Monday, 7 April 2014

We're All Mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 2 March 2014

...No Turn Unstoned.

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

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

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

CINDERELLA, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford

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

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Stamford Arts Centre

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


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

CINDERELLA, Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage

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

SNOW WHITE, Birmingham Hippodrome

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

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

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

No Stone Unturned....

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

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

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


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

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

ALADDIN, New Wimbledon Theatre

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


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

PETER PAN, Richmond Theatre

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

DICK WHITTINGTON, Grove Theatre Dunstable

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

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Southwark Playhouse

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

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

Monday, 20 January 2014

A Panto Summary

It seems that I am a pretty typical man: I can't do more than one thing at once!  When I am doing panto everthing else goes out the window and every single year this surprises me.  Mind you, doing two shows a day (sometimes three) and travelling an hour from home each day to get there does take up your time somewhat.  I always thought that the spare mornings I had would be an ideal time to update the blog; but, of course I forgot that these are spent: sleeping, getting ready to go; or not really knowing who/where you are anymore...!

However, I am pleased that this year it is the blog that lost out in the struggle for my time.  Last year it was my home life - and that's a bit harder to explain away!  When you live at home during panto you do have to tread a fine line between having fun with your colleagues and living your ordinary life; whereas, when you are away from home you more or less submit to the ridiculous antics that a panto cast get up to. 

I also didn't feel too bad about the blog because there has been a plethora of other performers keeping their panto blogs up to date.  These are the ones that I particularly enjoy:

A lot of theatres write blogs about their pantos as well; but 'Panto Head' (as I shall now be calling it!) really does stop me from reading much.  At the moment I am in As You Like It (at the Baron's Court Theatre) and I am able to read between scenes; yet, during panto I don't think I even read a paragraph!  I know for a fact that Anna Kumble was on the first page of a Dawn French novel for the entire run - so it's not just me!!

All this is making panto sound like a pretty hard work - and it is - but it is also the most fun I have all year!  This season in Sevenoaks was no exception either.  From the moment we met for the first publicity pictures, through to the introduction of our Panto Factor winners (Rebecca Lauren and Alexandra da Silva), the launch, History of Pantomime and rehearsals we have all got along really well.  During the run I was waiting for something to go wrong (it usually does) - but nothing happened.

It all starts from the top.  Magic Beans Productions (Jamie Wilson, Simon Cossons and Russell Ludwin) create a fun atmosphere; Sevenoaks is a very welcoming place and after five years everyone is excited about the panto!  Equally, Alan Fletcher and Andy Abraham were incredible headliners: both were friendly, hard working, willing to muck in and clearly having fun on stage.  When the Top-of-the-Bills have this work ethic it is pretty poor show for the rest of the cast not to follow suit and no one did, which led to one of the least dramatic and happiest panto seasons I've had!

As I say every year: I am also really lucky to work with people I know and trust.  Working with Ant Payne is great, because we can communicate on stage in a way that even we don't understand!  Sometimes it is difficult for us to remember that we are being watched - because we are having so much fun.  Imagine if someone told you and one of your close friends that you had to spend the next ten minutes wearing inflatable horses and trying to make people laugh; or you had to throw those five giant spring rolls as far as you could for the other one to run and get; or that you had to say a rhyme and then spray water on each others faces whilst pretending to be bees....  I'm sure you get my drift.  We met doing panto (with Jamie et al), so our friendship is purely based on laughter and silliness!  I think that might be quite unique.

Someone else we both met whilst doing panto was Anna Kumble and the three of us somehow make a little team.  Over the run we could often be found in a huddle backstage, or in the dressing room, talking about something ridiculous.  I don't have any siblings, but with Ant and Anna I often feel that's what it would have been like. 

This year was mine and Ant's last year in Sevenoaks (after five!).  You don't really realise when you are in the midst of everything how many people you have got used to having around.  We are especially lucky to have had Debbi Parks (our MD), Elaine Williams (in the band), Rod Henderson (ASM and now house techie), Laura Duncan (DSM) and so many of the volunteers around for almost the whole time that next year (in Gravesend:, Facebook and Twitter too.  Plug, plug, plug...!) it's going to be a bit strange having to get used to a whole new bunch of people.  Fortunately we have Alice in Wonderland (deep breath:, Facebook and Twitter too...) to rehearse and perform there first so we can acclimatise!

