Ben Richards on 'bringing the Gaston' to the Epstein Theatre this Christmas
It seems that for Ben Richards all roads lead to Liverpool.
Because while the stage and screen actor may have been born on the south coast, some of the memorable moments in his career so far have happened right here on the banks of the Mersey.
Take, for example, his first panto, not as a leading man but as a teenage dancer.
“Our director was also involved in that production as well,” he say, nodding across at Regal Entertainments' Jane Joseph who is sitting on the other side of the bar at the Epstein Theatre where we’re talking.
“It was at the Liverpool Empire with Stefan Dennis and it was Robin Hood and Babes in the Wood. I was a dancer back then and Sam McGlashan, now he’s known as Sam Kane, was Alan a Dale.
“That was many, many years ago.”
Thirty-one to be exact. But then, who’s counting?
He’s been back on the Empire stage since of course, most recently as the slimy boss Franklin Hart in 9-5 the Musical – a role he originated in the UK, and as Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages.
Meanwhile almost a quarter of a century after his Babes in the Woods debut Richards – by then a TV star with roles in Footballers’ Wives, Holby City and The Bill behind him - returned to Liverpool but this time to appear in Hollyoaks where he spent three years and 96 episodes as Sgt Ben Bradley.
It was a memorable time for the actor as he and his partner, TV presenter Kirsty Duffy, became new parents during his protracted stay in the city.
He recalls: “For me, my time doing Hollyoaks and living here was just so special and the people were so kind and lovely. We were a young family with a new-born, and I was busy filming. They just helped Kirsty out no end and it’s very special to my heart, this city.
“And the people are just…when you live here and get to really understand the ways of Liverpool, the Friday daytimes with the girls with their hair in curlers ready for Friday night, it’s fantastic.
“The energy and transformation of this amazing city is wonderful.”
The cast of Beauty and the Beast
Now he’s limbering up for Christmas at the Epstein, playing the idiotic Gaston in the newly-reopened theatre’s seasonal panto Beauty and the Beast.
It’s Richards’ fourth Beauty, but his first as Gaston after three previous runs under the Beast’s hairy prosthetics.
And he’s currently juggling filming for Emmerdale (of which he admits he can’t say much) with putting in time in the gym to, in his words, get ‘Gaston ready’.
“Gaston is Gaston, all his brains are in his biceps which means I’ve got to be in the gym,” he explains. “I’m a bit of a gym fan anyway, but I’ve also got a family, so trying to fit it in is tricky.
“But I’ve got to get ready for this – Liverpool is waiting, I’ve got to bring the Gaston on stage, it can’t be half measures.”
The cast also includes Jamie Greer, Lewis Devine, Lauren McCrory, Benjamin Keith, Kelly Sweeney – and Liverpool’s James Lacey, with whom Richards worked on 9-5.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun with it,” Richards smiles. “He’s going to be great as a vicious dame. It’s nice going to be nice bouncing off him and being the stooge in that relationship.”
The 49-year-old is happy being back working after a ‘pretty rough’ 18 months of pandemic lockdowns and closures which have hit the entertainment industry hard.
When we speak he’s just flown in from Spain having been singing on board a Regal Princess cruise. He’s also delighted to have secured the (mysterious) role on Emmerdale – what’s best described as an extended guest spot.
That will have finished by the time panto comes along.
The Epstein Theatre auditorium
“I do theatre work all around the country, but a venue like this is very rare where you find something so steeped in history,” he says of the Hanover Street theatre. “It’s really got a feel of an old music hall venue.
"So when you sit down, you’re automatically taken back to a different time, and I think we need that right now. We need to just forget about what’s going on and it’s all been a bit of stressful 18 months.
“I’m really hoping Scousers say, 'let’s forget about our worries for the year and let’s go and have a fun family day out and have lots of laughter'.”
Richards’ partner and six-year-old daughter Freja will join him for a week of the seasonal run. And talking of tradition, there will be his traditional Christmas gift to open on the big day.
The actor reveals: “Santa Claus wraps up this thing every year. I open it and am all excited…and it’s a potato.
“My daughter finds it hilarious. She can’t wait to see me open my potato and see my disappointment!”
Beauty and the Beast is at the Epstein Theatre from December 16 to January 9. Tickets HERE