Friday, 31 October 2014

Panto in the Sun

When I was studying at Rose Bruford I was determined to make a career out of all types of acting, but pantomime was my main goal.  On a visit home I can remember my Gran voicing her concerns that panto was seasonal and whilst it was my passion she didn't see how I could make a career of it, as a performer.  To be honest: I agreed with her; but it turns out we were both wrong!

This year has pretty much been all about panto!  First there was the Easter tour of  Alice in Wonderland, followed by touring with Haven in Cinders and Aladdin; I've spent the autumn teaching children in schools all about pantomime and have just returned from taking panto to Egypt!  Who knew that was all possible?!

I wrote about rehearsals for the Haven tour in my last blog.  The tour itself went very well.  It might seem disappointing, but nothing very exciting happened.  There was some minor drama: a missed flight here, some illness there - but the show still went on!  (Doesn't it always?)  Crucially, none of us minded: we all supported each other and dealt with the few obstacles together, rather than slinging blame and irritation around, as can often happen when a group works in such close quarters.

Touring the South West (Cornwall, Devon and Dorset) was an absolute dream.  There wasn't a place we visited that wasn't beautiful at some point over the Summer.  I became a bit obsessed with coastal walks.  I love exploring the areas I tour to anyway and walking allows me to wander with my head in the clouds (not in a literal sense - I'd be scared) and escape from the tour van / Haven / others!

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy spending time with the group.  I don't want anyone to be offended; but I honestly think this year's Haven tour was the first time I've worked with a group where no one irritated me or made me go crazy!  Sometimes it can be only one person - but they can really cloud your experience. None of that this year!

It helped that the venues we were visiting were some of the nicest that Haven have.  Our least comfortable venue was a veritable palace compared to it's equivalent on the Welsh tour I did last year! Little challenges like a lack of back stage space, or an awkward stage, even if at just one venue every week can really colour your experience.  It can be awkward to work in, which fills you with a sense of dread in the lead up and often it can create tension amongst the cast.  We definitely had some difficult spaces - but nothing that would lead us to any big drama.  On the Welsh tour, last year, there was always one venue that would lead to a screaming match!  Ironically it might well have been the most beautiful Haven sight I've seen - but our changing room was a cupboard!

The Funstars (the resident entertainers) were very welcoming to us too, at pretty much all the Havens we visited.  It's nice to see the same faces each week and get to know the teams. It's a bit of a shame really, because you start to get to know people and then the tour is over!  But you never know when or where you'll bump into someone!  It really does pay to be friendly and polite to people!

I'd love to be able to talk about Haven more; but as my experience of it was so positive and drama free I'm sure it's not very interesting for you!  There were some funny personal things that happened - but that's telling, isn't it?!

Also, I've just got back from Egypt and I REEEEEAAAAALLLLLLLLLLY want to tell you about that!

You may remember reading that after the tour of Alice in Wonderland  in April, Magic Beans Productions were approached by an Egyptian promoter to take the show to the MUST Opera House for a short run.  Whilst this idea was exciting, it also seemed implausible.  Pantomime in Egypt?!  We assumed it would be for an ex-pat audience - turns out it wasn't.  I think a majority of us also thought it wasn't a serious proposition - turns out it was!

Less than two weeks ago we all assembled at the Stag in Sevenoaks to re-rehearse the show.  Sadly, due to other commitments we lost some of our original cast; so we had just three days to rehearse ten people (6 actors, 3 dancers and 1 stage manager) into a full on pantomime.  Amazingly we did it and within five days of meeting we were performing a full scale pantomime to a 1000 strong audience of Egyptian school children.

We couldn't have asked for a better first performance, because they really took our fear away.  We didn't know if they were going to understand us; find us funny; join in with the participation or even respond in the way that British theatre tradition has accustomed us to.  It turns out they did all of the above and without any encouragement!  The minute that Ant Payne as the Mad Hatter ran on stage and said "How do you do, gang?" and the all shouted back "How do you do, Hatter!" (Hatter, by the way, sounds adorable in an Egyptian accent!) I knew that everything was going to be fine.  

There were a number of things, especially comedically, that got exactly the same reactions from our Egyptian audience as it did from the British ones.  It was really interesting to see what was universally funny: Ant kissing dough; a ball being thrown in the audience; falling over and even a wig falling off!

Still one of the biggest joys of the show was performing If I Were Not in Wonderland and in Egypt it was even crazier than before!  I'm told that at one point the only person left standing was Lorraine Graham, who played the White Rabbit and brilliantly, she continued to do the actions.  I don't want to sound arrogant: but I really wish I'd been in the audience for that one!

I think it is safe to say that we are all very relieved with how the production was received.  I was especially concerned about dressing up as a lady; from what I had read the country didn't seem to have the most open of attitudes - but again, it shouldn't have been a cause for concern.  It was just like being in the UK (and to be honest, people in the UK have enough questions about the dame character!) - adults seemed fascinated by her (especially the ladies) and kids didn't even realise anything was odd!

