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...
Generally, Easter pantos shy away from the common pantomime cannon; but, as everyone knows, plot is incredibly important! When Jamie Wilson was discussing ideas for possible titles I did put in a little effort to dissuade him from choosing Alice in Wonderland, as it's very episodic (and I've never liked an episodic story!) Then, before rehearsals, I read the novel and discovered there was absolutely no story! To be honest, I can't find a very good reason for it being such a classic piece of literature. Controversial?! However, Jamie has done an excellent of job of making it coherent and interesting. The script also contains lots of references to the book's original dialogue; so there's every chance this might be the most intelligent pantomime I've been in!
It's Not in Sevenoaks
Half of my pantomime career has been spent as one of the principle comedy characters at one venue. Before I started playing Dame at Sevenoaks I had been an ASM and an Ugly Sister, so had never felt a massive weight of responsibility for the laughs. However, after five years at Sevenoaks, Ant Payne (AKA Silly Billy, AKA Mad Hatter) and I have honed our comic chops beautifully, but in front of the same people. We know what a Sevenoaks audience will respond to and how to work them if it's not getting the responses we want. Until Friday, we had absolutely no idea what an audience outside of Sevenoaks would think. I felt the struggle slightly in the first performance, but now I'm confidant that Ant and I are funny away from the Stag Theatre too!
There are definite differences between a Sevenoaks and Gravesend audiences, from the sort of gags they respond to and even down to the way they dress (which I can't believe I noticed!!). However, there are also similarities: enthusiastic responses, tears of laughter and real warmth towards the show. I'm looking forward to us coming back for Christmas and really building a relationship with the audience like we did in Sevenoaks.
The real test, of course, is to see how we go down in the rest of the venues. Watch this space....!
Paul Daniels is in it
I have been very lucky to work with a lot of people that I admire from television and theatre whose work encouraged me to become a performer. It's exciting when you meet them, but it also makes me really nervous. Sometimes it hasn't gone terribly well either:
- Moments after meeting Shane Lynch from Boyzone I laughed hysterically in his face and went as red as it is possible to go, followed by actual tears from laughing.
- A few days after meeting Hattie Hayridge (Red Dwarf) I shouted some very offensive swear words at her. In reality I was irritated with myself forgetting some lines during a scene; but she had the courtesy to not bat an eyelid, laugh politely and carry on!
- Before even being introduced to him I said "Good moaning" to Arthur Bostrom from 'Allo, 'Allo! whose catch phrase on the show was.... "Good moaning".
And now I'm faced with meeting Paul Daniels AND Debbie McGee who are actual living legends. What's the problem you ask? Well, they've seen me in pantomime twice, with Paul's son Martin Daniels, and also in Soap Opera and all three times I have actively avoided meeting them because I've been too nervous.
I'm pleased to report that, as yet, I haven't made any social misdemeanours in front of them and they could not be better people to work with. There are moments when I honestly can't believe I am in the same room as them, especially when they're telling stories about everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Tommy Cooper and Stevie Wonder to Arthur Askey; but on these occasions I just scurry off to Ant or Laura-Jane Matthewson and unleash my surprise on them.
It does help that they're massively nice, down-to-earth and friendly people too! As is Steve Hewlett who plays Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. I've never worked with a ventriloquist before and I am constantly astounded at the scale of Steve's talents - no social faux pas yet there either...so far so good!
There's Two Men Dressed as Women
This is a situation I've been in before. Not in a weird way - strictly professional! When I've played Ugly Sister there's been two of us and that's normal, we work together, everything is fine. However, when I found out that Leon Craig was playing the Queen of Hearts I did feel a little anxious because we're both dames and we're both used to being the only one and we play the character really differently. I was also worried about having another dame in the room, looking at what I do, how I work, judging me maybe....who knows?!? As it turns out, my fears were completely ridiculous and all of the reasons that I was anxious work in our favour. Our characters in the show are very different and both of them suit the way that we play our dame. Leon is incredibly funny and very comfortable to be around and I'm pleased that the opportunity to work together was created - otherwise our paths would have just kept crossing!!
So, now you know that you have absolutely nothing to worry about...what are you waiting for?! BOOK YOUR TICKETS!!! All the dates are available at www.aliceinwonderlandtour.co.uk. Let us know if you're coming!!