The Cardiff Christmas Festival returns for 2023, relocated to the Theatre Festival site in Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens with its iconic Fortuna Spiegeltent, a magical venue of plush velvet and sparkling lights.
On the festival programme, along with returning family musical Santa’s Wish, is a new production of Castellana, designed to seduce and tantalise audiences once more. Following its critically acclaimed debut last year, this new production brings fresh delights including the amazing skills of world-class aerial acts, the thrilling spectacle of raunchy roller-skating, a sensational whip-cracking fire routine, the graceful elegance of burlesque, the mesmerising agility of hoop dancing, astounding acrobatics and the playful tease of naughtiness.
At the helm of Castellana is drag artist Velma Celli as MC, who has performed in the West End and recently successfully competed in hit TV shows Britain’s Got Talent and America’s Got Talent. Joining her as fellow-MC is Cardiff singer Justine Marie Mead, fresh from starring in the smash hit Greatest Night of the Jazz Age in London.
Justine recently spoke to Andy Howells about Castellana…
How did you get into the world of performing and acting?
I’m originally from Penarth, South Wales. When I was younger, I was heavily involved in lots of theatre groups in and around Cardiff. I had an amazing time and worked with some incredible people, then I went away and trained. I love performing, it’s what I always enjoyed and have a lot of passion for it. I was very fortunate that being from Cardiff, I had options to go to great places to learn as a youngster. John Manders, who is one of the producers of the Cardiff Christmas festival gave me my first ever professional job at 17, so it’s exciting to kind of come back and be working with the team again. I just always loved it and literally sang before I could talk. (Laughs)
What has drawn you to Castellana?
We talked about it last year, but I was already involved in another performance at that point. When I came back, I basically called them and said, “If I can be available this year for you, I’d love to do it!”
This year’s a whole different show. That’s the bit that we want to get across. It’s all different acts, but just as phenomenal as last year. I don’t think there’s much out there like this.
Some of these acts from around the world, we’ve already met very briefly. They’re traveling across the world, award-winning performers that specialise in their field. I just grabbed the chance to come and be involved, but also to come home. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to come home for a show.
Can you give us a flavour of what people can expect from this year’s Castellana?
So, you’re going to have burlesque, daredevil roller skating, aerialists, extreme hula hoopers! We did a photo shoot and in the confines of this small photo shoot area, we’ve got people contorting themselves and doing all sorts of stuff. I’m just standing there going, “Oh! All I do is sing – great!” (Laughs). It’s a real spectacle, I’ve been telling people it’s completely alternate cabaret, just come ready to have your mind blown!
The beauty about these kinds of acts is they make it look easy. It’s easy to forget how difficult and how dangerous some of these things are that they do.
Castellana is good old-fashioned entertainment to as well.
We’ve lost the element of variety and I do think we bring that back. Every moment is going to be something new, and you’re going to get something else thrown at you. We’re just going to keep you on your toes all night.
In the confines of The Spiegeltent, which is just like another member of the cast , we’ve got people hanging from the ceiling and I find that exciting.
Another thing people expect is “I’m coming to a tent. Am I going to be cold?” No, there’s heating, seating, food and drink, as a whole evening there is going to be a very magical element to it.
How are you going to approach Castellana? I imagine it has to be scripted, but you don’t know what’s going to happen.
I’m going to have to be on my toes. If I know what act is coming next and when I’m supposed to be singing, I’m pretty sure I’ll be alright. I’m at the helm with Velma Celli. I went to see one of Velma’s shows in London, and I was blown away because she has this ability to make you laugh and also make you go “Whoop!” then sing songs. That is heart wrenching. I know I’m in safe hands when that’s my partner to work with, a lot of it is going to be bouncing off each other and the audience.
The big, important part of this is the audience coming and feeling a part of it. Not suspending them from the roof exactly but having them feel like they’re coming for a full evening of entertainment. I’m sure a lot of it is going to come from us interacting with them.
You’re going to be singing some songs. Can you give us a hint to what you’ll be doing?
I gave a list of about 45, and said I’d like to sing them all. We needed to narrow it down, so I put them into categories, jazz, Christmas songs, but an important part for me was to get Welsh music in there. I picked a big selection of Welsh artists, but I wanted more up to date things. I’m trying to get more Welsh artists in there, so let’s see what happens. Maybe in the second act, you never know.
Obviously, you’re going to have a busy Christmas.
Castellana opens on December 6 and carries on through until December 24. We also have our wonderful children’s show, Santa’s Wish and other evening’s entertainment such as Welsh of the West End, a Comedy Christmas Cracker and My My Abba!
What do you hope people will take away from coming to see Castellana?
I want people to come away feeling like they’ve had an absolute whirlwind of a show. Also, that they have really come and celebrated the alternate. We really are up there celebrating the fact that we’re different. I love being a bit different and I’m more than happy to share that with people who come and maybe feel the same. Also, I hope they go, “Oh, my gosh, isn’t that insane? As they’re looking up at the top of The Spiegeltent when we’ve got Jimmy flying around!”
To book tickets for Castellana, visit Cardiff Christmas Festival’s website. The show is suitable for those aged 16+ and includes naughtiness and nudity, so be prepared!