Kenneth More Theatre 2009/10

 

Part One

A Dame’s Diary- I didn’t expect I’d be writing that title, and I didn’t think I’d be writing a Panto Journal in August.. but I’ve had a few requests to record a log, or a blurb or maybe now it’s an extended twitter (?) regarding my preparations for Dame-Hood. So here we are.

A few folks out there asked me what sort of things I’d be doing, preparing for my first Dame role in panto, so I’ll be putting down my idle ramblings from time to time as a prelude to the Panto Diary proper, which starts rehearsal week Monday 7th December.

The Pantomime is to be “Snow White”, the venue-The Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, and my role will be Dame Dolly Dumpling.

Already in this diary I’ve hit a snag! When it comes to the Kenneth More Theatre- or KMT for short- and its pantomimes, I’ve already got a bit of a track record. Each year for nearly thirty years I’ve written the pantos here, and designed the costumes. I can’t really separate the different elements in a diary, so I’m afraid you’ll have to get a glimpse of all them as the months progress. Three different hats here this year, all heading for a pantomime that will open on Thursday  December 17th December and run until Saturday January 23rd 2010.

SISTER or DAME: Is There A Difference?

This is a question I’ve been asked a few times. In one way there is not a great deal of difference- both are larger than life characters, both usually on the hunt for an eligible man (or just one who is breathing will suffice!) and being a comedian in a frock.

I suppose the main difference as I see it is that the Sisters, while (hopefully) being funny, are also the villains on the piece. Peter & I used to describe playing “Sister” as walking a tightrope between comedy and villainy. You had to establish that you were funny and likeable on the outset, and then, when you had the confidence of the audience, you could hit them between the eyes by being breathtakingly nasty to poor Cinderella.

The Dame is often someone’s Mother, or a nursemaid- a laundress. She is not a villain, and although she might have her failings- money is usually one of them, she is essentially a good soul at heart, and has more comedy in her repertoire.

I’ve spent nearly thirty years being very privileged- I was  part of a double act. “Sisters” work as a team. Sisters are a partnership. A Collective. The “Borg” of Panto perhaps! As “Sisters” the comedy is bounced back and forth between you, and the comedy is often based on a sharper humour than you would expect from a Panto Dame. Sisters cut each other down to size constantly, and Peter and I were always aware of sharing the tag-lines, so it never became “Straight Man/Funny Man”, but was an equal split of the punch lines.

The Pantomime Dame is a solo Dame creation, not part of a double act, but then truthfully never alone. When I first thought about playing Dame I imagined myself on the stage alone- solo- telling jokes. Then I remembered all the scripts I’ve written. The Dame may well address the audience on the first entrance, but a Dame is not a stand up comedian. The Dame is part of a company. The Ensemble. The Dame communicates with the Principal Boy, the Comic, The Villain, The Squire..  Yes I will no longer be part of a double act, but I won’t be alone out there bleating on for hours!

The Wardrobe Is The Same- Right?

Each year I costume Dames, not just for the KMT, but for Dames around the country. I had no misgivings that I would have everything I need as Dame in my wardrobe. Sister costumes do not automatically work as Dame costumes.

I took a good hard look at my costumes, and immediately saw some I could use as Dame (The “Objects” especially- something both Sister and Dame share on stage- Costumes that resemble Deckchairs, Pastries, Ice-Creams, Furniture or small landing craft all work perfectly well!). Other costumes of mine would not be suitable in some Dame roles. The very glitzy ritzy sparkly costumes might have a look in (in fact I’m certain they will!) but a Dame can often be a poor widow woman, so the odd patched frock won’t go amiss!

I’ve decided that I need about six new costumes at least, and will hope to use perhaps four or five of my existing costumes. A total of twelve changes. As this diary progresses I’ll try and give an idea of the preparation that goes into not just making a Dame, but putting the panto together- like playing Dame that too is team work. An ensemble.

This part of the diary might be a bit erratic, and as far as dates are concerned, I can only be vague- the panto preparation for the KMT has been going on now for a good few months, and the same goes for pantomimes all over the country. In fact, almost as soon as one finishes, the management and producers start working on the next one!

Part Two

Putting It Together:

Before continuing, I have already noticed a change since the last entry. I blithely announced my Dame was to be Dame Dolly Dumpling. Change of heart, change of culinary delight- I’m now Dame Dolly Doughnut!

It was fellow Dame Christopher Marlowe who said to me “You’re not a Dumpling- you’re a Doughnut, and you know what? He’s right! Dumpling had connotations of a rosy cheeked pleasantly plump Nursemaid to Snow White. I’m much more the Krispy Kreme of the Dame family, and thanks to Chris for telling me so!

When did the panto process begin? It began surprisingly as “Sleeping Beauty”. Like most theatre in the UK the KMT tends to work on a five or six year cycle of pantomimes. Everything got thrown into touch in the year 1999-2000 when a lot of theatres chose “Cinderella” a perfect millennium subject, and the cycle got a bit askew. Here at Ilford we were thinking in terms of “Sleeping Beauty”, and then discovered that a theatre nearby had done this subject the previous year, and there was a possibility of another one being announced, so we moved up a year to “Snow White”.

Once the panto subject is chosen (I think we mutually agreed it in late February, early March) I tend to wander around with ideas for the panto on the back burner. I have the very fortunate position of being both writer and designer for the pantomimes at the KMT. This really helps, because it means I can think costumically and adapt the script to fit those ideas, or visa versa. Usually you don’t have such a luxury.

There is always a previous script and production to refer to here. We are on pantomime number 35 I believe, and as a rule I tend to write the pantomime more or less from scratch, with very little “cut and paste”, just so that it keeps it fresh for us here. When you tour a pantomime to a different venue each year you can generally keep to the same script (and update and localise it) and use the same set of costumes. At the KMT we have the same audiences each year coming to see the pantomime, so it has to be a new experience each time.

THE COSTUMES

I tend to think costumes first- what would I like to see new, and what can we use from stock. Our store holds a good few thousand costumes ranging from “Aladdin” through to “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Dick Whittington”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and it is possible to dip into any of these subjects with the exception of “Cinderella”- 18th Century and “Aladdin”- Oriental when costuming a panto.

This season I began with the Finale (or “Walk down”)- deciding to use one I have in stock already, and supplementing it by replacing three costumes, and adding  a few extras. It’ll be a blue and gold finale with an interesting tale to the fabric!

Nearly all the fabric in this set is heavily printed in shiny gold. I bought the entire stock from Borovicks in The West End a few years ago, and used it for “Dick Whittington”. Their stock consisted of three rolls of fabric that had been designed or sampled for Disney. They wanted to use it in their outdoor parades. The fabric, it turned out was not waterproof, and, since we don’t have a leaking roof at Ilford, Euro Disney’s loss was my gain!

I also knew I needed new dwarf costumes- the previous ones had done one season here, and several seasons on hire to other theatres. It was time to remake these. They were the first things bought on the 2009 panto budget- I bought the material around May. Lots of bright colours in cotton drill, corduroy, cotton and velvet, along with matching linings.  Our dwarfs here are played by children- fourteen in fact! The regulations are very strict as to how how many performances children can do in theatre, and how many hours they can miss school under their licences. This means every theatre will use two sets of juveniles, and often three. They share the roles, and often the costumes, so the “pairs” have to be carefully measured so that the costumes will fit each one.