So, in the end, it was just like doing a show in any other theatre.  We literally went from the hotel (on the Nile!!!) to the theatre, did three shows and came home!  The theatre was beautiful and the backstage area was like you see in old fashioned films about shows: all the dressing rooms were in the wings and there was a small mezzanine level.  The atmosphere before each show was great because you could hear everyone dashing around, up and down stairs, in and out of each others rooms.  I loved it!

I really hope we get the chance to go back.  The hospitality we received was amazing (I have NEVER eaten so much food and I am known for putting in good effort when it comes to eating!)  Egyptians are some of the nicest people I've met - from the Egyptair check-in desks at Heathrow to everyone at the theatre and the staff at the hotel.  And it was wonderful to share such a positive experience with a large group of my favourite people!

The only issue with having such a wonderful summer of panto and then taking one to Egypt is that I have started to enjoy panto in the sun!  Doing panto at Christmas, in the season it was intended, covered in snow etc., is going to be quite a fall to earth! So, here are some sunny pictures now that it's cold...



Ant Payne and I balancing on a pyramid.  Sort of.



Last night party on a boat on the actual Nile...



Dressed as a lady.  In Egypt.



We found Aladdin's cave.  Not in a cave.


Saturday, 16 August 2014

From Hoods to Haven

I’m always giving an excuse for the length of time between my posts; but I really have been busy this time!  And it’s all panto related, of course (albeit some of it loosely!)

At the end of June I was involved in the workshop of a great new musical called Hoods which is an adaptation of the Rat Pack film Robin and the Seven Hoods.  It’s a mix of new music and some really classic Rat Pack songs.  The talent that was involved was incredible and, to be honest, I couldn’t believe that I was in the same room as a lot of those people.

I participated in the table read earlier in the year, because I happened to turn up to work at Drury Lane just at the time that Drew Jaymson was looking for someone to take part.  Networking like that was one of the reasons I wanted to get a front of house job... It only took four years for an opportunity to arise! 

There were a lot of people from Drury Lane involved in both the table read and workshop and it was lovely to be able to explore a new working relationship with them.  However, the biggest thrill for me, during the workshop, was to work with some real panto talent!  The production was directed by Craig Revel-Horwood (Wicked Queen and now Captain Hook) and the cast included Nigel Garton who was a charming Emperor in the Lily Savage Aladdin at the O2.  I was quite in awe of Craig because he really lives up to his reputation (the good parts!) and Nigel turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  I can sing and dance fairly well, but I was intimidated by a room of seasoned West End pros and Nigel really helped me relax and realise that I deserve to be there as much as everybody else.

It was the presence of comedian extraordinaire Damian Williams that really floored me, however.  When I was growing up in Bristol my Mum used to take me to see the Bruce James produced shows at the Playhouse in Weston-Super-Mare and Damian was always the genuine star turn.  He is one of the funniest men I’ve ever seen on stage.  There’s only two other performers that I’ve seen who can control an audience and have the same freedom on stage as Damian and that’s Roy Hudd and Barry Humphries.  They’re both heroes of mine; so that should give you some impression of how I felt meeting Damian.

To top it all off it turned out that Damian and I were the comedy double act and that was a real treat!  It meant I really had my work cut out though: Damian can do the slightest hand gesture and people collapse into laughter... I have to really concentrate on being funny!  Mind you, I got the laughs where I needed them on the night; so I must have learnt something from the company I was keeping!

We performed the workshop at the Arts Theatre and I felt really honoured to be on the same stage that I’ve seen trod by performers such as Caroline O’Connor, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins.  I was also very grateful for some of my Magic Beans panto family coming to support me.  I’m having a bit of an odd year thus far and they’ve really stood up to the mark.  It’s extraordinary to realise how important they all are to me (they’ll most probably rip me apart for this... but I’m mid tour and feeling sentimental, so...)

The workshop was the day before I joined rehearsals (two days late – thank you Haven!) for the Haven summer pantomime tours.  That most probably explains why my head was a-whirl when I arrived in Chalfont St. Giles.  Within minutes of turning up and literally seconds after meeting my new team I did a full run-through of a show that I’d never rehearsed.  I was petrified.   I did my best to throw myself in at the deep end; but I’m not convinced that my colleagues were thrilled that I’d turned up!

Luckily they’re a very nice group of people and I vaguely knew most of them; which I didn’t realise would be the case.  Laurie Fogg did the tour last year and I really enjoyed her company in rehearsals.  Ollie Marriage and I have worked together at Drury Lane (we’re everywhere!).  Amy Skillman was very familiar to me and it turns out that she auditioned for one of the earliest editions of Panto Factor.  Finally, Katy Lye, who I didn’t know, but had made quite an impression on me when I was in the auditions, so I was really pleased to see her in my team.