The only problem with everyone being so friendly and professional and good at their jobs this year was that I didn't have much to do for my first season as Associate Director for Magic Beans.  It's also quite hard to keep an eye on a show whilst you are in it (especially as if I wasn't on stage I was changing costume); but I tried to give a few notes for each show and that's about all I could do!

I think the most significant thing that I did as Associate Director was buy six pairs of Wayfarer Sunglasses for the Blues Brothers Medley at the end of Act One.  This lead to one of my favourite moments on stage ever: all the principals at the back, backs to the audience dancing to Alan Fletcher singing Jailhouse Rock; as he exits we all turn round, wearing sunglasses and launch into Everybody.  I LOVED singing that song (I'm a bit of a Blues Brothers fan...), I LOVED singing it in sunglasses and I LOVED seeing everybody else sing it in sunglasses!!

There were lots of things that I loved about the show this year:
  • I really enjoyed attempting to sing Children Will Listen to the Babes, right after an energetic gag and one of the fastest changes I've ever done.  It was really satisfying to be in control of the atmosphere and when Anna came on to sing the rest of the song it was just magical. 
  • All the Babes in the Wood were great to work with and I loved seeing how invested in the experience they were and how they all developed throughout the run.  Sometimes it's nice to be reminded of how exciting being on stage was as a child.  I still find it very exciting, but worrying about your rent and the next job does take the edge off slightly!
  • I liked the fact that some of the comedy was quite intelligent: I did a joke about Tom Daley (a nice one) and then a few lines later Ant would comment on it and acknowledge that we know Tom Daley isn't really funny and that 'coming out' isn't a joke. 
  • Ant did a long routine as a French man, which was very funny, but the pay off required the audience to think and I loved hearing the laughter ripple through the audience as people got the joke. 
  • I really liked that a gag Alan and I made up always got a good laugh, even though I wasn't entirely sure why it was funny. 
  • I loved that Anna had a massive change for the finale.  It's really rare that fairies get an entire costume change for panto; so for Anna to have the kind of change she did made the walk down look amazing.
  • Most of all though, I really enjoyed a routine called the Twelve -Legged Dancing Monster (or R.E.L.A.R.A. - the initials of everyone involved), which was one of the most confusing things I've ever done.  At one point, in rehearsals, Rebecca (Robin Hood) looked down and honestly said: "I don't know which legs are mine!".  It's a pretty hard routine to explain. It's also pretty uncomfortable to perform; but when you get it right and the audience loves it, you can't really complain!
So, if you're still reading I am sure you have understood that I had a marvellous time!  I am looking forward to the rest of the year too.  I am being brave this year and starting a small business supplying panto scripts to amateur companies.  The website isn't up and running yet, but if you want you can follow One Click Scripts on Twitter or 'like' it on Facebook.

As I said before I am currently in As You Like It until 26th January at the Baron's Court Theatre in West London.  I am playing Touchstone, which is one of Shakespeare's many well known characters and I am loving doing something completely different to panto.  I'm getting pretty good reviews too (as is the whole show) and it is nice to know that I am more than just panto!  That being said, one of the reasons I am in the show is a panto connection: Nicky Fox, who is playing Rosalind, and I were in Cinderella together at the Stockport Plaza five years ago.  She played Prince Charming and I was an Ugly Sister.  Whilst I have managed to get away without wearing a dress for this production I am pleased that some normality is in place as Nicky spends most of the play as a boy!  You'll have to come and see it to find out why!!!

I'm almost done seeing all my pantos for this season too!  When I've seen my last one be sure to tune in for my verdicts on what I saw.  They will be generally positive.  I want to work, after all....!