As well as costumes the children have padded body-suits beneath the costume. This involves foam. Not just any foam, but I think “reticulated” foam! Trying to locate this special foam caused problems. I could get it, no problem, but the minimum order from the factory was for about 100 metres. Enough to wrap the entire theatre in foam! Once again the Panto Dame network was called upon, and I made several calls to my mate Chris Hayward to try and track the elusive foam. Chris makes beautiful costumes not just for himself but for theatre companies around the globe, and he can price a pheasant plume at sixty feet!

Dwarf Buttons. You wouldn’t think they could be a problem, but how often do you find buttons the size of  ping-pong balls? You do in Belgium!  The dwarf heads, beautifully made by Mark Wheeler several years ago have been completely refurbished, and foam, fabrics and buttons dispatched to Southampton for making.

I’m fairly confident that the Prince’s costumes will come from stock, give or take a few items. We have a large collection of both male and female Principal Boys in our store. His boots will be made (as will the dancers) in a theatrical shoe factory down the road in Barking, which incidentally is the home of Dame Boots nowadays!

I’m very lucky to have quite a good healthy budget for costumes each year. This is partly due to the fact that we hire out sets of costumes each year, and can use that money to help boost the coffers. We also need to have new costumes each year because, as I said, we attract the same audiences. Each year we have to try and outdo the previous year if we possibly can. I’m a firm believer in having at least one scene that makes the eyeballs burn with an excess of sequins! This year it should be the end of act one and the Ballroom that take the honours.

An IBY Exclusive this- the ballroom will not be as traditional as one might expect- it’s a chance for a bit of costumic fun, and a healthy helping of  glitz! I may well be found wandering about in the middle of it all in something outrageous and expensive, but more of that later!

By July I had started to put these ideas down on paper, and started sketching in earnest. Sketches are very important- it clarifies what it is that you want the maker to know, and gives you a better view of what the finished product will be. A sketch can be rough, it can be elaborate, but at the end of the day it is the makers guide to your intentions as designer. I try to scribble down everything I can think of on the makers copy- “Braid 2” on cuff and sleeve”, “This is tricot- not a body stocking”, Crin wire inserted here, pannier on top” and so on.

I cheat my sketches by the way! It takes me far too long to draw the body and then design the clothes to go on top of the sketched body, so trace the body from ready made shapes. It saves me hours, and the proportions are always correct. I know before I put pencil to paper what I want. The sketch is my ways of letting the maker know my thoughts.

BUYING FABRICS

The bulk of my buying this year was done in Birmingham. Having had the pleasure of doing two pantomimes at the Hippodrome, I’ve been able to explore the fabrics shops there, and it nearly always comes up trumps for me. The buying trip is spread over two days, this year it was during July.

I started in one fabric shop at just after 11am, and apart from an hours break for lunch, remained there until 5pm. This was mostly buying fabrics for the opening scene- both children and adult dancers as Villagers, and buying the Wicked Queen’s fabrics, Fabrics for myself as Dame, and a large quantity of linings- everything has to be lined to withstand the rigours of a panto run. Polycotton linings, calico, cotton drills- often costing as much as the outer fabric!

The following day spent in a bigger fabric warehouse until mid afternoon, buying the bulk of the velvets, silk and some of the boldest, loudest fabrics for yours truly. A good day’s work and that left an hour to do The Bullring before returning to London.

That fabric is now in Southampton, in Southend and in assorted places around the country. Each maker has enough to keep them busy for quite a while- Margaret Brice will be making my opening costume- just as she did when Peter & I first played “Sister” at Ilford twenty-eight years ago, Marie will be making Dwarfs and Villagers, and Angela will be making the bulk of the rest. The Sequinned costumes will be created by Mr Bahal at his “Taurus” workshop – and some will be made in his workshop in India. All in all a cosmopolitan affair!

This, you see is how I ended up standing in a vast emporium of costumes in Westcliff wearing a bra and heels on a hot summer’s day, and why I ended up on display (virtually) in Mr Bahal’s shop, in the West End, squeezed in among racks of sequinned gowns, feather headdresses and boas- dressed in a plain white three quarter length sequinned dress. Not my colour, not my style- not my dress! It was to give us an idea of the fit before the proper one was made.

That was the day I went to get trimmings again. Never underestimate the cost of trimmings. 25 meters of braid, 18 metres of coq ostrich trim and a bag of buttons can set you back a fair bit. I wandered into a shop I’ve not been in for years. Bless them, I thought.. Credit crunch. I shall give them my patronage and buy six 26” open ended nylon zips.

“That’ll be £17.90” the lady said. I proffered a twenty pound note.

“Each”

“Beg Pardon?!- EACH?” “What are they- Solid Gold??”

“They’re very special. For the Theatre. Quick Change…”

I made my excuses and left, and bought the exact same zips for Three Pounds a piece up the road. Now I remember why I didn’t shop there any more!

Amongst all the sketching, and buying and endless list-making I had to come back to reality. In this world of panto it is sometimes easy to forget there is a real world out there, with real tasks to be done. One of these was dispatching Daisy the Cow in her crate to Aylesbury- she’ll be enjoying the festive season there. The man from DHL was early, and as I was cramming her horns into the basket  had a moment of panto Déjà vu- Should I throw away the beans or keep the cow….?

The real world involves your mates turning up, having a cuppa, and then ten minutes later you have them standing there dressed as a cooker, choosing the costumes they’re hiring for this year’s festivities. There are the press calls to costume early, and at the back of your mind you keep hearing rhyming couplets – “You ARE the fairest in the land” because Jason wants the Mirror dialogue written and recorded before he can animate the magic mirror which will be proje….Ah! Too many IBY exclusives in one session!

So- the costumes are underway. What does that leave?  The script has to be written, and casting- auditions need to be organised, there are a few segments that need to be put on film- ah, but we need the costumes and the actors before we can do the film sequences.. back to my many lists!  A pantomime is put on in ten days, but the only way that can happen is if all the pieces of the puzzle are ready at the start of those ten brief days.

Next diary- time for those auditions and the script I think!

Part Three

THE SCRIPT

When it comes to writing a panto script, one of the things that inspire you to action is seeing the panto on sale! With the box office open and selling tickets in July the warning bells go off!

Traditionally I chain myself to the desk during August, and vanish off the face of the planet for about ten days. This year I decided to try a different tack. Writing a script at home can be difficult. It’s sunny, the birds are singing, the lawn needs mowing- any excuse not to sit indoors writing rhyming couplets for the transformation!

This time around I went into the theatre each day, and set up “shop” there. Sitting at a desk near the box office I was spurred on by the ticket sales as I typed!

There is a formula to script writing, and Pantomime scripts have a formula that dictates why scenes are where they are, and when certain characters appear in the story-line. Obviously the story is the most important feature. When all is said and done the panto has to have a strong story-line. Children are the harshest critics, and you leave out certain parts of a familiar tale at your peril!

By the tie I start the script I’ve worked out in my mind what I want to see where, and checked the scenic plot. It is important to know what bars your cloths are flown on when you write a script- this means you can work out how much room you have for the actors to work on.

