Sunday, 22 February 2015

Still Critical

Welcome back to the second half of my critical mauling of the panto season just gone.  I’ve cheered up a little bit.  I do love pantomime after all and sometimes it can be hard not to lose sight of that.  I care about panto so much that I desperately hate to see it not done properly, or not respected, or treated lazily.  I think sometimes this is harder felt when you are in the throes of performance yourself.  The productions I am about to review have probably benefited from my being a less tired and excited about their own production, audience member.  Let’s see shall we...

PETER PAN, King’s Theatre Glasgow (or Glasgae)

My parents have just moved to Glasgow, so this was my first ever opportunity to see a Scottish pantomime.  Scottish pantomimes are known for being quite different to their English counterparts and having their own unique style and history.  If I’m honest, Peter Pan wasn’t quite as different as I had expected; but some of the jokes were a complete mystery to me.  I think it might be one of the most successful renderings of the story as pantomime that I’ve seen.  I was a particularly big fan of Greg McHugh as Smee, who was the most like Ant Payne that I have seen any comic be.  He really held the stage naturally and you could feel the auditorium’s atmosphere change every time he came on stage.  I can’t even explain how funny he was: he made the show a pantomime.  That’s quite special!  I feel that as the King’s was celebrating its 50th anniversary of staging a pantomime that First Family could have made a little bit more effort with putting in a set that hadn’t clearly seen better days and maybe they could have made the flying a bit more spectacular (does no one fly through the auditorium anymore?); you know: really give the audience a production that shows they respect the venue’s history.  Certainly, in the rhyming couplets at the end, which summed up panto at the King’s, all the names mentioned: Gerard Kelly, Rikki Fulton, Stanley Baxter etc, got appreciative shouts, laughter and applause from the crowd.  It was a lovely feeling to be sat amongst an audience that clearly values a pantomime tradition.

TREASURE ISLAND, Pavilion Theatre Glasgow

I’ll be honest: I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to panto; I don’t really like to see subjects that I don’t consider part of the formal cannon.  I mean, some of the common stories can make pretty dire pantomimes, so I don’t hold out much hope for non-traditional subjects!  However, I felt that the Pavilion panto might be even more traditional than the King’s so I didn’t want to miss out.  And what an afternoon I had!  I got a free ticket thanks to a group of lady ramblers from the Isle of Bute who had some spares.  Such generosity was completely uncalled for, but I had a lovely afternoon with them and helpfully got a few language translations in the interval!  I found the show itself a bit surreal.  It seemed to follow Robert Louis Stevenson’s story quite well and contained a lot of pantomime elements, but no one could really decide who the baddies were; they sang songs at really random points and the second half was done in monochrome!  However, I have never seen a pantomime that demonstrated such good will.  Every single person in the cast was only doing it for the audience; it’s really hard to explain, but the cast clearly loved the crowd.  It was the friendliest auditorium  I’ve ever been in and I had a wonderful time!  Johnny Mac (as a parrot) was great, even making clearly set up mistakes look natural.  Michelle McManus and Cat Harvey were a fabulous double act who just wanted people to have fun.  It was like watching your mum’s friends messing around and that was really warming.  I would love to see a panto at the Pavilion again.  Even the technical side of things was impressive: projectors, lasers, LCD screens.  Before the show started I asked the rambling ladies why they came to the Pavilion; once the show had finished it was quite clear why!

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Plymouth Theatre Royal

So, if you’ve read my blog for a while you will know that Plymouth is where everything started for me (including life!): it’s where I started performing; where I realised I loved theatre and where, in 1996, I realised that pantomime was the most joyous thing I’d ever seen and it was what I wanted to do.  That means that re-visiting the theatre, especially to see panto, is exciting, but scary: there’s quite a lot of nostalgia and significance riding on the show!  Things got off to a good start because I met Jeffrey Holland (Spike, from Hi-De-Hi) who is one of the first dames I ever saw and certainly the first one I remember.

This is, essentially, a picture of me trying to keep my face calm.

And there was a display in the foyer of previous pantomimes, which meant I got to re-live the show that made me want to do panto: Mother Goose.  There was a picture of Jack Tripp in the eponymous role and seeing it reminded me of the type of dame I strive to be: funny, manly, sensitive, anarchic and believable.  Jeffrey Holland embodies those qualities, as well as Jack Tripp, so it was lovely to watch him on stage.  He’s a very classic dame; of the type you’re likely to hear people say “there’s not many like that any more!”

