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.