Thanks for listening.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Don't Judge Me

The Haven tour finished on a big note at Hafan Y Mor, which was the largest park we played. Sarah, who played the Fairy, found the guts to fly in for Act Two, which looked amazing! And we finished off the night with pyrotechnics! It was a great night and we went out on a massive high; then the next day we got up at 6am and drove back to London. And that was that.
Something that has always fascinated me is the way that shows just end. The scenery comes down, the costumes are packed and within a couple of hours it's as if nothing happened. Psychologically I find it a very similar experience too. I have the ability to move on quite quickly and I did exactly the same thing here.
Fortunately, I moved on to something that has been a secret yearning of mine since I first did panto in Sevenoaks: to be on the panel of Panto Factor! This is the competition where we find the leads for that Christmas. It is done in an X-Factor style, with a panel of judges who give feedback and tell you immediately whether you are recalled or not. 
When you watch it on YouTube, it all looks very easy and fun, but the reality is quite different! To be honest: it is a little bit boring; people tend to sing similar types of songs (I was really surprised at how many people chose slow, emotional, ballads - I know they're asked to bring two contrasting pieces, but they have to be panto suitable, right?!). I think we almost heard the entire score of Thoroughly Modern Millie! I was fine with that, because it was my first year - but Jasette Amos and Anna Kumble weren't so thrilled, being experienced Panto Factor judges!
The other problem is that we saw forty people in one day for Sevenoaks and eventually it becomes quite difficult to give feedback that is constructive to the contestants and interesting to the cameras. Anna got cross with me because I told one person that I was ambivalent to their performance. I think that was the most brutally honest thing I said - it wasn't sensationalist or enthusiastic: it was the absolute truth!
I am really pleased to have been a part of the process, because it is so useful to have a look from the other side of the table. The number of bad habits I saw that I have almost certainly demonstrated in auditions: apologising, dressing wrong, no eye contact / too much eye contact, obnoxiously confident, bad song, we saw them all. I also learnt from people that nailed the auditions: that were confident, but not arrogant; that smiled, but took the process seriously; carefully managed interaction with the panel after the audition. That last one is so important, especially as Anna and I are going to work with the winners. 
The final was very exciting! I bought a new outfit, including a sparkly belt where I think the sparkle will stay. I've gone through so many sequinned belt and the sequins never hold....! (is that a 'First World problem'?) The atmosphere was tense, but electric; and all the contestants surprised us in some way. The two we found: Rebecca Lauren (Robin Hood) and Alexandra da Silva (Maid Marian) are both beautiful and have lovely voices. They also look great together, which is lucky, as the first time time we saw them stood next to each other was when their names were revealed as the winners!
One of the things that impressed me most about the final was that every member of the cast was involved and even a lot of the production team. Anna Kumble and I were on the panel, Ant Payne was hosting, Andy Abraham provided the entertainment, Alan Fletcher sent a video message, Debbi Parks our MD was the accompianist, a lot of our regular dancers were in the audience and one of our regular techies, Rod Henderson, is now an intrinsic part of the Stag's running. I think that you would be really hard pressed to find another panto team that all came together in such a way to find two new members.

Anyway, if you have absolutely no idea what I've been rattling on about here are links to the episodes:

The Stag Auditions

The Pineapple Auditions

The Re-Calls

The Live Final

And Magic Beans did the same in Dunstable where they are producing for the first year. I was on the panel briefly, but for a majority of the process Leon Craig was the extra judge. I'll admit that I was pretty exceited to meet him and I am certain that he is going to be an awesome addition to the group!
Here's how it went in Dunstable:

The Grove Auditions

The Pineapple Auditions

The Re-Calls

The Live Final

And here's how our Sevenoaks winners look on the poster:

