IN an almost fairytale-like story of triumph over adversity, a cystic fibrosis sufferer from Highcliffe is preparing to star in the panto he wrote just months after undergoing a lifesaving double lung transplant.
Charles Michael Duke, who is just 23, will have a pivotal role in Highcliffe Charity Players’ annual pantomime production Cinderella at the Regent Centre, Christchurch, later this month.
Playing Buttons will be significant for Michael because he will be returning to the same stage upon which he suffered a collapsed lung during a 2014 Christmas Spectacular show, written by his mum Helen.
The actor and singer had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth, but was able to enjoy a normal childhood, apart from spending two weeks a year in hospital on intravenous antibiotics.
But around six years ago his lung function began to deteriorate rapidly, and Charles found he was getting frequent infections caused by thick mucus on his lung that is a symptom of the condition.
As his health worsened, Charles was told by doctors at Southampton General Hospital that the time had come for him to join the waiting list for a lung transplant. He began the assessment process but matters quickly came to a head when he collapsed on stage.
Charles said: “I wasn’t quite feeling right so I brought myself off stage in the interval and the understudy took over.
“At that point I hadn’t realised how serious it was – it was only when I took myself to hospital the next day to try and get some antibiotics to see me through the next few performances that they told me my lung had collapsed.”
It was Christmas Eve and Charles was immediately admitted to hospital, where he spent the next 21 days. Three months later, following further assessments, he was placed on the waiting list for a transplant.
“My lung collapsing on stage was a real eye opener. When they first started taking about a transplant I wasn’t really convinced it was necessary, but by the time I had my second assessment in March 2015, I knew that it was something I needed to do if I wanted to be on stage and performing.”
For the next three-and-a-half years Charles’ life was put on hold as he waited for the life-changing surgery, spending much of his time in hospital.
However, performing is in the genes, with most of his family involved in theatre locally, and he was not prepared to allow his condition to stop him getting involved!
With this in mind, Charles contacted his friend Stephen Hutt, who lives in America, to ask him if he would like to join forces to write a new pantomime.
As a long–standing member of Highcliffe Charity Players, Charles knew the amateur company planned to perform Cinderella in January 2019.
Together the pair used the power of the internet to compare creative notes across the Atlantic before submitting their script to the charity players committee for consideration early in 2018.
In May, Charles underwent a double lung transplant at Harefield Hospital in London.
“When I got the call I was already at Southampton hospital so I was blue-lighted up to London,” he said. “It was actually quite relaxed; I was just chatting to the ambulance paramedic all the way there.”
Charles and his family then faced an anxious wait to find out if the transplants would go ahead. “I think it was about eight or nine hours between getting the call and the operation starting,” he continued. “I had already had two call-outs before that hadn’t work out, so I don’t think I really allowed myself to believe it was happening.
“It’s only about two minutes before that they let you know it is definitely happening, then they knock you out!”
After a successful nine-hour operation, Charles spent 16 days in hospital recovering. He said: “I was really lucky. Everyone reacts different to a transplant but my recovery was amazing – by about day five or six, they were saying I could be ready to go home soon. They said I was up there in the top 10 for recovery time which I was pretty pleased with.”
As well as a successful transplant, Charles also received the amazing news that the Charity Players had decided to perform his and Stephen’s Cinderella script for their January 2019 panto.
His next goal was to get himself up and about in order to enter the open auditions for a chance of performing in his own show. The auditions were scheduled to take place just three months after his major surgery, and to his absolute delight he was selected for the principal role of Buttons.
“It was amazing to get a role in my own panto – I think focusing on that really helped my recovery. I feel so much healthier now and have much more energy. It is just so nice to be back on the stage performing.
“After all I have been through, it is a dream come true. I have learned to take nothing for granted in life.”
On 20th December, Charles appeared in a new BBC 1 series called This is My Song, which allows ordinary people to work with the music industry’s most talented producers to create a track for a very personal reason.
For his show Charles recorded his own version of Yours by Ella Henderson.
“As part of the show everyone has a very special reason behind their recording,” he said. “For me it was the first time I’d sung with my new lungs. Recording it was such an incredible experience – the TV part was secondary really, it was more about recording the song and having that moment.”
Prior to his transplant, Charles also appeared on ITV’s Loose Women and BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live. He is now in the midst of last-minute rehearsals for Cinderella, which will be rolled out for 10 performances at the Regent Centre between 19th and 26th January.
Charles’s friend and panto co-author Stephen is also set to fly from America to watch the show.
Tickets for Cinderella, costing £10.50-£12.50, are on sale at the Regent Centre box office. Call 01202 499199 or visit www.regentcentre.co.uk.