Actress and West End star Julie Atherton has certainly had a busy career since graduating from drama school in 1999, appearing in shows as varied as Avenue Q, Sister Act The Musical and Mamma Mia! But what sparked her interest in the stage in the first place? Atherton chatted to me during rehearsals for her critically acclaimed performance in the Lyric Hammersmith’s pantomime, Cinderella.

“Well, it was basically all I could do! My drama teacher at Sixth Form got me so interested in it. He really fought for me.” Driven by this passion for the stage and her determination to become a professional actress, Atherton decided to apply for drama school and was offered a place at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. She reveals with a laugh, “once I’d got in to Mountview I didn’t turn up to the rest of the auditions because I knew I wanted to be there. There’s just something about it.”

It was at Mountview that Atherton’s talent for acting and singing were nourished. Atherton’s advice for young people who want to appear on the West End stage, as she has? Hard work and want it more than anything else; there’s no escaping the fact that competition will always be fierce.

With a history of West End appearances behind her, as well as two studio albums, what prompted the decision to transfer her skills to pantomime at the Lyric for Christmas 2012? She says of this particular production: “there are no football stars to pull in the audience, it’s simply a really good panto with brilliant people in it and brilliant writing. It’s traditional.” If pantomime’s the theatrical equivalent of Marmite, Atherton’s very atuned to how she feels about its traditions. “I hate audience participation. I’m quite shy really. I know that’s weird when you’re an actress, but when I see something with audience participation I always think, ‘Oh no, please please don’t pick on me’.”

Despite her reticence as an audience member, the process of being actively involved in Cinderella has softened Atherton to the genre as a whole – thanks in great part to the fun the cast had in rehearsals. “We all really get on – a bit too well! It’s hard to keep a straight face on stage; it’s a really fun process.” She was well-prepared for those occasions of audience interaction that might call for some quick-thinking improvisation by herself and the other actors.

So what gets you in the mood for a demanding pantomime performance regime? A high-octane rehearsal routine, of course. Atherton reveals that the cast of Cinderella braved the Insanity Workout challenge as part of their warm-up; Atherton sums up this military-style exercise challenge in one word: “horrendous”. “But,” she continues, “it’s keeping us strong and fit. We don’t have understudies so we have to be well.” Clearly, Director Sean Holmes is aware of the physical and mental strength needed to survive a show that runs for weeks at a time. Although the Insanity Workout may not be for everyone, Atherton has obviously come to appreciate the results of improved stamina on stage.

The Lyric’s Christmas production of Cinderella also featured a young ensemble supporting cast, and there was a real community feel within the production. The Lyric has become known for this kind of inclusivity with its programmes for young and local people, so it seems only natural that its pantomime is a fairytale rooted in modern British culture. Atherton tells me: “She [Cinderella] is a bit more loveable because she’s not just this pretty, pretty Cinderella that will obviously get the prince. She can’t dance and, well, actually she can’t do a lot!”

With comedian Mel Giedroyc on board as the wicked stepmother, comedy, fun and frivolity were the buzz words of Cinderella, but Atherton’s taking on a very different challenge now the new year has dawned, as she stars in new musical LIFT, premiering at the Soho Theatre.

LIFT plays at the Soho Theatre until 24 February 2013. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/lift/.

Cinderella was the Lyric Hammersmith’s 2012 pantomime. For more about the theatre and its current productions, visit www.lyric.co.uk.

Image credit: Cinderella in rehearsals at the Lyric Hammersmit by Helen Maybanks