Friday, 23 August 2013

A Haven Treat

We're in a Travelodge on the A55 for our final day off of the week.  I've already been into Chester to help drop of seven people's laundry (not as much as you'd think!) and now the others have gone to see a film (possibly; we're an incredibly indecisive group so plans change regularly), but I thought I would hang back and explore the local area.  As it turns out, that has meant on my computer rather than leaving the hotel and the most local I am likely to get is the nearest supermarket.  That said, I have read that there are some lovely walks to be had and views to be seen for the person that can be bothered!  However, I thought I would spend my leisure time updating the old blog.
We have been having a really fun time on tour! It is quite a repetitve process doing the same show in the same eight venues each week; especially when you take into account staying in the same hotels (even seeing the same Reception staff in most cases!) and doing the same long journeys.  These circumstances aren't for everyone and on some days I've felt that they're not even for me; but I can't deny that I have had a really good time and I have been incredibly lucky with the people on my team.
I talk quite a lot in this blog about how the shows are going and the process and the blah, blah, blah... and I'm sure that is vaguely intersting to some people.  However, what has struck me on this contract is the absurd situations performers can find themselves in on and off stage.  I'll have to talk about the show at some point; but I thought it might be fun to share some of the things that happen offstage too!
  • The FUNNIEST thing that happened was on our first day off in Mold.  It's not unusual for actors to find themselves in the local Wetherspoons and on this day we did.  It is fairly unusual for them to be there without a drink; but believe it or not Sarah Jameson had drunk nothing alcoholic when she ended up, literally, face down on the floor after not noticing three steps that led into the next room.  This was followed by her jumping straight up and shouting: "don't worry boys, I'm taken!"  Yes, her head narrowly missed a table.  Yes, she could have broken her leg.  And yes, we all laughed about it for days afterward.
  • On days that we do a second show we like to take advantage of the glorious British Summer and hang some of our costumes outside.  This is fine until the weather remembers where it is and starts to rain again.  This happened at Hafan Y Mor and we were alerted to the fact by Charlotte Rhodes going to check her costume and returning with a blood curdling scream of: "It's rrraaaaiiinnniiiinnngggg!!!!", whilst not actually bringing anything in from the rain.
  • It was also Charlotte who, in jest, tried to block the doorway for our Cinders, Leah Lloyd to do her quick change.  All fun and games until Charlotte remembered that she had to get on stage herself and in her haste tripped over every prop she could and scattered them ar and wide.
  • We have a tray of cleaning products for some more traditional panto gags.  None of us had thought to empty them.  Not only did this leave Leah struggling to carry everything, it meant that at one performance we ended up with Cillit Bang all over the stage!  Nothing like ending Act One high and with bleach stains over everyones costumes.
  • There is a classic gag in Cinderella where one of the Ugly Sisters tries on the slipper using a false leg. There were a few times when I forgot to set this prop until the very last minute.  One day I set it and thought "that'll show them!".  It didn't.  When we came to do the scene the leg was no where to be seen.  After the show no one could find it.  This led to a public announcement asking for it's return.  The last we heard a three year old had been seen running around with it...but no one was sure where they had gone...
  • There's another common Ugly Sister gag that involves an extraordinarily long sock.  We do that one too...except one day when the sock got stuck around my calf and Christopher Chandler, our Buttons, managed to pull me off my seat, sending my wig flying and everyone else into fits of hysteria.
  • During Let it Be Charlotte, Chris and I are supposed to pop our heads out of the caravan at certain points.  When we play Lydstep the stage is so small that we can't use a caravan so we have to pop our head through the stage curtains.  This usually works fine, apart from when Charlotte couldn't find a gap and sang the chorus, with total commitment, to the curtain.
  • During the interval the Funstars give out activity sheets to keep the children occupied.  They say that a child audience is the most honest and this has been proven true.  In Lydstep we play in broad dayligh and on more than one occasion, in the second act, when I've looked across to the techs a child has been asking them to help with the activites!  That always makes me laugh!
These are just a few examples.  I'm sure there are more, but I'm equally sure that you 'needed to be there' to appreciate them too!
We only have a week left now and it is going to be shame not to be meeting the Funstar teams every week who have been really supportive of the show.  I admire the work they do so much.  I love performing for children and being part of a magical experience for them...but I don't think that I could entertain them on a regualr basis with the ease and enthusiasm that the Funstars do!  Not only that, but then they have to entertain adults too - I'd be all over the place.  I would definitely end up patronising someone by mistake! 
Anyway, before I go here are a few pictures taken by Lawrence Candler, one of our techs:

 Fairette and Cinders.
The Slipper Scene.  I didn't end up on the floor in this one.