That's me with Jack Tripp and Noel Butler as Priscilla.  I am not a giant.

Fortunately the show was as spectacular and engaging as I remember them being as a child.  Rosie Glossop, who came to Egypt with us, was the fairy and did a pretty good job of stealing the show.  She has a fabulous voice and really made the magical moments matter.  Bobby Davro was the headliner and I enjoyed him more than usual; I suspect because this was his second year in a row in Plymouth so he couldn’t do his usual material.  No fornicating kangaroos this time, thank goodness.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about I can only suggest you remain naive: do not search ‘BOBBY DAVRO KANGAROO’ on YouTube YOUR LIFE WILL NOT IMPROVE. (Footnote: fortunately that search brings up nothing.  Don't thank me, thank YouTube.)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Oxford Playhouse

Beauty and the Beast is a pantomime I have never seen and not one that I have ever been particularly interested in.  However, I have been commissioned, through my business One Click Scripts, to write a new version of the story, so I thought it would be worth a visit; plus Leon Craig was the dame and it’s good to support your friends!  Well... Leon must have some good friends!  This was the most confusing, random, pantomime I’ve ever watched.  At one point I had no idea what was happening.  The baddy was played by a light (yep!), the fairy took a muffin from a child and ate it, the beast and the prince were the same person but played by two people so they could both be on stage at the same time, whilst the dame and comic were figments of Beauty’s imagination but at one point I think they helped her out in real life I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON!!!!  I know I say this all the time, but really: what is wrong with just putting on a normal pantomime.  I understand that maybe the Playhouse was trying to be intelligent and alternative – but alternative from what?  They’re the only panto in town!  They’re already alternative.  So just put on a decent show and give audiences what they want.  And another thing: I have no problem having the band on stage, but at least get them to dress properly.  The Musical Director was wearing a mauve t-shirt and looked like he had no idea that he could be seen!  That was the second time this season that I’ve wanted to leave in the overture.  I’m glad I stayed though, because Leon was fabulous and really saved the day.  I mean: thank goodness somebody understood that they were supposed to be doing a pantomime. 

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Birmingham Hippodrome

This is the big one!  I love leaving this one ‘til last because it’s always the most spectacular and the starriest.  It’s quite a long run too and it did seem that fatigue was setting in in quite a big way at the performance we saw.  Jane McDonald was the star and did a lovely job singing, but has bizarrely little stage presence or grace!  Not an ideal fairy by far!  The real star of this Hippodrome panto currently is Matt Slack who is incredibly funny and still appears to be spontaneous.  Paul Zerdin, on the other hand, is an excellent example of someone who is just going through the motions and audiences don’t engage with him at all.  Gary Wilmot in his second year as dame gives a lovely, warm performance, but really could do with being used more.  He’s great at comedy and working a crowd, but really doesn’t get the chance.

So there we go: things improved!  Now that my critical facility towards pantomime is fully functional I'm looking forward to next year's season.  I'm looking forward, even more, to maybe just seeing five or six pantos.  Do you reckon I can do that?  Bets on the table.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Critical Condition

I found last year’s pantomime season so soul destroying that I promised myself that I would limit the number of shows I saw this year.  I started off really well: there weren’t actually that many productions I was interested in seeing; and yet, I’ve ended up seeing as many, if not more, than last year.

I can't quite remember what it was that nearly destroyed the panto going experience for me last year.  I think it was that I was very excited and very few productions actually matched my expectations.  This year I have approached the season with zero expectations and it turns out that that might be the best thing to do.  Taking this approach I’ve noticed that audiences take a very similar one!  And from what I’ve seen it’s that lack of expectation that seems to allow a lot of companies to get away with producing very poor shows.  In fact, I think audiences might have an even more damaging expectation: for pantomime to be bad; which is a result of their local panto becoming gradually worse and them not realising.

Panto has always had the reputation of being a bit naff and I suspect that they will never shed that; but surely that should make producers want to put on the best show possible and quash the cliché? This season I’ve seen productions that go beyond what anyone would expect of them, but sadly, I’ve seen a few that have made such basic errors and had so little care taken over them that it’s no wonder weeks are being shorn of their runs.  And the worst thing is that audiences don’t seem to care.