It is no good writing a hectic fight scene if you later find out it has to take place in a front cloth, with eight foot of space to put your entire cast on! Traditionally- but not always these days- a scene that involves the full stage, or half stage (with a lot of the cast on) will be followed by a “Front Cloth” scene. This means that the previous scene can be “struck”- removed that is, while the action continues in front. Front cloth scenes can involve a comedy routine that needs very little space- a throw back to variety theatre I suppose.

Variety had a lot of routines that comedians brought with them, and took them into panto with them each year. Comics would offer up routines like “The Busy Bee”,” The Fifty Pee Gag”, “The Echo Gag” or “The Tree Of Truth” when there was an opportunity , and generally this took place while a larger scene was being constructed or taken apart. The Front cloth is still seen today, but nowadays producers might prefer a more “television” approach- a “Wipe” so to speak where, if possible the action is not held up while scenery changes.

Also a lot of that old time honoured “Front Cloth” gags are no longer used. Some still work, and others have seen better times. Sadly, with no variety theatre any more, there will be no new front cloth “scenas” or routines to be seen.

So- you have your plot (based on the original fairy story or fable) and you have worked out the order of scenes- avoiding writing characters into a scene when they are meant to be changing!

Writing any script, but especially Farce or Pantomime, you need to keep your actors in your thoughts as if they are pieces on a chess board. You have to be aware that at any given moment in a pantomime, half the cast- especially the chorus will be backstage changing their costume. The Principal girl may be imprisoned by the Giant, the Cat may be fighting King Rat, but someone somewhere will be half naked and listening to the tannoy on the wall.

Songs have always been used in pantomime to cover changes of both costume and scenery. Ballet and transformation dances have covered Aladdin getting changed into his splendid robes, or Cinderella legging it across the back of the stage before breathlessly hitting her mark as the pyro explodes and reveals her in her ball gown.

It is one big chess board- the Dame will need to change about eleven times (or more, judging by the many amazing costume changes that will be happening in Newcastle or Birmingham this season!) The dancers and juveniles will be onstage for a few minutes and then will be hurtling upstairs to change into the next set of costumes with only a brief three minute song to cover.

Then of course you have to try and be fair to everyone, and, as you write the script you think “oh dear- now I haven’t seen “him” or “her” on stage for a while- I must write them in an extra bit.. that is how you invariably end up with a script that runs for two hours forty five minutes- and only two hours twenty minutes will end up being performed.

The night of a thousand cuts can be very painful to the author, the artistes and the crew- the actors have rehearsed a scene, scenic artists have painted the cloth, and now it has to go! It is far far better to cut as much as you can before rehearsals if possible.

This year I KNEW I had written at least ten, maybe fifteen minutes too much panto by the time it was finished. I went over it several times trimming little bits here, a word there.. I tried the old trick of squashing the text together to make the script have fewer pages! Finally you knuckle down and cut something out that gains you the time.

Ten days to two weeks after the painful process began, it is finished. Popped on to a disc, added to a dongle, and, you know what? You’ll probably not give it a second glance until you need it for reference. Done and dusted!

THE CAST

The Kenneth More has a regular cast of performers who appear in pantomime here frequently- in fact one, Robert Quarry has appeared in every single panto here at Ilford since we opened the doors back in 1975. That’s 35 consecutive pantomime appearances in the same venue- a record perhaps?

Quite often our Princes and our Fairies, our  Villains and our Dames will return for several years to the KM Family, and a visit to the KMT’s website- www.kenneth-more-theatre.co.uk  will give a glimpse into the many faces who return year after year, as well as the new comers. Panto enthusiasts will find the section giving the cast lists of most of the thirty five year pantomimes a treasure trove.

This year our cast will be joined by four panto artistes - oh, and one Dame! Although I haven’t appeared in panto here since 1981, when Peter and I first “got our act together”, I had appeared previously in Fur and in Feather- in “Mother Goose” in 1976 (with Jonathan Kiley as Principal Boy!) and in Puss In Boots in 1979.

Each time I appeared at the KMT I played the same role somewhere else as a result- Mother Goose here led to playing the role the following two years at Leicester Haymarket and Coventry Belgrade, and Puss In Boots led to playing the part at St Albans the following year- with Hilary O’Neil in her first pantomime Principal Boy role!

“You don’t want to be type-cast!”

Actually, in pantomime- you do! With pantomime characters being what they are, it actually pays to have a label on you when going up for pantomime. During the audition process the panel (who believe me are never, and will never be like the X Factor or Strictly judges!) can be heard to discuss “I think that she’s much more boy than girl..” or “No, he’s definitely more Wishee than Aladdin”..

The label helps in pantomime. It helps to define what it is you go up for. An actress who is tall and has a good singing voice would, a few years ago, have been seen as Principal Boy. If she was 5’6” plus she stood a good chance of auditioning for Prince Charming, or Dandini, or Colin The Miller’s Son..

A shorter actress at say 5’3” (or even a “soubrette”- I don’t know if that word exists today?) would still be considered for “Boy”, but more likely as “Aladdin”- but there are exceptions. Both Jan Hunt and Barbara Windsor, for example played “Aladdin” frequently, but Barbara also played Dick Whittington and Jack, while Jan often played Prince Charming.

All that has changed now. Cilla Black turned the tide back to Girls as Boys when she played “Boy” in panto, just as (Sir) Norman Wisdom and (Sir) Cliff Richard turned the tide from girls to boys playing boys- both at the Palladium. Today tall girls are more likely to be cast opposite taller male Principal Boys. At the moment it is the men’s turn to play the role, but (look at Imagine’s casting this season) there is still room for a good Principal Boy played by a girl.

It really can be as simple as a question of height. When choreographers get a room full of dancers (each as talented as the next) it can often be a question of “pairing” up girls and boys for panto ensemble in terms of height, if the abilities are all taken as read.

This year at the KMT we were auditioning for a male Principal Boy and a Principal Girl to play Prince and Snow White. We were also casting for two Ensembles, one male and one female, who would cover roles and, as we often do at Ilford, play small roles when required. The criteria for casting our Snow White were simple. She had to be much taller than the dwarfs, played by children!

The tallest of our children (remember, two teams of seven, alternating, and cast again not just for ability but with a view to matching their opposites ) would be about 4’7” but wearing the full overhead mask and hat, the tallest “dwarf” would be more like 4’11”. Our Principal Girl would have to be preferably over 5’5” to 5’8”. Ideally you might look for a brunette, to fit in with the job description, but that was not a casting requirement.

We put the word around for casting, and held auditions at the theatre on two days in total. Vivyan, who will be directing and presenting the pantomime has always preferred to hold auditions in the most informal and relaxed way possible. There is no long walk from the door to the distant figures behind a desk- we hope the audition process will be as relaxing as possible, with ample time for those attending (at given time slots- half an hour each) to warm up and to read through the short extracts from the scripts we provide.

The audition panel might be made up of  four or five people- Director, Choreographer, Assistant Director , Musical Director, and this year (due to lack of our rehearsal room during repainting) w held the auditions on stage.

Auditioning for Panto is obviously more like auditioning for a musical than for a play- if the part requires singing and dancing. Asking an artiste to bring along one of their own audition speeches is not likely, as you are more likely to be given an extract of script to read. You would be asked to bring along two numbers to sing- one up beat, and possibly one ballad.