The rehearsal process for the Haven tours isn’t the easiest, with four teams rehearsing in the same room.  Adding to this was the pressure of rehearsing two different shows at the same time; as this year Haven are touring Aladdin and reviving Cinders from last year.

I had a little hand on the creative side for both shows and I naively thought that this would make my rehearsal process a little bit easier.  In fact, it doesn’t, because not only was I worrying about my own performance, but I was constantly taking into account the bigger picture.

I was fortunate in that I managed to escape participating in the showcase performance at G Live!  This was in front of an invited audience of industry bigwigs and I would have loved the opportunity to be seen by such influential producers etc.  Initially I was a tad put out at not being included; but it gave me the opportunity to watch seasoned dame David Rumelle at work, which was a truly fascinating experience. 

David has an enviable wealth of experience and represents an era of dame that a newer generation won’t have seen in action.  If you ever have the opportunity to listen to David talk about his career and the people he’s worked with you should definitely take it.  Plus he does an impeccable impression of Dame Hilda Bracket (as well as having stepped in for Dr. Evadne Hinge), so that’s top marks in my book!

One of the most interesting things throughout the rehearsal process was working with actors who haven’t played dame before.  In the auditions it had been very hard to find people that would suit the role.  One person that stood out was Paul Michael Hill and I was pleased to see him in rehearsals.  Paul had a strong understanding of the dame role, but no preconceptions as to how to approach playing it.  It was fascinating to sit down with him, Danny and David and discuss our various approaches.

 I’ve said it before, but for me the role should be a broad extension of your own personality: the audience need to know both you and the character.  I like my dame to be integrated into the production, whereas David certainly likes his to be the centre-piece and Danny’s dame controls proceedings.  None of these approaches are better or worse and none of them are wrong.  It is one of the joys of the job that we work in a genre that is so flexible that it can create fantastical fiction out of any factual personality.

If I go into too much detail about the process you’ll be here forever; but if there’s anything you want to know don’t hesitate to get in touch.  We’re out on the road now and I feel that we’ve got two really good shows on our hands.  The audience reactions have been sensational and I hope that everyone at TAG / Bourne Leisure / Haven (the producers) and Stuart Glover, Sheryl Glanville and Mark Jones (a selection of the creatives) are happy with their product.



Pop back in a couple of weeks to find out how the tour went!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Dame's Day to Day

Ooh, it's been a while since I last blogged; but don't worry: I haven't just been sat down waiting for something to happen!  I've been busy!

I've done some Chekhov with the same company that I did As You Like It.  Most people think that Chekhov is turgid and boring thanks to over analysis of plays such as Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard at school.  Consequently, what most people don't realise is that Chekhov thought he was (and is) funny.  I think that Three Sisters is even described as a farce.  I did once see a very funny production of that play, but Eric Sykes was in it, so they did have the advantage!  Well, we did three of his actual comedies and whilst he's not the easiest author to wring laughs out of we definitely managed a few!  It was nice to show people that I can be funny without any structured gags or innuendos!

I've started doing a workshop of a new musical called Hoods which is based on a famous Rat Pack film, Robin and the 7 Hoods.  Well, you can see the clear pantomime connection there: Robin Hood is a classic pantomime story (as we demonstrated in Sevenoaks last Christmas!).  However, there are more panto connections than you would expect.  There's at least four Dames in the room: myself, Drew Jaymson (who is responsible for the show), Richard Foster-King and Damian Williams.  The cast is like a who's who of musical theatre, so there must be year's of panto experience in the room; and it's being directed by panto baddie du jour Craig Revel-Horwood.  I was quite worried on the first day about being out of my depth; but once I'd put everything into perspective it was far less daunting!

I've also started exploring voice over work.  I realised that my voice is key to a how I create a character, especially as a dame and it occurred to me that this was an avenue of work that I should be exploring.  I'm so pleased I made that decision, as it's allowing me to explore characters that it is very unlikely that I will get asked to play on stage!  So far, I've played Macduff in Macbeth (and I might add: I actually think I might have been alright!) and I'm currently recording the role of Warren Worthington AKA Angel for an audio drama of X-Men.  Hilariously, here's what the producers think I would look like as that character: 

  
I don't think that whoever plays him in the films will feel any threat about me taking over!  But please: enjoy, laugh, be unable to believe what you're actually looking at!!

The last two months haven't been totally panto-less.... don't panic!  First of all I've been obsessively watching RuPaul's Drag Race which has got me thinking about gender and cross dressing and it's place in our culture.  It is definitely ingrained in Western Society and yet there is a taboo to it that the drag queens on the programme, at least, clearly feel that they're overcoming.  Our understanding of drag as an art and transgender people is very different in the UK and America and I'm fascinated...but it's such a broad subject!  I don't think that I can discuss it now, but I'm certainly going to at a later date.  The role of the dame obviously adds massively to the confusion about gender identity - so I'm going to need more time to talk about it at length!!

