Monday, 13 April 2015

Review: The Amazing Bubble Man, Norden Farm Maidenhead

First of all, Norden Farm in Maidenhead is a lovely place!  I had no idea what to expect when I got down there; but it has ample parking (Really?  I'm THAT person?), a lovely front of house and bar and the food was great.  To top it all off the staff are uniformly friendly and welcoming.

I will admit to being a little bit bumptious towards one of the ushers at the bar; but her smile and interest in what had brought me to Maidenhead. as well as her clear passion for the venue had me back tracking within an inch of my life!  In a London theatre this lady would be an anomaly; yet in Maidenhead (which is only 30 miles away from London geographically, but a million miles away in every other sense) this attitude was standard: everyone had genuine smiles and really took an interest in the patrons having a good experience.

The lady had just had her family in to see the morning performance of the show that had brought me to Maidenhead: The Amazing Bubble Man and she was equally as enthusiastic about that.  I can completely see why.

Norden Farm is a small arts centre, so there's barely a bad seat in the house and for almost everyone, at some point, the bubbles are in reaching distance.  Whilst it is clearly a show aimed at children there were lots of adults in the audience that were just as fascinated by the Bubble Man's creations and bearing in that in mind a little explanation of what was happening might have made the performance a little more entertaining for the adults.

As it is the Bubble Man (actually called Louis Pearl) is accompanied by his wife Jet Black Pearl, who creates incredible music to suit the bubble action.  She has the skill to not take attention away from the man himself, but also to subtly distract the audience when the pace has slowed or Louis is just sorting out a prop.  She plays the flute, accordion and voice and uses a loop station (I had to look that one up) to create immediate and evocative music.  She is simultaneously a rustic and innovative one woman band!

Here she is in action (sans Bubble Man!) it gives you a good indication of what I was struggling to describe above!  The great thing about Jet Black Pearl is that she adds serious tension to the bubble action and makes it seem as thrilling as watching a stunt in a circus ring.  Her own sense of fun and personality also brings character to an event that runs the risk of being, ironically, a bit dry.

As all good performers do, Louis Pearl takes his role as entertainer very seriously and is obviously very protective over his work.  What he does with bubbles is incredible and children are enthralled; but his attempts at audience interaction and communication come across as either haphazard or killjoy-ish.  Several times he got audience members up as volunteers and left them standing around the stage with nothing to do until he appeared to remember they were there.  On another occasion he squirted a girl with water and when he offered her the chance to retaliate actually laid down rules!  

His willingness to engage with the audience is admirable, but I think he would benefit from having someone help him actually structure what he does with the volunteers and how he speaks to them.  In fact, the whole show would benefit from a bit of direction.  Louis Pearl has an awesome talent, but has left himself floundering in a show that could be more exciting and engaging.

It's hard to describe what the Bubble Man does (which is why I haven't!)  Take a look at this promo video and see for yourself!

For all the fantastic bubbles he created my favourite bit was at the end when he used a net to fill the auditorium with bubbles!  Also the disco bubble I liked.  And the space ship one that flew.  Mind you, I liked the rocket too.  And when he gave the child out of the audience antennae.  No, actually, my favourite bit was when he made the u-shaped bubble with people inside. Or was it when he blew bubbles into bubbles?

Anyway, before I descend into madness take a look at one more promo video.   This is the tour I am currently on The Pirates of Treasure Island.  We're having a great time and are in Gravesend and Sevenoaks this week.  Tickets are selling really well for both venues, but are still available, so BOOK BOOK BOOK!!!

Follow these links to get more info on all the exciting things in this blog!

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Review: Taken At Midnight, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Does anybody else remember the BBC's adaptation of The Borrowers?  I absolutely loved it.  Everybody goes on about Narnia, but The Borrowers  was the one for me.  The main reason was that I found Penelope Wilton fascinating.  And, to be honest, I've had a real thing for her ever since.  Consequently, whenever she is performing in London, it is pretty much imperative that I get a ticket.