The order of auditioning at Ilford might well be to spend ten minutes alone with the pianist going over your music (since he will have not seen it before, and the tempo can be set) then the panel comes in, you perform one song, possibly two, and then read-perform  opposite someone from the panel from the different extracts of script.

After that its time for an informal chat – this might involve going through the CV that you’ve brought along with you- and then half an hour has passed, and it is time for the next person to meet up with the pianist.

It is definitely not like the sketch show type of audition where people declaim “Alas poor Yorick”, or an X Factor nightmare where you get stopped four bars into a song!

This year we were faced with an extremely difficult task- the quality of artistes was so high that it became very difficult to make a decision. Yes, height does come into it to a certain degree, but with so much talent displayed we had an agonising few days deciding.

At the end we have completed the casting and this year we’ll be joined by Ellie Robertson as Snow White, Michael Conway as Prince, and Nathan Daniel (who I worked with at the Birmingham Hippodrome in “Cinderella”) along with Jocelyn Prah.

I look forward to seeing them all again shortly, because since the auditions their costumes have started to be made. Fairly soon it will be time for fittings, and the odd “press call”.

This evening, between typing up this section of the diary I have been ordering shoes for the panto- pondering on how the world has changed since I started costuming pantomimes back in the ‘70’s. Tonight I e-mailed a shoe factory in Barking, and paid for four pairs of shoes that will be dispatched from China, and arrive here (give or take a postal strike) in ten days time. They might bump into the costumes en route from India (where else would my Carmen Miranda be made?) and the odd feather from Belgium!

Since writing the last section of this Dame’s Diary I’ve been to visit Kevin and Gerry to get my new wigs ordered- I think I’m in a queue behind several Dames who got themselves together earlier!) and have attended the Qdos Churchill launch at the Lyric Theatre last Monday.

The pictures of the launch are on the site- and very sumptuous they are too- Michael Harrison met his harem of Dames – eight of us and showed us to or luxury VIP changing area- Eight Dames, low energy bulbs, one mirror.. you can imagine!- and we had a great time. Churchill is a star- the (dare I say it?) Puppet is fabulous, and he will get many a cheer in his panto debut this season. He must be a whippet by nature, as he has to appear in 22 pantos, at the same time. That gives you paws for thought eh? (sorry.. but it IS panto- Oh Yes!).

We all had a great time meeting up with chums- in no particular order there was Chris Hayward, Linda Lusardi, Andrew Ryan, Paul Zerdin, Shane Ritchie, Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins, Joe Pasquale, Brian Godfrey, Ceri Dupree, Steve Arnott and yours truly.

I got to preview my new make-up too- it might not look that much different, but, for the first time in very many years my make-up has changed. The base is darker, the purples have been replaced by Blues, the fuchsia with red and a few other colour changes that I think soften the “Sister” look into “Dame”. Well, I hope so anyway. It might end up as a work in progress!

Well, this month- October, things are starting to come together. The scripts are being bound and will be sent out shortly , Costumes are now well underway, with some arriving from the makers next week. Headdresses and shoes are ordered, the parts of the script that had to be recorded have been done- so the Spirit of the Mirror and the dwarfs now have voices- the props are well underway too- the cottage itself is getting a new exterior in a week or so, and we’ll be having another meeting next week to discuss the music we’ll be having in the show. We’re still waiting to see if there’s a sure-fire Christmas hit on the way, or a chart topper to put in at the last minute.

As the nights draw in I realise also that it’s almost time for the Panto Road show to go out again, and we’ll visit Bradford and then Wolverhampton- it’ll be on the road from November 8th until November 21st, organised as ever by Ian Sandy.

Part Four

Halloween, clocks going back, Bonfire Night....all the things that signal to me that pantomime is not far off. In fact, next week Nottingham Playhouse will begin their panto rehearsals, heralding the start of the season.

Here I’m bogged down with lists! Lists that begat lists! In the main the lists are about costumes. Not mine, but the show in general. There are still a few stray items to be tracked down, and a few items trapped in the postal strikes, and a few items that have yet to be purchased. I thought I’d finished buying fabric about a month ago, but just today I bought 5 metres to finish off a costume that has been neglected.

The good news is that the children are more or less completed, and their costumes arrived this week. Hot from Marie’s sewing machine came seven dwarfs, and seven villagers- all faithful to the design that was sent way back in June. That is the chief skill of a costumier- that amazing ability to look at a sketch and to recreate the drawing in fabric, in the right size and at the right time! It is an incredible talent.

The children will also be appearing as mini Carmen Mirandas (don’t start- it’s pantomime! I know Snow White doesn’t generally involve going South American, but its MY script and I’m sticking to it!). Their costumes also arrived this week, and very beautiful they are too, thanks to the workshops of Mr Bahal. The entire scene is going to drip sequins and fruit and veg.( yes I know- how the carrots and artichokes got on the headdresses I don’t know..).and as long as I remain upright on my block shoes and four foot headdress, it should be quite spectacular!

So, the children have nearly everything now- the fittings will have to wait until I return from the Pantomime Roadshow. It takes a long time to do the juveniles fittings- fourteen children and five changes of costume. Also you can’t rush the smaller children when it comes to trying on the full head masks- they need to get used to wearing them, and, of course they have to show everyone else what they look like. I usually have a team of three or four to organise and set aside three hours for the fittings.

The panto Roadshow goes off for a few weeks next week- we’re spending a week with Bradford schools for the Alhambra, and a week in Wolverhampton for the Grand Theatre. Andrew Ryan and Jody Crosier will be joining me on this jaunt, and we’ve set aside Friday and Saturday to rehearse and to sort out our scenery and costumes. I’m planning to take the “Snow White” script with me, and use the next two weeks to learn lines when we’ve finished the shows. I know I’ve written it, but I can swear that it might as well have been penned by someone else, as none of it has gone into the brainbox as yet!

By the time I return all the costumes should have arrived at the Kenneth More, and the remainder of the fittings will be arranged for the week of November 22nd. I’m really hoping (but not expecting!) that the week before rehearsals begin will be free for me to just think about me. “More about me!” .. but I’ll probably end up in the theatre each day labelling costumes. The one thing I am certain about is, on the day rehearsals begin in our studio, that is the day I cease to be costumier and author!

If I remain Author, every change or cut or alteration to the script will sting! I’m not normally at rehearsals for Ilford to witness this, and so my writer’s hat will be firmly off! As for being costumier- There is no chance I can sort out everyone else’s problems as I will be getting used to some changes of my own. About twelve of them in fact! A lot that I have never done before.

At the moment my wigs are away being created, or “Stewed and Glued” as Peter used to say- my costumes are still in the hands of the makers, and I end up in Toys'R'us looking for a cowboy holster for a child in the Toyroom scene at 7.30pm at night, having set up all the costumes ready to fit Owen (Smith) and Nathan (Daniel) tomorrow afternoon. Their boots and shoes are still not with me, and those will have to wait until rehearsal week.