The second thing that I've been doing is helping Jamie and Simon at Magic Beans audition dames for their production in Dunstable.  And I cannot tell you how fascinating that was!  

I've been lucky enough to be on several audition panels over the past year and there is no better way of understanding the do's and do not's of an audition.  I've learnt that first impressions really are everything: how you greet the panel...what you're wearing...how confident you appear....you're attitude.  It's a fine line of course: you don't want to be too personable or confident, because that seems arrogant; but if you don't demonstrate enough of those qualities it can make the whole process awkward.  The hardest thing to do is the most vital: just be how you will be when you've got the job.  Even though you generally don't know the people auditioning, I think you can always tell who's being natural and who is putting on a performance.

The dame auditions were particularly interesting.  It's a very privileged position to see what performers get up to in the audition room and I was surprised at the range of people that think they can play dame.  (I'm classing myself in the "think" category too!)  We had several well known dames audition, which I was very excited about.  We had people who have just started playing dame and we also had people who have never played dame before.

What surprised me was the range of understanding.  The experienced dames mostly did their 'usual'; they were larger than life, confident and you trusted that they could do it.  Then there were people who were definitely heading in the right direction.  You can see all the elements, but they just need to be fitted together a bit better and there would be a fully formed character.  Then there's the people that clearly haven't got any idea: which I find a bit offensive!  It's not difficult to find examples of good dames on YouTube and the like and it's not difficult to put a spot together that makes sense.

I really got the sense that some people just liked the idea of putting a frock on; they may have even thought that was all there was to it. I hope they've realised it's a lot harder than it looks!  You've got to have energy, a fully-rounded character, a spot that is logical and tells a story, good interaction skills AND be prepared to make a fool of yourself.

We're not just pretty faces y'know!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Robert's Adventures in Wonderland

Once a pantomime run has finished it's not uncommon to hear a multitude of performers talking about the 'Post-Panto Blues'.  It does sound a like a naturally over-the-top thing for an actor to say; but I can attest that I'm a sufferer and yesterday I had a bad case of the blues!

The magic of a show evaporates the moment the final curtain comes down; but for a performer it's not a gradual fade out as the last show progresses.  You have to provide the same energy as you would for any other performance, except this time you are hurtling yourself towards nothing!  No second show.  No fun back at the digs.  No thoughts about moving onto the next venue.  It's a very weird feeling!

Yesterday when I woke up the blues manifested themselves in worrying about not having any work (despite having three jobs lined up, one of which I worked on later that day!)... Worrying about worrying about things I don't need to worry about... And worrying that I hadn't made any social plans.

As I was thinking about my last concern I realised that that was most probably the crux of the problem.  Not that I hadn't made any social plans, but that for the last month I haven't had to because I've been surrounded by people.  So maybe the problem was that I'd woken up lonely, which is weird for me because, actually, I really enjoy my own company - sometimes I even choose it over being social!

It's most probably made worse by the fact that panto gives me so much joy anyway; but it is certainly exacerbated by the fact that there wasn't a single person in the cast or crew whose company I didn't like!  From my perspective I couldn't have felt luckier to be working with so many friends and people I didn't know that have become friends. Also, there was no crew / cast divide as there often can be.  We all got along and worked as one homogeneous whole!

It all starts at the top: Paul, Debbie and Steve were all a lot of fun and incredibly easy company members to get along with and that sets the right tone.  I guess that being a top of the bill is quite a lot of responsibility anyway; but the behaviour of the stars can affect a company massively.  I've not worked with any that have caused huge problems, but Paul and Debbie are in another league.  It wasn't unusual to find them selling tickets to the show whilst we were out for lunch, or even in the pub after a performance.  They'll always autograph things, record video messages, have your friends and family meet them in their dressing room; nothing ever seems an effort.  When that is how the faces of the show behave, you can't help but follow suit!

A lot of audience members that spoke to us afterwards said that it was really clear that we all got along and were having fun.  I felt really proud that we had the opportunity to show this off to audiences outside of Sevenoaks and Dunstable; so that they could see the great atmosphere that a Magic Beans show has.

Touring a pantomime was actually a lot more fun than I was anticipating too.  Changing venues every few days is great for keeping a show fresh and means that the company energy never really has a chance to dissipate, as you are constantly having to think on your toes.  Of course, there's also the fact that everyone is always very excited to be somewhere new!

For me, my favourite places were Hunstanton and Southsea.  Two beautiful seaside towns where we all stayed over; but there the similarities really stop!  The theatre in Hunstanton is the size of a postage stamp and the whole show had to be re-jigged.  The band were put up in the balcony.  The Wonderland set was moved downstage (and sometimes into the audience, of it's own accord!)  There was no way backstage from Stage Right, so everyone had to exit Stage Left or be trapped; one show I exited through the audience but didn't know the code to get backstage so had to sit outside with my fingers crossed until a member of staff walked passed!