I'm not a terribly organised person, so I had to make two attempts at seeing Taken at Midnight!  The first one was aborted because they could only offer me Gallery seats.  The Gallery at the Theatre Royal is notorious for its discomfort and poor view, so I decided to leave it.  If I couldn't get Day Seats I simply wouldn't see it, because I also wasn't going to spend £59 on a show.  There's only been a few occasions when I have paid full price to see a show and the last time was when Angela Lansbury was in Blithe Spirit.  As much as I like Penelope Wilton I still didn't want to spend full whack on a play about the Nazis; so I decided I would just have to survive and miss out this time.

Then, Laura-Jane Matthewson and I went to see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (what a silly title!) and I realised I COULD NOT miss seeing Penelope Wilton on stage.  The film is fine, but contains mostly lazy performances apart from Celia Imrie (naturally!) and Penelope Wilton.  She really gives a masterclass: her performance is energetic, funny, succinct and there is a moment when she makes the tiniest reaction to something Judi Dench says that really is sublime.  Just a little wince and you see everything she has created fall away.  Perfect.

That was the moment when I knew that if I did not see Penelope Wilton on stage, I would actually regret it.  The show was already in it's last week, so literally the next day (the actual joy of being self-employed!) I succumbed to Gallery seats and saw Taken at Midnight.

First of all, the seats are not comfortable!  Fortunately it wasn't very busy, so I was able to spread myself around; but I shall not be sitting up there in a full house!  However, the view is excellent (although, I obviously missed a lot of wincing subtleties) and the sound was incredible.  I have sat in smaller theatres and struggled to hear the performers, but in this instance the projection was top notch.  I suppose there might have been microphones, but I would prefer to think the actors just had great technique.  In fact, I think this might be the case, because when David Yelland came on he was almost impossible to understand.  Ironically, the only poster I noticed outside was saying how fantastic he was!

As for the play.  It's a really interesting topic: the pre-war Nazis and their incarceration of Communists, dissenters, political opponents etc.  The plot focuses on their taking of Hans Litten and his mother's quest to find him.  It's a true story and therefore one that needs to be handled sensitively and accurately.  The problem with this is that Mark Hayhurst's script becomes bogged down with exposition and rarely allows the characters to explore the plot themselves.  It seems a bit odd to have a character telling you what happened when you've employed ten actors that could just show you.

In the first half there were some searing scenes between the three prisoners: Carl von Ossietzky (Mike Grady, more famous for Last of the Summer Wine!  It was quite incredible to see him play someone so passionate and forthright.), Erich Muhsam (Pip Donaghy) and Litten (Allan Corduner).  Whilst wordy, their scenes fizzed and popped with articulate vitriol and political argument.  When one of them was executed, I think the injustice was keenly felt throughout the auditorium.  It's a slightly manipulative plotting move, of course, because you then become even more anxious about Hans and his mother being reunited outside of the prisons.

There is a scene when they are allowed to meet, but inside a prison and thinking about it is making me very uncomfortable.  The way the mother just held onto Hans' chair once he'd left really reminded me of the way my Great Uncle's wife ran to his coffin at his funeral. I understood a lot in just that small moment and I don't think I've ever engaged in a brief second of theatre the way I did then.  The silence was devastating and even from the rafters you could understand everything that Wilton's character was experiencing.  I think I grew up a bit watching that scene!

What always amazes me about Wilton's performances is the candid mix of strength and vulnerability.  Here she was playing a woman who was standing up to some of the highest ranking Gestapo officers (even wrote a letter to Hitler!), is, in fact, a stronger woman than most of the men around her; and yet you knew she was driven by love.  Pure love.  What a combination.  The great thing about Penelope Wilton is that she never lets either ball drop; she juggles both effortlessly.  Weirdly, I'm now kind of describing my Mum, which might explain why I like Penelope Wilton so much!  My Gran is Angela Lansbury... I knew that the first time I watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks!

Interestingly, it's not until the end of the play that you (or maybe just me!) notice that there is only one female character.  I think that has a lot to say about the writing of the piece and I hope this becomes a part that we see a lot more older actresses playing: Sian Thomas, Lesley Manville, Juliet Stevenson (all in twenty odd years time, I assume) would all excel in it.