As I was buried in net and sequin, unpacking two boxes containing costumes and accessories that had arrived, one of the Front Of House Ushers at the Kenneth More passed by. “Do you know”, she said “I don’t think people have a clue how much work goes into a pantomime!”. Hopefully if they read this diary they’ll get an inkling! It is true though- all over the country at this moment there are hundreds of people engaged in the same things as me. Val and Theresa at Qdos HQ in Scarborough will have the gargantuan task of sending out 22 sets of costumes to theatres all over the country- the only way that this can be done is by preparation- and tons of skill and practice! Wardrobe staff everywhere are pulling together all those final loose threads literally as rehearsals approach.

During an afternoon when the Wicked Queen’s collar was being constructed, a box arrived at the Theatre. Beautifully packed. A mystery box. Acres of bubblewrap later the mystery was revealed- A beautiful print of the Churchill Press Launch with Eight panto lovelies, blown up and mounted on canvas! What a wonderful surprise gift from Michael Harrison- Thank you Michael-Your Churchill Dames thank you deeply!

 Incidentally, what would you call a collection of Dames? You have a pack of this, a clutch of that.. I’m fairly certain you have a Shriek of something..what is a good collective for the Dames of The British Empire? I’d say answers on a postcard, but you know what the post is like just now.. I have four pairs of  salsa shoes and three scary old crone latex masks floating about out there, and don’t get me started on the crate of eyelashes I’m still awaiting…!!

I had a message from Dame Peter Thorne this week- Peter is spending his Christmas season in Spain this year, and  sends greetings to everyone he’s worked with in panto- Ant and Dec no less, to name but two! Peter pointed out to me the huge importance of  ensuring audience participation goes into the pantomime scripts. He talked about never under estimating the effect of a ghost gag done well, and involving the children whenever possible.

In a week’s time we’ll be well into the Pantomime Roadshow. If all goes to plan as usual we’ll have played to about 3,000 children by the Friday afternoon, some of  them will have experienced pantomime for the first time in their lives. For a great many of them it will possibly be their pantomime- we are in a recession, and for some the annual trip to the panto may have to be curtailed for now. I do hope not, and, in fact it does look as if panto bookings are stable, and in some cases have increased. Peter Thorne is right though- we will be involving the schoolchildren of Bradford and Wolverhampton in a taste of Pantomime, explaining something Peter (Robbins) used to put so well.

 In the “Q&A” session in the second half of our Roadshow he would tell the children that they- the audience-were an additional character in the panto- and that their responses were as important as any of the actor’s lines. He used to ask them if they would enjoy what they had just seen (our roadshow show) as much if they watched it on their own on a DVD- the response was always the same- it’s the sheer joy and fun of watching it with your mates joining in that makes it so special.

Well.. for now I have three days to wade through some of my” to be done” lists, then panto preparation goes on the back burner until we return from Wolverhampton- except for learning the lines that is! Looking forward to the Alhambra and the Grand, with a trip to Birmingham Bullring to finish!

Part Five

A Dames Diary on tour

I find it hard to believe that I’ve been putting on a panto roadshow for what must be over twelve years now. The time has flown. This autumn one is short and sweet, with the delights of Bradford and then Wolverhampton, and something like 6,000 children will have watched it by the end of the fortnight.

Two shows a day in two different schools, with short journeys in between. A lot of support from both the Alhambra and the Grand theatres, and hopefully the box offices will see a return from the goodwill, and, if not, at least schools that might not be able to afford a trip this year will have had a flavour of panto for a morning, or an afternoon.

I’ve been using the evenings to look at the script and to rehearse the “Mirror” routine- tutored by Andrew Ryan.  I’m not what you might call a “natural” mover- a very un-natural one in fact, and having taken pride in timing a gag, it is a challenge to do a routine that is all movement, and no vocalising! I really want to get it into my brain so that I have it off pat when we start rehearsing. It is a “double”, obviously- a routine where one character literally mirrors the other, and Robert Quarry will be opposite me. I want to give Robert as little hassle as possible too!

I’ve also been able to pick up a few missing items for the show in the stores- the wig for the Fairy, Gold trainers for Muddles, and have kept in touch with costumiers as we travel the country. Andrew and Jody are also taking the opportunity to learn songs and scripts for their respective pantomimes during the evenings, The shows are tiring, but the worst part is when it rains on arrival and departure- a soggy “get-in” and “get-out” is never fun.

Today’s Panto Roadshow took an unexpected turn-due to a misunderstanding and a “Chinese Whisper” in the staff room, we found ourselves using that Actor’s standby- improvisation! The other standby being sheer bravado to extricate ourselves from an otherwise unfortunate situation!

We were expecting an audience of 350, and were a little surprised to see only about half that attending, but we put that thought aside, and did our show of two halves. First act is the comedy performance itself, ending with the panto songsheet. We then have an interval when the audience goes out and runs around the playground, during which time we strike the set, and then our eager audience returns to part two- question and answer session, dressing up teachers and children in Panto Costumes, and then we depart.

Our audience went out of the hall. The set was struck. Then a completely new and extremely young audience walked into the now empty hall, sat down and stared at us. They stared with big eyes. We stared with widening eyes. Who were these new comers? They were our OTHER audience!

Due to a misunderstanding, the school had been divided into two groups. Each told they would be seeing the Roadshow performance. This being news to us, we stared blankly at the 150 children and pondered saying “actually you missed the show” to the tiny children with the big eyes. We buckled. The set was already stowed away in the van- emergency action and quick thinking now required!

Andrew and Jodie went off to the van and rescued the props skip, while I busked the story of Cinderella and waved a poster of the Krankies at the spell bound youngsters. The skip arrived and we all three launched into a précis of all the funny bits you could think of, tagged with a rendition of “My hat has got three corners” and a routine with a rubber chicken and two whoopee cushions. The day was saved and the infants returned to their classes happy. We returned to our van exhausted, bemused , and headed off for the next school!

In the middle of the week I received a phone call from my friend Anna Karen- she told me the sad news that Johnny Dallas had passed away. Johnny was an extremely sprightly eighty year old with a lifetime of experience as an entertainer and a Dame in pantomime. I did a lengthy Summer Season with Johnny in Rhyl in 1977 (I remember the year distinctly as we had to sing “It’s Jubilee Year in Sunny Rhyl” in one show. You don’t forget things like that..) and if my memory serves me well, I believe we did Three (and a few times four) performances of “Snow White” on a Thursday. I learnt a hell of lot from Johnny during that 32 week season. I saw him very recently in Stan Stennett’s show “Bless ‘Em All” when it played the Kenneth More. Johnny was in fine form, and played his Dame character in a sketch.

On route from Bradford to Birmingham I managed to catch Stan Stennett at home on the ‘phone. Stan is an amazing powerhouse of energy at eighty-four, and had me in stitches telling me about his introduction for Johnny in his show. “Yes ladies and Gentlemen, direct from a standing ovation at the the Lisvane Haemorrhoid clinic….” He and Johnny Tudor have contributed a few lovely words to the piece I put in about Johnny Dallas in the Green Room section of IBY.

We have six shows left to play here in Wolverhampton, and then will be heading back to London on Friday evening. Waiting for me at the Kenneth More are some of the completed costumes back from the makers- Girls Villager Opening costumes, and Finale dresses, Snow White’s dress- ready for fitting on Tuesday with Ellie Robertson, also I have my Opening Costume completed by Margaret Brice (Margaret has created for Peter and I for over twenty eight years), plus the Fairy costume, Muddles’s worker- it is going to be like Christmas day opening those boxes. Remember, I sent off the fabric and the designs. I have not seen it brought to life, until now! That is a personal “magic of Pantomime” moment in my book.