I do care however and here’s my critical run down of what I’ve seen this year.  I hope you’re ready!

MOTHER GOOSE, Hackney Empire

Other theatres claim to be the home of London pantomime; but nowhere really stands uo compared to the Hackney Empire.  Every year the Empire presents a show that feels home grown and feels like it has not just its local community, but the whole of London at its heart.  This year saw the return of Sharon D. Clarke and Clive Rowe to a production they last did a few years ago.  They first time round was my first Hackney panto and I loved it.  This time round it was one of the shows I HAD to see and I was so confident I took some other Magic Beans with me.  Clive Rowe is an impeccable dame.  He gets the broad comedy, but he acts the role like I have never seen anyone else do so before.  He can get an audience to be as loud as you can imagine; but at the moment where he realised his mistake in trading Priscilla the entire auditorium was silent and his performance was subtle and tender.  This year, though, I felt the production values really looked tired (beyond the normal charm of an Empire panto) and there were quite a few mis-placed comedy routines.  A whole costume about the Scottish referendum already seemed out of date, for instance, and I will never understand where the humour is in a plate smashing scene.  If I’m honest and I’m putting myself out on a limb here: I was a bit disappointed by this production; but it is very easy to see why so many people swear by the Hackney panto.  That said, the opening as Sharon D. Clarke is revealed, through a gauze, on a swing singing I’m Every Woman remains one of the most magical openings of a panto I’ve ever seen!

SLEEPING BEAUTY, Churchill Theatre Bromley

This was THE panto for me this Christmas.  One of my favourite subjects and a really classic cast: Bobby Crush, Sonia, Bruce Montagu, Zoe Birkett and someone off Corrie.  This really was the definition of an all-star cast; but the show?  Wow: jokes and cultural references straight out of the dark ages; sets that didn’t match (and had been re-touched, or not hung properly etc, etc.) and a lack of energy on press night that didn’t bode well for the next five weeks.  There were some moments of genuine magic and the individual performers did their best to salvage a pretty dire situation.  What upset me most was that it was in Bromley.  The Churchill used to be a significant panto venue that attracted high calibre stars.  If this show had been in Nowhere-on-Sea you might have forgiven it, but not on one of the UK’s major stages.  Yet, as I was leaving the theatre, audiences were raving about it.  Why would a producer try any harder if audiences don’t require a show to be any better than what they saw in Bromley? 

ALADDIN, Connaught Theatre Worthing

I had friends in this one: Kieran and Sarah (who I’d worked with on the 2013 Haven tours) and the show starred Jon Lee (from S Club 7, who I’ve had a thing for since S Club 7 were a thing), so this one was an absolute no brainer for me.  I’ve enjoyed a lot of PHA productions in the past too and I’ve never been to the Connaught, so I was dead excited!  Having worked with Jamie Wilson, I’m a big advocate for a live band and there was three in the pit here; but let me tell you: I have never seen less enthusiastic musicians.  Considering they were on display to the audience I would have expected a little bit more life from them and consequently their music fell flat.  This was really the first time I’ve ever wanted to leave a show at the overture.  Which I announced to my companions!  The show actually wasn’t that bad.  It looked good, the script was a bit random with people coming on stage just to say one word and the heart had clearly gone out of it; but as a panto it worked.  Kieran and Sarah stole the show (which, technically, they shouldn’t have been able to surrounded, as they were, by experienced panto performers playing much bigger characters).  They stole it because they performed with the right energy: they were larger than life, engaging and were having fun, but taking it seriously at the same time.  I was really impressed with them and I hope that next year they get to work with people who care more about the production they are in.

PETER PAN, Orchard Theatre Dartford

Ok, things are going to improve soon, I promise; but for now I’m just going to have to go on sounding like a grumpy bastard.  The Orchard in Dartford is no small deal as a theatre.  It always has nice casting for the panto and has good programming throughout the year.  It is also VERY expensive considering its location and demographic (the very back row for Jamie and myself was £28 each), yet it’s always full when I go.  Therefore, I frankly find it offensive to its audience that the last two shows I’ve seen there have had no live music.  If audiences are paying top whack to see a show they deserve the full experience.  In Gravesend our top ticket price was £17.50, with a five piece band and three good headliners.  Children deserve to see musicians in the pit and performers deserve to have them there too.  The show was quite spectacular to look at and a lot of the cast were enjoyable to watch; but the consistent lack of a band at this venue is a real issue for me, especially when you can’t see what the money they’ve saved is going towards.