Go West
Team Wales!
James Stratford, Chris, Leah, Sarah, Me, Lawrence and Charlotte

Thursday, 1 August 2013

It's a Panto Haven!

There are many ways that actors can look for jobs and as with most things, jobs pop up when you least expect it.  I have been very lucky to work quite consistently over the years, but I was beginning to wonder if I would find any work this year.  After using all the normal avenues for finding work: current contacts, Casting Call Pro, my agent and even writing old fashioned letters, it turned out to be a comment on Facebook that got me the job I am doing at the moment!  How random is that?
The choreographer of the show, Stuart Glover, left a message on a group called Panto Dames of the British Empire (a proper geeky group!) asking for Dames for the Summer Season.  I sent a message and didn’t think about it for a month until I got invited to audition.  To be honest, I’m glad that it happened this way round.  If I had seen the initial adverts for the type of performers they wanted I most probably would have run a mile.  The role I play was advertised as a ‘dramatic tenor’ and everyone needed to have an excellent standard of dance.  I have always thought I sing a bit and move well – but even at the audition I was doing things that I have run scared of for several years – all in the name of pantomime.  So, thanks to Stuart for letting me prove to myself that a little bit of self belief is all I need!
The show that I am doing is Cinders – the New Musical and I’m touring the Welsh Haven Holiday Parks (and two in Somerset!).  I am playing Cruella, Cinders’ Ugly Stepmother and we have a rather dashing Principle Boy played by Charlotte Rhodes – so on paper it is a pantomime.  However, almost the entire story is told through song, there is very little dialogue – so we’re getting into proper musical theatre territory.  There are some lovely new songs written specifically for the show, but a majority of the music is classic pop hits (I sing Hot Stuff and It’s Raining Men if that’s any indication of what to expect!) – so essentially it’s a pop concert.  In fact, it’s a very clever hybrid of all the things that Haven guests expect from their entertainment and sort of represents panto laid bare: its basic ingredients on display for all to enjoy!
You can imagine why I was daunted when I turned up on the first day of rehearsals.  Not least because I thought I’d signed on for a lovely little seaside tour!  I was even more daunted to discover that other people on the tours (there are several going to different parts of the country) had West End credits, significant experience in major cabaret venues – or were even people whose careers I have unwittingly followed through my massive panto flyer collection.  Danny Mills and Philippa Cole are two that I have in mind in this regard – both have made panto careers playing the opposite sex.  It’s quite rare to find such an experienced traditional Principle Boy and Pippa fits the mould perfectly!  The Buttons in my team, Chris Chandler, was in panto down the road from me, in Maidstone last Christmas and has just finished touring as Elwood in The Blues Brothers.  There was definitely more than one occasion when I wondered how long it would be before I was found out!
We rehearsed for about two and a half weeks and it was great to be in an environment where panto was taken seriously.  We spent five days (that’s FIVE days) rehearsing the songs and then the same amount rehearsing the choreography.  Both periods were challenging and neither skill took any prisoners.  In a lot of major pantomimes the singing and dancing seem secondary, even though they are a major part of the experience.  Often the lead performers don’t have skills in one or both of these areas and it comes down to the ensemble to fulfil these aspects of the performance.  However, on the Haven tours there are only five people in the cast, so we have to sing and dance (AND act too) to a high standard and I’m pleased to say that, despite some initial fears, I think I have met the challenge!
I think that it is so important for everything to be of a high standard in professional productions and it is a thrill to be taking a show out that meets my ideals.  It is even more exciting because the guests on the park simply don’t expect it.  We quite often get comments about how much fun it is (usually from the adults) and children are always transfixed.
We are all committed performers in my team which also includes Sarah Jameson as Fairette and Leah Lloyd as Cinders (even the techs James Stratford and Lawrence Candler are madly into the show!).  I think it proves that whatever the situation if you commit to the action, storytelling and onstage relationships you can put on a good panto anywhere!  That was certainly the case on Brittany Ferries with their pantomimes and it is absolutely the case in Sevenoaks too!
We’ve got another four weeks of shows to do – so expect updates – but not too many!