Also awaiting my return are my two new wigs. Since Kevin and Gerry have been making them for me for so long, I don’t take a sketch or a picture. We sit, chat and do a lot of miming, and the wigs always appear magically exactly as I’d hoped they would look like. The weekend is going to be Kiddie In A Toyshop time for this Dame!

Until then it is On with the (Road) Show. We have had the extremely humbling and rewarding experience of playing to a couple of  special schools this past two weeks. Today's school was just an incredible testimony to the spirit of the pupils, and to the devotion and dedication of the teachers who work each day,-some on a one to one basis with their pupils- and it was a very great honour to do the show in these schools. Our thanks to Su Holgate in Bradford and to Louise Bent at Wolverhampton for making the shows run like clockwork!

Part Six

“You Ought To Be In Movies”

It seemed a great idea at the time- I’d set the scene for the Dame’s entrance by having a brief filmed  scenario. Dame Dolly is arriving at the station, the show has already gone up- she has to get to the theatre in just sixty seconds.

Cut to me sitting in the laundry at the Kenneth More Theatre at an ungodly hour of the morning, peering myopically into the mirror applying make-up. I am about to go out there, in the great outdoors of Ilford dressed as a lady. There’s a strong breeze too. A chance of showers. Sack the writer I say, except, as I apply another coat of industrial outdoor Dame make-up I remember I AM the writer. Damn!

Thankfully my friend and fellow dame Marc Seymour has come to the rescue, and in his guise as one of the “Shoot You” film team, he has agreed to put together this piece of film, aided and abetted by Paul Ellison and  John Crabtree

with Marc Seymour

They arrived at the crack of dawn as well, and went over to take a look at the film location- the “Ilford Exchange” shopping mall. Marc spends most of his time filming with “Shoot You” around the country these days, and was a huge help in advising us on the protocol of filming. Obviously you can’t just turn up with a camera and crew and start shooting willy nilly, so to begin with permission has to be sought from the Shopping Mall itself, from individual shops and from the local police.

My Brother Vivyan liased with Marc Myers who runs  The Exchange, and he very kindly provided us with security  to ease our passage through the mall. Also, to my great relief, Loraine Porter and Rikki Stone very kindly agreed to attend in their roles as Fairy and Muddles, so I was not “The Only One In The Village” so to speak, and did a sterling job entertaining the crowds as we progressed through the shopping mall.

Rikki and Loraine

Now I have done a great many events where I’ve wandered around in full costume and make-up in the streets- usually during press launches for panto- and spent hours in the public squares of Birmingham each year for Arts Fest in full Dame attire. I don’t want to start a North & South divide here, but I have to say, in my experience, when you wander around with big red hair a spotted dress and a lot of make-up on in the Midlands, or “Up North”, folk flock to you. They chat. They wave. They take photographs.

Somehow here, on the outskirts of the metropolis, people are a little more, how can I put it..? Subdued. Just like we never talk or make eye contact on the London Underground, or chat in a lift down here, so I was able to walk the streets of Ilford in total invisibility!

Watching the Rushes!

Yes. Folk pretended not to see me, or found something much more interesting to look at in a grating. Or on the sole of their shoe. Eyes were averted- until they had passed, then shyly took a quick glance. No greeting. No salutation. I had the distinct feeling people thought if they acknowledged my existence I might try to sell them something! How to be invisible whilst dressed in red and yellow polka dots, towering eight foot in red high heel boots? Easy. Come to Ilford town centre!

Amazingly, once a camera appeared, and a furry boom mike, the crowds were not so shy, and people relaxed into watching what I imagine they thought was the next Hollywood Blockbuster. I’m sure someone said I had a passing resemblance to a huge movie star. ..and no, it wasn’t “Shrek” before you  fill in your own answers..

Marc and the guys filmed me arriving at the Mall looking delighted, and visiting Wilco’s and Thorntons (who wouldn’t be delighted?) and even getting my hair done at “Rush” the hairdressers. I sailed up escalators and down escalators and ascended to the heights in a glass lift, and recreated that scene in “The Devil Wears Prada” coming into shot rising up the escalator bearing bags of shopping and a huge smile!

Just when I thought we’d done for the day, Marc called for a lunch break, and we resumed exterior shots after a cheese sandwich. In Hollywood I expect  the commissary is stuffed full of the rich and famous. I sat in the laundry in tights and a t shirt talking to Isobel Hurll as she got made up as Wicked Queen. Much more fun than Hollywood!

Very Important Job! Vivyan with his furry boom!

Isobel was in costume and make up for her filmed sequence. Without giving too much of the plot away, the Wicked Queen becomes imprisoned in the magic mirror. This was created using Green screen by Marc in our theatre studio. Now I always thought it was blue screen myself, but apparently blue is so last year, and now it is verdant.

“You don’t have any green on your dress do you?” Marc had asked me a week ago. “No! No green. Lots of red and yellow spots, but no green”.

When I stood there, in front of the green screen looking for all the world like a gruyere cheese, or a holed sock, I realised how much green WAS on my frock. Many green dots, some the size of tennis balls. I think those bits will end up on the cutting room floor.

I was filmed arriving at the theatre and then dashing backstage, and at last, six hours after I put my make up and costume on, I was able to get it all off. Sheer bliss! Isobel did her sequences in the studio, the screams of “Let me out! Somebody please HELP meeee!” echoing around the building, making potential customers very nervous at the box office, and then by five thirty we were all done.

The film and stills were  stored  in the safe ready for Jason Kew to collect them. Jason, along with Marc will be editing today’s sequences to add to the computer generated magic mirror that Jason has been creating for the show. It is all very high tech compared to the “old days” I keep thinking- but then I can remember seeing the classic panto filmed “Car Chase” when I was a lad at the Swansea Grand- scratchy footage of old racing cars that switched to roller coasters ending up with an emergency stop at a brick wall. Nothing new under the sun I guess- how many Edwardian pantomimes featured the Bioscope as their pantomime novelty- panto thrives on novelty, and it is our task to supply it!

The rest of my week has been taken up with fittings. I arrived back from the Roadshow to find costumes and wigs and assorted boots and shoes. The children had their fitting on Monday- fourteen very excited juvenile performers trying on their dwarf costumes, followed by their villagers “Pink! Let me wear the pink one.”.ad lib until ready….followed by seven little Carmen Mirandas balancing fruit (and veg) on their heads very studiously.

The following day I fitted Jocelyn Prah and Tami Stone, our ensemble ladies. They have a few less costumes than the boys, but that still works out at six changes each. They also have some pretty daunting headdresses to wear, in addition to complete overhead Toy Soldier masks, and the fitting ended up taking a good two and a half hours.

Final fittings this week have included fitting Rikki Stone in his Muddles costumes, and going through the changes with him to ensure he has enough time to get from the last ensemble number into the songsheet then into the finale without drawing breath! I also fitted Loraine Porter as Fairy- she is a very sparkly blue fairy this year, complete with wings, and Robert Quarry as Ramsbottom, the Queen’s henchman.

