate how director/writer Honeyman comes up with a fresh and innovative festive pantomime every year. But she does, her audiences know she |will deliver and this is arguably the one fail-safe production of the tricky Gauteng theatre season. Again she’s gathered the troops led by panto prince Tobie Cronje as the giant’s evil sidekick, as well as funnyman Desmond Dube as the Dame. Star comic Louise Saint-Claire is this year’s fairy, Felma-Fabbadabba-dozy with the emphasis on dozy, while Nandi Nyembe, (Zone 14, Soul Sister) and David Clatworthy add extra clout. The romantic leads return last year’s Prince Charming Bongi Mthombeni as Jack with Carly Graeme’s Raspberry Rose catching the young man’s eye. DIANE DE BEER chats to one of this year’s panto top dogs.

He’s their lucky star. Or so it seems. Whenever Tobie Cronje has been secured for yet another panto, everyone seems to heave a sigh of relief.

“I started Janice Honeyman on this writing career,” he says softly.

At the start of the young Tobie and Janice’s careers, they were teamed in Babbelkous en die Bruidegom. They were doing a season in Durban and Tobie nagged Janice to go skating with him. She did, fell and broke her ankle, taking her off stage for a few months at least. Because she was part of the Pact (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) company at the time, then Market Theatre director Mannie Manim told her to earn her keep and start writing, which she did. She hasn’t stopped since.

But Tobie still wishes his friend would join him on stage again. “She was wonderful,” he says as he reminisces. And many of us can still remember her delightful screen presence in the early days of TV in Bangalory Time.

Cronje loves returning to the panto stage almost every year and is delighted to be the evil dude this time. “I was so pleased to escape the complications of dressing up as the dame,” he says. But then he found that evil Henry Hideosa, the giant’s assistant who is his character this year, has as much detail in his dressing ensemble as the dame.

“But it’s fun to do the evil thing for a change,” he says. And he’s happy to play macho rather than meisie, although one of his notes reads that he should camp it up a little. Tobie smiles wanly, it seems he can’t win.

But he knows that he can hardly put a foot wrong when stepping on to the stage. And in the end it is all about the children in the audience.

“They really get into the characters and the story,” he says. At first he was upset when children burst into tears, until Janice pointed out that it was part of telling the story. “It’s that wonderful power of imagination when you’re young,” he says. “That we can lead them into that make-believe world.”

It’s almost like 7de Laan, he feels. People believe this is a real world. “Small children are more involved in the story while the adults buy into the full extravaganza.”

He’s just relieved at the success of another stage favourite, My Vrou se Man se Vrou, which has been touring the country. They won the audience prize at the Innibos festival and sold more tickets than any other show at the festival ever, and soon after that also wowed notoriously difficult audiences in Cape Town.

From the start of his drama studying days, the young Tobie knew where his talents lay. “When Anna Neethling-Pohl asked me to stand up and say my name, people laughed.”

He knew it was that physical thing and it’s still there. It’s the lankiness, the sad sack, droopy eyes, the pronounced chin… he names them all with a slight grimace.

But more than that it is the mournful clown in Tobie that catches your eye. He has a gentle mien but with a hint of laughter that could emerge at any second. He says he has always coped with life in a comical way, but is quite upset when he hears that he has a reputation for making people corpse on stage.

“It’s about being on your toes, not getting your fellow actors giggling.”

He’s a serious yet precious soul who makes the world laugh. He also keeps an eye on his fellow actors, especially the young and the more vulnerable ones. He’s quick with advice and excited when they’re energetic and earnest about their performances. He is as quick with compliments about his fellow actors as they are about him.

The process is becoming more difficult every year as the rehearsal period is cut down and both his mind and body are not getting younger. But watch the reaction of his fellow cast members when he steps on to the floor and you know – the glitter and giggles that surround this larger-than-life stage persona won’t be dimmed for many years to come.