Southsea could not have been more different!  I had been really excited about going to the King's Theatre because I saw a pantomime there when I was about ten and absolutely fell in love with the place.  Also, my Great-Grandad used to see shows there when he was in the Navy - so I knew that performing on the stage would feel significant.

It's such a glorious building; it feels like you're walking into a 'proper' theatre.  The backstage areas are a cavern of corridors and little stairways that lead to tucked away rooms.  The stage has working footlights (that I constantly thought I was going to fall into) and Frank Matcham's auditorium is beautiful and large, but designed so that no member of the audience feels very far away from you.  We played to really great houses here too, which was very rewarding. It's a well run venue too.  The team there seem very passionate about the building and I think that is reflected in the enthusiasm of the audience.  There's a lot of love for the venue and I really think a lot of other theatres would benefit from being loved as much as the King's!

Mind you, I pretty much fell in love with Southsea as a whole.  The morning of our stay in Southsea was just glorious - most probably my favourite non-show experience of the tour.  Ant, Laura-Jane, myself and our CSM Rob Coupe all went to the beach and sort of became children.  We found 'free art' on the beach; I think it was hedgehog, but the others claim it to be a shell.  We weren't really sure what to do with it - but we felt there was some significance to it; so we performed a little ceremony, threw it into the sea and then walked off into the distance with Laura-Jane's new favourite song playing as our closing credits.  Then we roly-polyed down hills, went and bought ice creams, went for a tour of the theatre and eventually played with our friends on stage whilst people watched.  Is it any wonder I was sad yesterday?!?!


What do you think it is?

I would love to spend Christmas in Southsea at some point in my career.  That doesn't seem an unreasonable request does it?!

We had fun on stage too.  We did a routine called If I Were Not in Wonderland which would usually result in me having to retrieve a bouncy football from the audience.  Most theatres don't have a permanent orchestra pit, so I didn't have too much trouble getting audiences to throw the ball back.  However, in Southsea the ball must have ended up in the pit at least three times a show, which would result in me having to clamber over railings, between bannisters and swinging round poles in order to get it back.  I don't know if there are many other dames that would be willing to do that!

But rather than me talk about how much fun we had why don't you see for yourself?  This is the highlights video:


So, I've done Easter panto.  The next thing to work on is Summer panto for Haven.  I'm helping out with the production side of things this year too, so I'll have lots more interesting words for you soon!


In the mean time, as you walk into the sunset, make sure you play Laura-Jane Matthewson's new favourite song, courtesy of Jasette Amos.







Monday, 7 April 2014

We're All Mad

For the last few weeks I've been rehearsing for Alice in Wonderland which is touring as an Easter pantomime.  Rehearsals were enormous fun (maybe too much?!) and tiring, but last Friday we opened to a packed house at the Woodville Halls in Gravesend and continued to have a great weekend.

Easter pantomimes are becoming increasingly popular, I suspect because of the growing popularity of summer pantos for holiday makers at places such as Haven and Butlins and even on ferries.  I think this is for the same reason that people would prefer to see a classic or jukebox musical and will always prefer to see a celebrity in a play rather than someone unknown: audiences don't like to take risks.  In reference to the examples I've just given I find this very disappointing; there's tons of great original musicals and there's loads of talented actors without a 'name' (me, for example...!)  However, when it comes to panto I'm more than happy for the public to like what they like and want to see it!

In a way, pantomime is the star here.  People are coming to see us because they know the rules and what to expect.  They already understand the characters and the structure of the plot.  Crucially, they can be certain of seeing a show that their whole family will enjoy.  With other children's shows (apart from branded ones like Scooby-Doo, Sooty or Postman Pat, for instance) none of the above factors are present; the production is a completely unknown quantity, in much the same way as a little known musical or actor.

I wish this wasn't the case.  Having been in all sorts of children's theatre (as well as new musicals) I wish that audiences were braver.  I've never known a tiny bit of courage towards theatre not pay off, especially for families; however, right now: I'm going to lap up the fact that people would rather stick to something they know.  (Watch me change my tune when I'm in something that no one has ever heard of!!!)

I'm pleased that audiences most probably feel fairly confidant about coming to see the show because, if I'm honest, there were several elements about this production that I was apprehensive about.  Let me explain...

The Story
Generally, Easter pantos shy away from the common pantomime cannon; but, as everyone knows, plot is incredibly important! When Jamie Wilson was discussing ideas for possible titles I did put in a little effort to dissuade him from choosing Alice in Wonderland, as it's very episodic (and I've never liked an episodic story!)  Then, before rehearsals, I read the novel and discovered there was absolutely no story!  To be honest, I can't find a very good reason for it being such a classic piece of literature.  Controversial?!  However, Jamie has done an excellent of job of making it coherent and interesting.  The script also contains lots of references to the book's original dialogue; so there's every chance this might be the most intelligent pantomime I've been in!