Robert is our panto record holder. He has now appeared in every single Kenneth More Pantomime since we opened our doors- that’s thirty-five consecutive pantomimes! In all my years of costuming the pantomimes I don’t believe I have ever put Robert into a frock. Until today! I’ll say nothing except “Mirror Routine”!

This next week is “Nigel Week”. All about ME. More about ME! It is the week before rehearsals, and I am ignoring the costumes for the show- all fitted, and the alterations are in hand- I am ignoring anything to do with writing the show, this is MY week!

One thing that did draw me into the KMT was the arrival of Desmond Barritt on a flying visit. Des has recently been “The Wizard” in “Wicked” at the Apollo Theatre London, and has been showing his Bottom in Glyndbourne performing Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” if you please. Des of course has donned the Panto Dame frock many many times, and each year whether returning from Broadway or, as in the case this year heading to the Paris Opera Comique, he still finds time to indulge his greatest love- Panto. Once again this year he will be directing “Dick Whittington” at the Pavilion, Gorleston, and this year it will include the KMT’s undersea Puppet speciality. It was great to meet up with Des, and catch up on news. A long time has passed since he played Uncle Slug to my Maggot in the Cardiff Open Air Theatre!

A week to get to grips with learning my script. A week in which to see Stuart Rush, our Musical Director, and go through my songs with him. (Did I tell you that the combined talents of Andrew Ryan, Jody Crosier and myself ended up with my new ballroom song- new lyrics to a Barry Manilow classic? Written in a forty minute lunch break at Waitrose.?.)

This week I’m going to quietly go through my costumes, learn my lines and make a trip to Nottingham to see the opening night of the Panto – “Jack And The Beanstalk”. It will be a little bit nostalgic visiting the Theatre Royal, and a little strange, but I just know I’m going to love every minute of it.

So far, as I write this, the pantomimes that have opened are Nottingham Playhouse, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Belfast- the season is officially open!

Part Seven - Rehearsals!

With rehearsals looming, the script finally got a viewing- on trains, on the underground, in cafes and in quiet corners anywhere! I went on a brief visit to see the opening night of Nottingham Theatre Royal’s “Jack and The Beanstalk”, and was quite pleased the train took  nearly four hours on the return, as it gave me all that time to get learning!

Had a lovely time at Nottingham- I wasn’t sure about going there at first- being this time of the year, going back to where Peter and I spent last year’s panto season, but I am so pleased I made the trip. It was so good to see the Royal’s familiar faces- and to say Hello to Lesley and Beryl in wardrobe before the curtain went up.

The show has Andrew Ryan as Dame Trott, and he has got his Quick-Change room set up where we had ours, only his is nestled between Churchill The Dog and Pantoland’s biggest Giants- Blunderbore.

The show stars Paul Zerdin as Jack (along with his sidekick Sam of course) and Nigel Havers as the Theatrical Fleshcreep, with Jenna Louise Coleman as Princess, Andrew Ryan of course as Dame and Emma Cannon as Mother Nature with Roy Sampson as King Crumble. Michael Harrison wrote and produced it, and Ed Curtis directed it with Steven Harris choreographing. A great, jolly traditional panto, with an old-fashioned quality, if you know what I mean- the opening night “do” was splendid, and a lovely opportunity to catch up with Michael-His production at Newcastle has now opened to rave reviews- and to chat to everyone there. Had a wonderful evening, and so pleased I made the rather nostalgic journey.

Just before rehearsal day loomed I got a phone call, wishing me luck from my mate Ray Meagher- not in Sydney this week, but transported to Royal Tunbridge Wells where he is scaring the pants of kiddies as Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” there, along with Chris Pizzey- a great comedy actor and soul mate of Basil Brush from their telly series. Ray is well into rehearsals now, and it looks as if we still won’t get the chance to meet up, as our days-off don’t co-incide. As soon as his run ends it will be a fast jet back to Summer Bay, and he’ll be literally “Home And Away!”

A few minutes after I put the phone down got a text from Gary Wilmot- Gary is in Norwich in “Chicago”- and sent his best wishes. This extended Panto Family takes some beating. Shame Gary can’t fit panto in this year, but “Chicago” goes right through the season.

Rehearsals: Day One

I think the most important thing today was not to be late! Since I can actually see the Theatre fly tower from my bedroom, that would be very bad form! The nearest I have been to a theatre before was Manchester Opera House. The flat we had there was a stone’s throw (overlooking the set of Granada’s Coronation Street), but even that few minutes walk was further away than I am today!

Arriving for rehearsals today was strange, obviously. My decision, back in the early summer  was very justified today when, on this day I would find myself in very familiar territory, and among old friends. Peter used to delight in telling everyone that the KMT was “Nigel’s Front Room”- he reckoned I spent more time there than I did in my own living room. Well, here I was on day one, in “My Front Room”, with my old mates and a few new ones. I think the decision back then was the right one.

Having been so deeply involved in the KMT’s panto each year, I knew the format, even though I’ve rarely attended a first rehearsal here- well, probably twice since 1982 anyway. We all met up in the downstairs studio (we still call it the buffet, although it hasn’t been the theatre restaurant in years) and chatted away until it was time to go to the upstairs rehearsal room- the Studio.

The Cast:

I said a great number of the cast were old friends- and none more so than Loraine Porter. Loraine has been appearing in panto here (as well as many other shows both here and around the UK) for many years, and as the driving force behind the Palmerstone Stage School, along with her sister Vicki Palmer, she has seen many of her juvenile pupils go on to a career “on the boards”. Indeed, both her children are becoming veterans of the KMT Panto- Rikki Stone and Tami Stone are her children, and with  Vicki acting as chaperone to the Juveniles, and their Dad, Dick Porter manning the Stage Door (as he has done so for a great many years) it is quite a family affair.

Loz and Ellie

Loraine (or Loz as she is known to us) will be giving her Fairy this year, as well as choreographing the pantomime as she does each year. Her job is pretty exhausting- when I left the building this evening she was setting the Juveniles into the ballroom routine at 7.30pm, having rehearsed and choreographed since 10.30am.

Isobel

Isobel Hurll has been a friend for a very long time, and specialises in playing pretty scary panto villains here at the KMT, as well as the odd Fairy. Isobel’s villains are glamorous and bewitching- a wicked combination. No pointy nose and pointy witches hat for Isobel. Her frocks are usually my pride and joy, and generally made by Margaret Brice, who comes out of retirement to add a bit of Isobel sparkle, as well as providing me with Fantastic “Sister” costumes for nearly thirty years!

Robert and Isobel

Robert Quarry has appeared in more KMT pantomimes than anyone- this means he has appeared in every single one of them since we started doing them back in 1975. This season he’ll be giving his Ramsbottom, the Wicked Queen’s henchman- a role he has played before. Several years ago Robert stepped into the breach when an artiste suffered a leg injury, and took over the complicated “Mirror Routine”- opposite Andrew Ryan,  at very short notice. I’ve revived this routine, and so this time Robert is my alter-ego for a four minute routine of silently counting eight and praying various hats don’t fall off while prancing about on stage!

Rikki Stone is giving his Muddles this year. Last year saw him as Wishee Washee here at the KMT, and the year before that as Jack in “Jack & The Beanstalk”. Rikki has literally just returned from a very long Summer Season in Lanzarotte, and arrived at rehearsals carrying a large green soft toy crocodile. A prop I gather for his opening song!  More of that later! Rikki is a veteran of many pantos here, having started as a Palmerstone Juvenile.