Penelope Wilton also does something, that, for me, is fundamental.  She smiles at the curtain call.  Her character went through quite an ordeal, but as the audience was applauding the actress, the actress was able to acknowledge and accept their praise.  Not smiling at a curtain call (unless it's for Journey's End where they all die, for instance) is essential in my eyes.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Review: Loserville, Union Theatre

Okay, so I mentioned in my last post that I was going to start using this blog to review shows that I'd been to see; as well as the reviews I do for Bargain Theatre.  Obviously I'm not going to review shows twice, so I will keep this blog for shows I'm not watching as a member of the 'press'.  

Also, there is very much a tone to my Bargain Theatre reviews.  I think I sound like a bit of a know it all (I can be sometimes), because obviously you want people to trust what you're saying; but here I'll be a bit more relaxed - I think, at the moment, until I start taking myself very, very seriously anyway!

So, the first show I saw since making that commitment (which was less than a week ago!) was Loserville at the Union Theatre.  I love the Union because the space is flexible, so it always feels like a new experience when you go there.  Plus the bar is cute and the toilets are dilapidated which gives them a really odd charm. (Actually I like to pretend that I'm in an episode of Call the Midwife when I use the toilets at the Union.  I don't know why.  It just feels right.)

But what about the show?  I really enjoyed it!  That's lucky actually, because it was a bit of a Magic Beans alumni-fest.  The director was Michael Burgen, who was Dandini in Sevenoaks last Christmas and the leading lady was Holly-Anne Hull who won 2014 Panto Factor to play Maid Marion in Dunstable.  Not only that but sometime Wardrobe Superviser Elle-Rose Hughes was involved in making sure that everyone had something decent to wear.  Plus there was a poster outside that Elle-Rose pointed out featured several previous Panto Factor contestants.

The show is written by Elliott Davis and James Bourne and is a really quirky tale of geeks versus jocks and the race to send the first email.  It had a West End outing a few years ago and developed an avid cult following and as far as I know this is the first time it's been performed professionally since.

I'm sorry that it wasn't more successful the first time round because it's so exciting to see a musical that is truly original (although it is based on an album).  The story is erring towards the predictable, but the humour in the book catches you off card and makes the inherent cliches of the plot seem endearing.

The music is lively and energetic; most of it does sound surprisingly musical theatre in style.  I'm not sure if that's how it was written or how it sounded because of the make-up of the band.  It's not even a bad thing - the music is great - but I had been expecting something a little bit rockier or poppier in my head.  One of my favourite songs was 'Don't Let 'Em Bring You Down'; which is actually on YouTube being sung by this cast.  Have a look it's fab!

I mean, please.  And they're playing the geeks!  I think it takes a lot of guts as a leading man to not just stand there and look pretty: Luke Newton who played Michael Dork really gave the character an awkward physical life that was refreshing and truthful.  Jordan Fox as Lucas Lloyd (lot's of Star Wars references there, which even I followed!) is a more conventional geek in the Grease kind of tradition, as are Sandy Gregelis and Matthew Harvey; but they all use it to get an appropriate mix of laughs and pathos.

The girls have a much harder job in this show: their characters are really only cheerleader / bimbo / money grabber stereotypes and they're not given any way of getting around this.  I'm not saying this because I'm biased, but the only female character that offers a hint of interest is Holly Manson, played by Holly-Anne.  She did quirky and feisty really well, but even her character is kind of haphazardly sketched in the book.  All the girls were great; but I don't think their material really stood up to what the boys had to work with.

The production is really 'cute': all bright colours and rubik's cube blocks; but I especially liked the planetarium setting when the back wall was illuminated with stars and planets.  I also enjoyed the way they used two blackboards to denote a location or mood for the scene or even an email being sent.  In terms of the latter device I have to admit that my favourite part of the whole show was watching Delycia Belgrave scrawl an email, in chalk, as quickly as she could.  There was palpable tension in the room as she did it!

Loserville was no loser in my eyes!  (Cheese!)  I'd definitely go and see it again and I'm already thinking about buying the soundtrack.  Those are essentially two really good signs that I enjoyed it.  The others are that I haven't used any fowl language to describe it and I didn't feel the need to buy an alcoholic drink in the interval.  Good work!