My mood is about to improve.  I don’t want you to think it’s because I’m going to talk about a Magic Beans pantomime and therefore I have a natural nepotism.  We saw a schools performance and not everything was perfect.  At times the stage felt quite empty and not all the comedy reached the heights it could have; but, conversely, the end of Act One was so magical that I cried!  I think if we’d seen a public performance the comedy would have worked better (it always does, especially from a dame’s perspective); but I was so impressed by the show as a whole.  You really got the sense of a cast working together and towards the same goal.  It was great to watch so many people that I’ve worked with: Anna Kumble, Alan Fletcher, Andy Abraham, Steve Hewlett and Peter Brad-Leigh; they all looked like they were having fun and shared a very similar energy.  There were actually a number of things that made me jealous!  Peter’s first entrance (he was Nurse Nellie) was a flying one and I am desperate to do that!  Also, I hated watching them all doing the Blues Brothers medley without me!  I’m sure I mentioned last year that I’ve never been happier than doing that medley on stage in Sevenoaks – so it was quite hard to watch.  What made me cry, however, was Anna singing Children Will Listen whilst floating above the action with an effortless grace.  A lot of people could do with watching Anna on stage as a fairy: how she holds herself, her wand (VERY important – don’t get me started!) and maintains the integrity of the character and story whilst not dropping the ball on the duplicity of being an actress in a panto.

CINDERELLA, Stag Theatre Sevenoaks

This was really weird for me, going to a venue that I’ve been performing at for the last five years.  Thankfully the show was great, it worked on just about every level and the audience loved it.  The Stag is also a wonderful venue for panto.  Such a large stage means a large scale production; yet the auditorium is small.  It means you’re sat so close that the size of the show is eye-popping and the set they had for Cinderella was particularly attractive.  It was great to see Jasette Amos and Lucy Reed genuinely out-do themselves and give better performances than I’ve ever seen.  However, the real coup here was the casting of Leslie Grantham and Brian Capron as the Ugly Sisters.  Brian, especially, took to it like a natural, but even Leslie seemed to be having much more fun than I would have expected him to.  I could really rave about this: Ben Irish and Michael Burgen as Prince and Dandini were the funniest pairing I’ve seen and Ryan Maloney (Toadfish from Neighbours) was an energetic and physical clown as Buttons.  If you’re going to replace Ant Payne’s Silly Billy with anyone it may as well be Ryan.  I’m sure that audiences will have missed Ant, but I don’t think they will have felt too swindled!  The only downfall for me with the performance I saw was that it was getting a bit ‘in-jokey’ for my taste.  Of course, this may have been a bit exacerbated by the fact that the Gravesend and Dunstable casts were watching – it’s an easy trap to fall into!

Right, I’m going to pause here before I start sounding too miserable!  I wouldn’t normally talk about productions in this way.  I think it’s really important to promote a positive impression of pantomime; but it turns out that some producers don’t share this sense of responsibility and that makes me cross!  Pantomime is a commercial product and the end result (even for actors) has to be a decent profit – but I don’t see why the people who suffer should be the audiences who are spending their hard earned money on your show.  Over and out!

Friday, 9 January 2015

Three Men in a Tutu

Unbelievably pantomime is over for another year!  That was my tenth Christmas in a row doing panto – that’s quite a milestone; but December 2015 will be my tenth year of doing it.  That’s a bit of a conundrum for me: should I have had a big tenth anniversary party (like Les Mis) this Christmas, or should I organise the celebrity filled concert (to be released on DVD) for this December?!  Oh dear, they don’t prepare you for these sort of problems at drama school!

Maybe I should just wait until I’ve been doing it for 25 years and hire out my local village hall and have a party there (I’m thinking the O2 – again, if it’s good enough for Les Mis).  Mind you, I manage to find every panto I do a bit like a party – so maybe I won’t need to worry at all!