It's Not in Sevenoaks
Half of my pantomime career has been spent as one of the principle comedy characters at one venue.  Before I started playing Dame at Sevenoaks I had been an ASM and an Ugly Sister, so had never felt a massive weight of responsibility for the laughs.  However, after five years at Sevenoaks, Ant Payne (AKA Silly Billy, AKA Mad Hatter) and I have honed our comic chops beautifully, but in front of the same people.  We know what a Sevenoaks audience will respond to and how to work them if it's not getting the responses we want.  Until Friday, we had absolutely no idea what an audience outside of Sevenoaks would think.  I felt the struggle slightly in the first performance, but now I'm confidant that Ant and I are funny away from the Stag Theatre too!

There are definite differences between a Sevenoaks and Gravesend audiences, from the sort of gags they respond to and  even down to the way they dress (which I can't believe I noticed!!).  However, there are also similarities: enthusiastic responses, tears of laughter and real warmth towards the show.  I'm looking forward to us coming back for Christmas and really building a relationship with the audience like we did in Sevenoaks.

The real test, of course, is to see how we go down in the rest of the venues.  Watch this space....!

Paul Daniels is in it
I have been very lucky to work with a lot of people that I admire from television and theatre whose work encouraged me to become a performer.  It's exciting when you meet them, but it also makes me really nervous.  Sometimes it hasn't gone terribly well either:

  • Moments after meeting Shane Lynch from Boyzone I laughed hysterically in his face and went as red as it is possible to go, followed by actual tears from laughing.
  • A few days after meeting Hattie Hayridge (Red Dwarf) I shouted some very offensive swear words at her.  In reality I was irritated with myself forgetting some lines during a scene; but she had the courtesy to not bat an eyelid, laugh politely and carry on!
  • Before even being introduced to him I said "Good moaning" to Arthur Bostrom from 'Allo, 'Allo! whose catch phrase on the show was.... "Good moaning".
And now I'm faced with meeting Paul Daniels AND Debbie McGee who are actual living legends.  What's the problem you ask?  Well, they've seen me in pantomime twice, with Paul's son Martin Daniels, and also in Soap Opera and all three times I have actively avoided meeting them because I've been too nervous.

I'm pleased to report that, as yet, I haven't made any social misdemeanours in front of them and they could not be better people to work with.  There are moments when I honestly can't believe I am in the same room as them, especially when they're telling stories about everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Tommy Cooper and Stevie Wonder to Arthur Askey; but on these occasions I just scurry off to Ant or Laura-Jane Matthewson and unleash my surprise on them.

It does help that they're massively nice, down-to-earth and friendly people too!  As is Steve Hewlett who plays Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.  I've never worked with a ventriloquist before and I am constantly astounded at the scale of Steve's talents - no social faux pas yet there either...so far so good!

There's Two Men Dressed as Women
This is a situation I've been in before.  Not in a weird way - strictly professional!  When I've played Ugly Sister there's been two of us and that's normal, we work together, everything is fine.  However, when I found out that Leon Craig was playing the Queen of Hearts I did feel a little anxious because we're both dames and we're both used to being the only one and we play the character really differently.  I was also worried about having another dame in the room, looking at what I do, how I work, judging me maybe....who knows?!?  As it turns out, my fears were completely ridiculous and all of the reasons that I was anxious work in our favour.  Our characters in the show are very different and both of them suit the way that we play our dame.  Leon is incredibly funny and very comfortable to be around and I'm pleased that the opportunity to work together was created - otherwise our paths would have just kept crossing!!

So, now you know that you have absolutely nothing to worry about...what are you waiting for?!  BOOK YOUR TICKETS!!!  All the dates are available at www.aliceinwonderlandtour.co.uk.  Let us know if you're coming!!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

...No Turn Unstoned

The title of the post isn't to do with the usual artifical state that the public assume actors are in most of the time... It's actually part of a quote by George Bernard Shaw: "A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned." I'm not sure why he said it; but as I putting myself into the role of Critic for this blog I thought it would be clever of me to reference it.  And it was, wasn't it?!

Another of my favourite quotes is from J.M. Barrie's play The Twelve-Pound Look: "One's religion is whatever he is most interested in."  I saw Edward Fox in that play when I was at school and for months afterwards told people that my religion was pantomime!  It's quite a strange thing to do, I'll admit; and I might be the only person to have ever ascribed a religious connotation to panto - but at least you can see I've always been passionate about it!

Anyway, let's get on with my reason for this talk of quotes: the second part of my look at the pantos I saw this year...

