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Tarinn Callender: 'It's so lovely to play a venue where I can see myself represented in the audience'

PUBLISHED: 11:46 02 December 2019 | UPDATED: 11:46 02 December 2019

Tarinn Callender as Dick Whittington in the Hackney Empire panto. Picture: Robert Workman.

Tarinn Callender as Dick Whittington in the Hackney Empire panto. Picture: Robert Workman.

© Robert Workman

After two years performing in Hamilton, Tarinn Callender's current role is the lead in Hackney Empire's Dick Whittington panto. Here, the 24-year-old speaks of appearing opposite one of his idols and the inclusivity of his new place of work.

Callender stars alongside Clive Rowe and Annette McLaughlin. Picture: Mr Perou.Callender stars alongside Clive Rowe and Annette McLaughlin. Picture: Mr Perou.

It's a dreary Wednesday afternoon on Mare Street, as children flock out of school gates and the rush hour traffic builds in the drizzle. It's grey, cold and generally quite forgettable.

Inside Hackney Empire, though, the atmosphere is the polar opposite. The Dick Whittington and His Cat pantomime is in to its fourth matinee performance, and the joyous cheers and whoops of the crowd indicate another festive hit from this famous old venue. This year's starring role is taken by 24-year-old Tarinn Callender.

"It's been really good so far," he says, fresh off stage and still adjusting to the quiet of his dressing room.

"It's been very interesting learning the different types of audiences that we will get. It's interesting to play around with those things on stage, I've never done panto before [and I'm] trying to find the right balance for the different age groups."

Callender (centre) arrives in Hackney after two years performing in the West End's Hamilton. Picture: Robert Workman.Callender (centre) arrives in Hackney after two years performing in the West End's Hamilton. Picture: Robert Workman.

Callender might well be making his panto debut here, but he arrives in Hackney with impressive musical theatre pedigree. He was just 21 when he began performing in the original UK adaption of Hamilton, where he played the dual roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison.

"It was the best two years of my life so far," he says.

"Professionally, and also just for me as a person, I grew up a lot. Because I was so young when I first started Hamilton, I was exposed to things that a lot of 21-year-olds wouldn't really be. It was a very big learning curve, I enjoyed every single second of it and I can't talk about it without a big smile on my face! It will always have a special place in my heart."

For Dick Whittington, Callender features in a cast including Annette McLaughlin (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) as Queen Rat, Kat B as Vincent the Cat, Tony Whittle as Alderman Fitzwarren and Grand Dame Clive Rowe - turning out for his 13th panto appearance in Hackney - as Sarah the Cook. What's it like for him to combine with these legends of Mare Street panto?

"Well, I try to keep my cool," he chuckles, "especially with Clive. I'm a big fan of his work from ages ago. He did something called Once on this Island, and I remember listening to it and thinking who is that guy with the exceptional voice? and it was Clive.

"When we were in rehearsals and I got told I was going to be singing with him, my 15-year-old self was losing his mind. It's brilliant to be around people like that. It's interesting to see how they work - because they've been doing it for so long - you see how they take to the script and use the space.

"Pantomime is its own separate art form and it needs to be respected. It's been such a joy to [work with] such legends... just watching them do their thing."

The panto, which continues until January 5, follows Dick Whittington and His Cat from Jamaica aboard the Empire Windrush, as he chases the dream of a new life in the promise-land of London. The story sees Callender's character reunite with his Mum, fight rodent royalty, meet an eccentric fairy and win the heart of his true love. Classic pantomime fare with a pertinent local flavour.

Callender adds: "The whole inspiration came from a man called Sam King, who equally came to London under Windrush and became a lord mayor of London. The whole idea was based around him. It's the story of Dick Whittington with a classic Hackney Empire twist."

Having grown up a few miles away in Tottenham, Callender is savouring the chance to perform at a venue so close to home.

"It's so lovely to play a venue where I can see myself being represented in the audience and vice versa. I think that's so important, especially for young kids growing up that may want to do musical theatre or acting.

"With Hackney Empire, it's very inclusive for every single person and I've really felt that over the past month. Hackney Empire panto definitely reflects that, puts it on stage, and allows everyone to feel like they belong."

As our conversation comes to a close, Callender speaks of the importance of family: firstly celebrating the tight-knit bond among the Dick Whittington cast - "When I first came here, I was instantly welcomed to the family" - and then speaking about the influence of his home. Playing a lead role at Hackney Empire at the age of 24 involves a lot of responsibility, and he must be proud of where he's got to?

"I am, and that's a testament to my family who always told me I can do anything. [They taught me to] never limit yourself - and I never did - but at the same time keep a very strong head and remember where you came from and remember your struggle.

"Nothing in life comes easy - you have to work to be where you are. I hope I can be an example of someone who - if you work hard, no matter what age you are - you can be anything you want to be."

Dick Whittington and His Cat is on at Hackney Empire until January 5. More details and tickets here.

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