This year was no exception!  I had heard before that Gravesend isn’t the most sociable of venues as a lot of people stay at home in London and get the train or drive in.  That’s the case for Sevenoaks too, but there are two crucial differences: there’s a lovely pub right opposite the theatre and the last train to London is very near midnight!  In Gravesend the nearest pub is a good walk away and the last train is at half ten.  Not that I’m complaining though: our company was quite social during the day, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.
In fact, I’ve not really worked with a group of people that thrived so much on being in each other’s company before.  The men’s dressing room at the Woodville is effectively communal and it wasn’t unusual to find a circle of chairs in the room and people (dancers, band, crew) sat around chatting between shows, during the interval and before. The wings were always populated with people ‘hanging out’ waiting for (and occasionally missing) their next entrance.  Crucially it was as much fun to be on stage as it was to be socialising in the wings.

I don’t mind admitting that there have been a few shows where I have been eager to leave the stage so I can continue gossiping about whatever topic is hot that day.  I am an awful one for gossip: I do enjoy it; but I managed not get distracted on this run because I was enjoying playing on stage too much! 

In fact, in panto terms, I think this year was the most relaxed I’ve been on stage.  I have always struggled with the fact that I find it hard to let go and mess around in panto – even though that is what audiences expect.  I almost think that I relied on the fact that that was what Ant Payne did, so I didn’t really need to.  However, something was unleashed this season!  I ate raw potato (disgusting by the way), I freely talked back to the audience and I felt very much in control.  There’s every chance I may have finally found my feet as a pantomime dame!

I think the change of audience helped as well.  The generous people of Sevenoaks have been watching me for five years and I definitely improved whilst I was there; but it took a new audience, that had no expectation of me, for me to understand how much I have developed.  I also loved the fact that audiences continued to notice how well Ant and I work together.  In fact, I think our double act reached a new level being in Gravesend: we had to prove ourselves again and once we did our partnership started to grow even stronger.  I trust Ant implicitly on stage and he allows me to do things that I would never dream of doing if he wasn’t there.  He makes me break my own rules and I think that is one of the reasons people enjoy watching us so much.  What I do know about both of us is that we are prepared to take risks.  There’s not a lot calculated about what we do: we just throw ourselves around and hope for the best!

Ant and I are always very lucky to get cast with people who are amenable to the way we work and generally fit the bill: Andrew Stone, Andy Abraham, Tony Haygarth and even Anna Kumble.  However, this year we were exceptionally lucky with Jamie Foreman who was doing his first ever panto and took to it and us like a duck to water.  He was tentative in every way to begin with, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched someone develop so much over the course of a panto run.

That feels like a bit of a weird thing to say about an actor who’s career is older than I am; but the man performing panto on December 13th was completely different to the one on stage during our closing performance.  There is the obvious physical appearance: he lost loads of weight.  We were kept regularly updated on how much Chloe, our Wardrobe Supervisor, had had to take his waistband in by and what the latest news from the scales was!  That goes to show what throwing things into the audience, climbing through washing machines and doing a balloon ballet does for you!  However, his performance grew massively too.  At the start of the run he was playing his opening spot quite straight, trying to get through it as quickly as possible; but by the end it was a hilarious routine that completely blurred the between the character and the actor.  He had totally understood what he had to do and was using it to his advantage.  I don’t know if this is patronising but I was really proud watching Jamie enjoying himself on stage, because he had properly gone on a panto journey!

If I’m honest I was quite proud of everyone.  Laura Joely-Regan blossomed as the Princess and very much held her own in a cast of men.  Jamie Papanicolaou is one of the strongest Panto Factor winners we’ve had and fitted in really well with the group.  Shane Lynch and Ben Ofoedu did an amazing job at bringing the crowds in and gave a real lesson in how to handle all that attention and they worked really well together on stage.  Our dancers were awesome – I loved watching all of them at some point in the show.  And the Ensemble and Senior dancers were so good at working with the Inters and Juveniles; it really was a lesson in just being good, kind people and not causing a fuss (not that dancers aren’t good and kind, but I’ve worked with enough to know that they’re the first part of a cast that starts to disintegrate!).  Our crew and band were all cheerful and easy to get along with too.  It really felt like we were all working together.

On top of everything else I have never worked at a theatre with a more supportive and encouraging group of staff.  Literally everyone from the management to the cleaners made us feel welcome and took an interest in the show.  I can’t even explain how much better that made an already lovely experience.  To only get smiles and laughter from staff of any organisation is a rare thing – so full marks to the Woodville! 

I’m writing this on a train up to see my parents – so if you’re still reading it must be feeling like a Christmas bonus issue! But as a reward here is the highlights clip from the show so you can see why I was having such a good time!