CINDERELLA, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford


Guildford embraced a true "the show must go on" mentality this year, continuing to perform even though the Front of House and Orchestra Pit were filling up with water during the Winter flooding.  It's really admirable, as a pantomime is exactly what the locals would have needed to take their minds off everything.  It definitely is a local panto too, but with commercial sensibilities and consequently you did get a sense of a production that was floundering.  That said, Bonnie Langford was the Fairy Godmother and continued to give a masterclass in performance.  Her every movement is precise, energetic and fully realised, she engages with the audience and listens to them and, most importantly, looks like she's having a really good time!  The same goes for Jamie Brook as Buttons: the audience loved him and he was clearly having a great time.  Performers like these two, who obviously understand panto, can really transform a production and give it heart.


JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Stamford Arts Centre


This was a trip to see two of my very good friends Phil and Vikki Norton play Simple Simon and Fairy Meadows.  I am  massively biased, but they were both excellent.  I've never seen them from the audience before and I felt a little emotional at the walk-down, I was so impressed! Phil is a proper panto-phile like myself and he also directed this production and got excellent results.  I've seen a lot of corpsing this year (which I am guilty of too) and I find it very tedious, as it's usually self-indulgent and not inclusive of the audience.  There was no corpsing here.  The story was played with conviction and integrity which meant that the audiences involvement in the plot was never broken.  And it was a proper panto!  Phil could teach some bigger companies a thing or two!


SLEEPING BEAUTY, Park Theatre


This is another new venue producing panto and like the Southwark Playhouse in my previous blog they were clearly a bit scared of fully embracing the genre.  The show was very inventive: there were projections, a made-up language, costume changes in front of the audience, new songs and a real dog; but they jury's out on whether it was a panto.  I sense that Jez Butterworth who wrote the show (and played Dame the afternoon I saw it) felt that maybe the venue was too good for panto, but understood that pantomime is a good money spinner; resulting in a panicked panto / musical hybrid.  The audience clearly wanted a panto.  I enjoyed the show, but I would have had a lot more fun if I'd known what I was watching: a pantomime or a musical.


CINDERELLA, Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage


This is one of the longest running pantomimes in the country.  I went with Jamie and Simon from Magic Beans to a performance on its penultimate weekend and I was stunned by the amount of energy that was still on the stage.  During a four week run you can sometimes feel yourself flagging, so I can't imagine how this cast must have felt.  It was a lovely production.  It made me feel how I felt when I went to see pantos as a child.  I'm not sure if that's because it was a) old fashioned, or b) more imaginative than a lot of current productions that do the required routines and then move on.  Buttons did a lovely and funny gag with a lamp stand; the Ugly Sisters had their hairstyles changed and their bones bent in a beauty salon and the two principal boys were played by girls and given real stage time, not just cursory entrances.  The fairy was played by Gillian Wright, of EastEnders fame and she was the full package as a star name, she even sang and flew at the same time!


SNOW WHITE, Birmingham Hippodrome


The Birmingham panto is the one that I always eagerly anticipate from the moment the cast is announced.  This year was no exception with, literally, an all-star cast on the poster.  It used to be common to have at least four or five celebrities on a panto bill, but now a venue is lucky if it has more than one.  I think that has happened for a reason though as our tastes in panto have changed.  The story has always been important, but in modern productions it takes precedent over stopping for gags and speciality acts.  This suits only having a few star names as no one is jostling for stage time.  However, in Birmingham the story was basically just on the poster, there wasn't much evidence of it on stage.  It was nice to see the cast do their own thing, but sometimes I think we would have happily forsake another ten minute ventriloquism routine for a bit of plot.  The big signing for this show was Gok Wan and I thought he was great: full of energy and enthusiasm.  It was also Gary Wilmot's first time as Dame, which is one of the reasons I was so excited to see it, and he didn't disappoint.  You could clearly see that he has worked with some of the best in the business and you wouldn't have known that it was his first time.  I would have loved for him to be on stage more and have more changes - but I think we're lucky that he was on as much as he was; Snow White barely got a look in!


So, there we have it!  My critical round-up of the pantomimes I saw this year.  Did you see any of the same productions?  What did you think of the ones that you saw?  Let me know!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

No Stone Unturned....

So, last year, after seeing eleven pantomimes and the pleasure wearing a little bit thin I promised myself that this season I wouldn't even see half that amount.  I massively failed at that - I think I saw eleven again!  The problem is that I really love pantomime and the allure of the glitter and fun is just too much for me.  Of course, year on year I know more people that are in panto as well; so promises of visits have to be kept (although quite honestly they rarely are...)  on top of seeing the productions that I've been excited about all year.

Eleven isn't even that many!  I know of people that trek up and down the country seeing as many as they can fit in.  Simon Sladen reviews for the British Theatre Guide and he has usually seen three or four before I have even considered booking tickets for my first one!  The fruits of his labour's can be found here along with those of the site's other intrepid critics. Simon has an academic interest in the genre, but there are others who do it for the sheer pleasure it brings them.  Two that spring to mind are Daniel Dawson, whose blog on his panto travels can be found at It's Behind You and Gemma Coles who tweets as @PantoTravels and has just set up a website on the subject!  Gemma is also such a panto enthusiast that she even answered a call to arms when I required a prop for the only political joke I am ever likely to do!  I'll be doing it in Gravesend this year (since I've got the prop!), so you'll just have to buy tickets to see what it is!