PS. Before you go, please also visit my friend's impossibly beautiful new blog Little Beee (I mean - how perfectly judged IS that third 'e'?!).  She's also on Twitter: @littlebeeeblogs .  So please follow and subscribe and etc.  Thanks. 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Not Ballet Likely

You might have gathered that I am really passionate about pantomime?  Yes?  Good!  It's true: I am!  However, I am also a pretty well rounded individual and I get really excited about other things too: Italy, polenta, churches, African-American literature, Shania Twain, the sea and a glut of sitcoms that run the gamut from tacky as hell to the best thing ever written (in no particular order: Hot in Cleveland, 'Allo 'Allo, Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?, Cybill, Frasier, Black Books, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and of course the cream of the crop: The Golden Girls).  Actually, that list of sitcoms contains some of my fantasy Trans-Atlantic panto casting (ignore a few of their ages!): Betty White, Cybill Shepherd, Christine Baranski, David Hyde-Pierce, Peri Gilpin and Chelsea Peretti).

You see how rounded I am?  I managed to make three lists to demonstrate that fact!  I also have broader theatrical interests (one more list and I'm done, for now!): farce, opera, plays, musicals, cabaret, theatre for children etc., and ballet.  I have always loved the ballet.  Mostly, I have seen the classic ballets and what has always captured my imagination with pantomime is the same thing that has transfixed me with ballet.  Ballet and pantomime both create fantasy worlds, but rely on us recognising our own lives in the fiction that they are creating.

One of the first ballets I saw was the Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of Coppelia, so when the opportunity came up to be in the very same production, I absolutely had to take it! So, about a month ago I went up to Edinburgh and spent the week in an absolute fairy tale at the Festival Theatre, surrounded by another world of beautiful scenery, costumes, music and dancing.

The production really is magical and I can't really explain how fab it was to be involved, even though all I did was sit / stand at the side, look interested and occasionally gesticulate.  To hear Delibes' music played by a large orchestra from the stage rather than the audience was quite an experience.  The music is gorgeous and it was really interesting to watch how the choreography tied in and how intricate the connection was.

Actually, one of my favourite parts of the whole week was to watch the choreography repeatedly and to get a better understanding of how the dancers worked and what the moves meant.  When you watch just one performance I think you really do miss out on the little details and communications between the characters.  I've never approached ballet characters as conversing, but I really saw it this time.  I felt like a whole new understanding had been opened up to me.  What a treat!  And here it is:

And here is me in actual action (if by action you mean standing and watching), you may need to squint to see me!

And the dancers are just incredible.  Watching them casually warm-up really puts anything I do to shame; so you can imagine what watching them do their actual job is like.  I loved seeing their own individual styles and little things that they did differently to the other people in the same role.  Some of them really acted the story out and that was beautiful to watch.  Others dance with just that little bit extra finesse.  All of them had great camaraderie, though and really seemed to be enjoying sharing the stage with each other.  As actors we weren't that communicative with them, but I really would have enjoyed getting to know more about their backgrounds - such a large group, there can't help but be some drama!

So not only was being in the ballet great, I also had an amazing time in Edinburgh.  Actually, it was nice to work with a group of actors from a totally different background to me.  The acting scene seems pretty tight in Scotland and everyone was really interesting talking about.  We were a really diverse group of people and all the better for it I reckon!

So, yes: a fabulous time in Edinburgh!  Whilst I was there I also went to the Royal Lyceum Theatre and saw an awesome production of a Brian Friel play called Faith Healer.  It was absolutely fascinating, but really hard to concentrate on!  I had the strongest urge for Wasabi Peas half way through the first act and would you believe it: the theatre only blooming sold them!  Now that's service.  Anyway, whilst I was watching the show I realised I was considering it from a critical perspective.  I already review shows for Bargain Theatre (which can be found here!) and I always sum up the panto season.  I go and see a lot of shows, so I'm going to start using this blog as a place to review what I see too.  Hopefully some of you might be interested!  

In other news, since Edinburgh I have recorded a voice for a new animation called Wolf Who Was I was playing Father Wolf!  I went down to Bournemouth and did a short film called The Devil Wears a Cassock, I played Father Frank.  And I helped the Stag Youth Theatre and Simon Cossons with their Film in a Week, in which I played one of their Dads.  So literally, in the space of a week I went from always being cast as someone's mother to getting typecast playing Fathers.  How weird is that?!

Plus Ant Payne and I continue to record our podcast: you can find all four episodes here!

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)