Good news if my talking about how good Ant and I are has made you wish you could see us at some time other than Christmas: not only are we touring in The Pirates of Treasure Island this Easter with Edele Lynch (off of B*Witched – beside myself with excitement!) and Sid Sloane (from CBeebies – Ant is beside himself with excitement!) we are putting together our own family friendly podcast which will be available really soon.  To make sure you don’t miss out on our first episode you can follow us on Twitter (@PayneAndPearce) or Facebook.  We’ll have pictures up soon, but in the mean time here’s one taken by the lovely Sarah Knight (she also does Weddings and racing pigeons).

And if you happen to be in Edinburgh in the first week of February you can see me in the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Coppelia.  Sadly I won’t be dancing – but maybe I should take Ant and Jamie with me just in case some people drop out.  We do have experience after all...

(Courtesy of Chris Ford.  Trombonist and Purveyor of High Class Calendars)

Sunday, 21 December 2014

A Lad in Gravesend

I'm starting to panic.  Professionally I have had a very good year.  Work has been plentiful and fun and at one point I even got scared that I didn't have enough time to do everything that I had committed to.  In exactly two weeks, at around 6.30pm, when the curtain comes down on our final performance of Aladdin that all stops.  I have nothing to do.  I have no plans until March.  NOTHING.  Essentially this is a call out to everyone from the National Theatre to the dingiest seaside revue bar: BOOK ME!  

Of course, I could be using this luxurious Sunday morning off from shows to look for work - but panic is a much more indulgent feeling than the mundanity of emailing a million and one people about how fabulous you are.  And Christmas is all about indulgence, right?!

It's not an unusual experience for me to feel panic stricken towards the end of a panto season.  This period book ends my year and the in between months are filled out accordingly.  Essentially, it's what I spend my whole year building up to and sometimes I just happen to forget that life will continue afterwards!  Maybe I need to re-think how I approach my career!!

I know there's a lot of people that think I'm crazy for the way I give myself over to panto - but I can't think of anything else that is as much fun.  I am also aware that this blog would be more fun if there was a bit of drama sometimes; but I'm not the type of person who looks for drama and why wouldn't you just want to have as good a time as possible?!

I was talking to Abi, the Dance Captain in Gravesend, yesterday about how surprised we were that everyone is getting along so well.  Actors and dancers, to be honest, aren't two groups of people famed for their ability to not bitch or back-bite; but we're managing very well in Gravesend!

The whole process has been incredibly relaxed so far.  Rehearsals were fun and well organised (I was in charge mostly, so I'll take that one: thanks!) and I actually think it was the most on top of everything I've felt by the time we hit the stage.

It was an interesting dynamic in the rehearsal room as Shane Lynch (Boyzone), Ant Payne, Laura Joely-Regan and myself were all in the same Aladdin in Sevenoaks.  This year's Panto Factor winner, Jamie Papanicolaou has done panto before, but this is his first principle role, while Jamie Foreman (EastEnders) and Ben Ofoedu (Phats and Small) are completely new to panto.  I will admit that as Associate Director, I found it quite tricky to explain things to a group of people that had either heard it all before, or had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

I was actually really impressed with how quickly Ben and Jamie Foreman picked up the surreal little intricacies of panto.  Both of them came into rehearsals ultra prepared, which really put the rest of us to shame!  There were, of course, a few dodgy moments, but they have really stepped up to the mark.  The miraculous thing about them both is that they understand the boundaries of panto - when to corpse, when not to, how long to corpse for, when you can elaborate on something going wrong and when you just have to keep going.  That stuff isn't easy and also isn't something you can find out in a rehearsal room - you have to discover it in the scariest way: live on stage in front of a paying audience.  I know and have seen very experienced pantomime performers who don't know how to control themselves at these moments and sometimes it can come very close to ruining a show.  Not in Gravesend, thank you!

So rehearsals went well... blah, blah, blah!  And *shock / horror* our first week of performances has been fantastic!  We opened to a standing ovation (which I have never experienced before in panto - unless it has been a particularly emotional performance, such as a last one) and have continued to get a smattering throughout the week (although that could just be people trying to get their buses!).  Our reviews have been excellent (I particularly liked this one that described Ant and I as panto legends...! ) and the whole show is getting a lot of love on Facebook and Twitter!

Maybe you should come down and see what all the fuss is about!

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 confident 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!