Now I think it's my turn to give my opinions on what I saw this year!

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Lyric Hammersmith

The auditorium for this production was so magical that I took a picture (which, as a Front of House person myself I felt very naughty doing!); but look at it:


I mean!  A child is going to be so excited walking into that - I could barely wait for the show to start and I'm an adult.  The production itself wasn't quite as magical as I had hoped - I feel that maybe the Hammersmith panto has become a little self-conscious and knowing in its attempts to be alternative yet traditional.  They had a pretty stellar cast and I particularly enjoyed Nigel Richards who was a baddy in the old-fashioned tradition vein and Rochelle Rose who was Jack in the very modern girl, playing a girl with a boy's name vein.... The cow was dead cute too!

ALADDIN, New Wimbledon Theatre

I actually reviewed this one for Bargain Theatre - see what I thought here!  It was so good to see Matthew Kelly as Dame - he plays the role in a really unique way and it was, *oxymoron alert*, refreshing to watch a performer giving the audience some vintage panto.  I would see him again in a heart beat.

CINDERELLA, Alban Arena

This was a trip to see Laura-Jane Matthewson as Fairy Godmother.  I went with Laura Duncan, the DSM in Sevenoaks and we had a lovely time.  The minute we walked in we recognised that it was a set we'd used for Mother Goose, so we were excited before it had even begun! I love watching Laura-Jane on stage; she's a magical fairy and also handles Paul Hendy's comedy with flair.  I also enjoyed finally meeting and seeing Sam Rabone.  He was one of the Uglies and played dame as the perfect combination of man in a dress and a real character.  It was also really nice to see Shetland ponies take Cinders to the ball - although, increasingly, their time on stage is so limited that I don't know if they are worth the effort and expense.  What do you think?

PETER PAN, Richmond Theatre

This was one of the pantos that I had been waiting to see all year.  I was sorry to have missed Henry Winkler's previous visits to Panto Land, so I wasn't going to miss this one!  Winkler was a perfect Captain Hook, swaggering and foppish - it would have been nice to see him used more.  Bizarrely, the Roger the Cabin Boy character, that was written for Louie Spence, was still there, which meant that Smee was rather marginalised.  Tinkerbell didn't have a lot to do either, but she was a rather fabulous flying dwarf called Kiruna Stamell.  It was so nice to see the fairy, rather than have that red laser with which Tink is usually replaced.  Although, I'm told that when Kiruna was ill there was no replacement, so audiences were asked to use their imaginations!

DICK WHITTINGTON, Grove Theatre Dunstable

What can I say about this one?! I LOVED it!  (That is all I can say because it was a Magic Beans Pantomime and I want to keep my job!)  Having worked for the company for so long this was the first time I've ever seen one of their shows and I really wasn't sure what to expect from an audience perspective.  When you are in a pantomime you are always convinced that your's is the best, so had I missed judged the company entirely?  Fortunately I don't think so!  It was lovely to see Leslie Grantham, Jasette Amos and Lucy Reed having a great time together.  I was a bit nervous about seeing Leon Craig's dame, because I've heard a lot about it!  He was great, but we play dame really differently, so I relaxed pretty quickly and was able to enjoy the show!

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Southwark Playhouse

I love seeing panto in new venues and the blurb for this one, along with reviews I'd read made it an obvious choice.  It was a panto-within-a-panto concept and I thought that sounded really exciting, sort of like Noises Off but with audience participation.  In reality it felt like each act was a different production.  The first was the actors nervously rehearsing various panto elements and anticipating the arrival of the Panto Inspector.  The second was the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, with beautiful scenery, but told at break-neck speed!  Neither act fully gelled for me.  There were some clever elements and the cast, especially Bea Holland, were excellent - but if you're going to put on a panto, just put on a panto!  What are people so scared of?  For an adult audience it is fine to have the panto in-jokes etc., but to a child they make no sense - a child has to see a proper panto to understand why we are laughing at a breakdown of it's formulaic structure and traditions.  I really felt like this production would have given children the impression that pantomime was cheap rubbish - so why would they go and see another one?  I grew up loving panto because I was taken to see productions where every element was treated with respect and the production was 'loved' by it's participants.  If I'd seen pantos where everyone was laughing at the genre I most probably wouldn't be here writing this rant now...!

So that's the first half of my 2013/14 panto going!  I'll be back with Act Two in a couple of weeks!  In the meantime, you may like to check out my new venture: One Click Scripts. This is a new business licencing pantomime and play scripts for amateur companies.  It only launched last week and any support would be much appreciated!!! Spread the word!  Thanks!