PANTO is surely one of the hardest jobs in the business. Actors must withstand gruelling runs during the darkest time of the year, often performing two or even three times a day.

And they face a tough crowd. Children, as many performers report, show a rusty turn no mercy. If you’re off the ball, they’ll soon let you know.

But Greg McHugh is chipper ahead of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, the SEC’s big-name Christmas production, which opens tonight. The Bafta award-winning actor and writer, best known for his cheesy pasta-loving creation Gary: Tank Commander, will share the stage with River City’s Frances Thorburn – 2018’s Cinderella, Tank Commander colleague Leah MacRae and Emmy Award winner Doon Mackichan, Cathy to Jonathan Watson’s Colin in Scots sitcom Two Doors Down.

Speaking to The National before the opening performance, McHugh may be currently “hiding in a cupboard”, but he’s confident.

Though Mackichan will be making her pantomine debut at the SEC, McHugh cut his panto teeth back in 2014 as Smee in Peter Pan at Glasgow King’s Theatre.

Since then, he’s taken Gary: Tank Commander to three sold-out nights at the cavernous Hydro and starred in Jack And The Beanstalk at the Armadillo.

“The rehearsals have been insane,” says McHugh. “In a good way though, because it’s a great cast. And this isn’t the first one I’ve done. The first one I did here, you’re thinking: ‘This cannot be done in six days of rehearsal.’ It’s bonkers.”

In Jack And The Beanstalk, McHugh was Gary Trot, brother of Jack and the sibling responsible for selling the family cow for a bag of beans. Like the 2017/18 production, McHugh’s role in Snow White sees him revisit his famously hapless creation.

As Gary Muddles, he’s the best friend to Snow White (Thorburn), a princess who finds refuge from her wicked stepmother Queen Lucretia with seven dwarfs.

“For those who know the Tank Commander show, this character is effectively Gary in pantoland,” says McHugh. “Gary is a bright-eyed, naive fool who has a lot to say – at all the wrong times. So, if you can picture Gary in his world, and then place him in the panto world, it kind of oddly fits really well. He’s just so childlike and full of energy so it’s a nice mix.”

MacRae, a comedian and singer who earlier this year took her hit one-woman show across Scotland, is Snow White’s nanny.

“Leah’s character is also Gary’s mum, which is slightly odd,” laughs McHugh. “But anything goes in pantoland. She’s very encouraging to Gary in a very motherly way, trying to instill in him a bit of extra confidence. She’s very much the matriarch of the show; this, dare I say it, Glasgow mammy.”

He continues: “Leah is very funny but she’s also fantastic in River City, in dramatic roles. She’s also very enthusiastic which makes her very strong professionally, but also there’s a technical ability.”

Working with such a high-calibre cast means that rigorous deadlines can be met with little stress, says McHugh. But while a cast of comedians and comic actors can often make rehearsals a hoot, a downside may be backstage battles over who gets the funniest lines or whose ideas work best.

“I’ve not had it very often but sometimes you get people who see it as a competition,” says McHugh. “Whereas here we’re all very much looking out for each other and trying to get as many jokes as we can out of the scenario, to make the best show we can possibly make. What you aim to work with is people who are very good at their job and people who are relaxed about what they do so you’re not up against it. And we’ve got that. Everyone is so strong, not only professionally but comically. It just makes it fun. Whether it’ll still be fun after a few performances, we’ll see.”

With this stellar cast, big songs and 3D special effects, it’s a safe bet it will be – for the audience at least. And with the casting masterstroke of Mackichan as the wicked queen, it’ll certainly be intense. Her characters, from comedy classics such as Smack The Pony and Brass Eye to vape-puffing Pussycat Doll wannabe Cathy and her eccentric agent in Toast Of London, often have a wild-eyed edge. Unpredictable, often inscrutable, they’re not the sort to be toyed with.

“You would not mess with this queen,” says McHugh. “And Doon, who is not to be messed with either, has taken this character and run with it. The temptation with baddies is just to play them as two-dimensional, as boo-hiss-boo-hiss, whereas what Doon has brought to the character is this way-out element. She is not two-dimensional by any means.

“If you’ve watched some of Doon’s work, you’ll know how she can add in layers and layers of madness. She is hilarious. And no, you would not go anywhere near Queen Lucretia in real life.”

More peril is evoked in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs via 3D special effects.

“It’s not too scary for young kids – it’s a really family-orientated show. But it’ll be hold-on-to-your-mum-and-dad time if you’re a kid, and hold-on-to-gran-and-granddad if you’re an adult,” says McHugh.

The actor says the large-scale production, which sees writer Alan McHugh (no relation) blend traditional set-pieces with modern characters, doesn’t rely on the impressive technical tricks.

“They’re just another fun element to the show” says McHugh. “You’re not thinking: ‘Right, where are the special effects?’ They’re an add-on. But they suit the narrative and the SEC is one of the few venues where you can put on 3D stuff of that scale and it works really well.”

THE coming months will see McHugh start work on a play for a National Theatre Of Scotland project.

“I’ve been researching men’s mental health now for about six months,” he explains. “I’ve been speaking to people from the Samaritans, from SAMH [The Scottish Association for Mental Health], from Barnardo’s, psychiatrists, just to try to get a picture of where we’re at at the moment. At the moment there’s outlines of an idea but there’s still a bit more work to be done.”

For now there’s the festive capers and Yuletide high-jinks of panto, something McHugh particularly enjoys.

“There’s nothing better than looking out and seeing families coming out to watch something at the theatre,” he says. “And you only really get that scale of families coming to a panto. The challenge for you as an actor is to make the oldest person in the family laugh and the youngest person in the family laugh. And though that is a real challenge I think that’s what I love about it.”

“If you get the right material, with the right cast, and you have young kids screaming at the baddie and loving the goodie and people buying into it, that’s brilliant. Family entertainment, that’s what it’s all about.”

Until December 31, SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, today: 2pm and 7pm, tomorrow: 1pm and 5pm, £16.50 to £29.50. Tel: 0844 395 4010.