Rikki

Owen Smith is giving his Huntsman and slotting in and out of the Ensemble during the show. I think he possibly has as many costume changes as I do! Certainly his briefest is as Snow White’s Father in the prologue. A full sumptuous Royal costume, crown and cape for all of fifteen seconds. In my version I kill him off quite swiftly! Actually the Wicked Queen does. Owen has been appearing in our shows and pantomimes since he was a slip of a juvenile, and now directs and choreographs shows all over the place.

Owen

Tami Stone (Rikki’s Sister) joins us once again in the ensemble, thanks to the kindness of Italia Conti, and, like Rikki and Owen has been appearing in KMT pantomimes since she was a very little girl- I’m not certain, but I’d say she first appeared here in panto aged about seven- about the same age that Owen and later Rikki started their stage careers.

Nathan Daniel is appearing in his first KMT panto, but I had the pleasure of working with him when we appeared at the Birmingham Hippodrome in “Cinderella” three years ago, with Brian (Conley) and Shobna Gulati..I believe that was Nathan’s first pantomime, and at the “Hippo” he was in an ensemble numbering ten! However, our stage is a tad smaller than the Hippodrome, so I’m sure he won’t feel too lost!

Jocelyn Prah is appearing in her first KMT pantomime too, and has the pleasure of appearing as Villager, Toy Soldier, Flower Fairy, a Latin American lady with fruit on her head, and at one point the Wicked Queen’s double- so she won’t be finding much time in the dressing room during the show- except to tear in, change costume and tear out again!

Ellie Robertson is our lovely Principal Girl. Although she didn’t arrive with the necessary “Hair black as ebony”, hat part is being supplied by a wig- and, surprisingly, since Ellie is a blonde, she looks extremely good as a brunette! Ellie has just finished working at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, and has made several pantomime appearances, as well as appearing in musicals around the country.

Michael Conway plays Prince Alexei, and hails from my part of the world- Michael is from Port Talbot in South Wales, Vivyan and I are from Mumbles (always a great place for an actor to come from-) so we were practically neighbours! Michael has been touring for a long time with “Flashdance”, and we just discovered yesterday that he had been to see the panto I did at Nottingham last year while he was at the Royal Centre, and that I met him in the pub with Stacey Haines the director. A very small world!

Stuart Rush is our Musical Director, and has been for a good many years. Being MD these days involves a lot more “hi tech” each year, and apart from his keyboards he has a vast array of devices, buttons and flashing things to keep him occupied during the how. These are times when the orchestra pit looks more like a high dependency ward in A&E! Stuart has also put together the parts of the show when we need a bit of augmentation, and organised recording sessions before we started rehearsals. Along with percussionist Malcolm Ball  he will be running the musical side of the pantomime as usual.

Rehearsals are under the control of Vivyan Ellacott, my brother, who has directed every pantomime here since the first “Dick Whittington” in 1975. Vivyan has masterminded every pantomime here, as well as directing and producing tours of our long running “Rocky Horror Show”, “Godspell” and other productions around the UK. As artistic director he has presented in house plays, musicals and (his particular favourite) operas here at the Kenneth More over thirty five years.

This pantomime is a very special one, as he has just announced his retirement as General Manager & Artistic Director- he will be retiring next Summer- but I have a VERY strong feeling that the world of pantomime will still be seeing him at the helm, for a good many years to come!

Our Assistant Director and Production Manager is Rob Mitchell-Gears. Rob is our resident Production Manager, and he and I liaise throughout the year on panto- quite often in April or May we’ll find ourselves sitting down and drifting onto ideas for the script, the set and special effects. This season we have a good helping of “Hi Tech” special effects, and the ideas for these were formulated over an impromptu meeting over a coffee back in the Spring.

One of the joys of an “in-house” panto, is that the entire concept can be brought to life as we want to see it, and doing it ourselves we can spend more time getting it right. Rob has spent countless hours working on the finite parts of set and construction, resulting in a really beautiful dwarves cottage, like a story-book, and a pristine set- he virtually reconstructed the Toy Room Nursery set, and now it has that “Ahh!” factor- none more so than when Nathan’s Giant Teddy Bear appears through the toy cupboard door!

Another plus for us here this year is that the theatre has not booked a show in this week-usually the first rehearsal week is followed by a Sunday “get-in” from our stores across the road. This year Rob and his team were able to get the scenery in and, because he started working on the panto early, we’ve actually been able to work scenes ON STAGE by day two of rehearsal! An unusual and very welcomed luxury!

As I type this we have just completed day three of rehearsals. The time has flown by since we met up on Monday, and it is now Wednesday evening. The diary is a little tardy this time around. There is a reason..

Every night when I return from rehearsals (remember I have a long tedious two minute walk to get home) I have every intention of going over the scenes in the script, writing up this diary, and sending a wad of Christmas Cards. Instead I sit on the couch, and wake up dribbling two hours later! Well- I did Monday and Tuesday. The reason you can read this is because I avoided sugar (why does it send me into doze mode?) and had a quick nap as soon as I got in!

Today was long, and I felt at times as if things were whirling around in my head. This whole Panto rehearsal process is so very different to previous years..there was a moment this afternoon when I found myself getting a little bit maudlin, but ten minutes later I was standing in an overheated room wearing turkey feathers on my head surrounded by fourteen children bearing Maraccas.

Since Monday I have learnt and performed two different numbers, accompanied myself on my Ukelele (as you do- “Turned Out Nice Again!”) attempted to memorise the script, run the Ghost routine on stage, the Mirror Routine in the Foyer, the Drill Routine in the Bar, discovered lyrics I knew backwards at eleven o’ clock have now vanished from my head by lunch-time, and in between I have attempted to put my costumes in some sort of order- oh, and finally met my dresser!

Ellie and Michael

Like a vision from out of the blue came Sarah - being so busy recently finding someone to dress Dame Dolly had completely slipped my mind. Suddenly the reality of being without the most valuable person a Dame can have struck home. Fortunately Sarah answered that call, and arrived to introduce herself this afternoon .Panto is a VERY small world. It only took a few moments to discover that last year Sarah was with Andrew Ryan at The Wimbledon Theatre, and did wardrobe, looking after Joanna Page and Alistair McGowan! I was delighted to meet her, and will see Sarah when she calls in to watch a run-through on Friday.

An awful lot of rehearsing has gone on since Monday. Whenever the studio is being used for Loz’s Choreography we congregate in the foyer, or on stage and go over the script and run routines in corners. Today Michael and Ellie had to get into costume during the afternoon. They were being filmed for a short segment when the Magic Mirror shows the Queen what Snow White and Prince Alexei are up to when her back is turned. They are in fact holding hands by a wishing well, but that seems to set the cat among the pigeons..

The most arduous thing I’ve done so far is to attempt to rehearse my strip. Those who might have seen me before will know I have been stripping on stage longer than Ronseal, but this time it is very different. I now have double the amount of clothes to remove, and a lot of working out to do. The clothes have to be discarded at exactly the right moment, to the right beat in the music. They also have to be swiftly disposed of behind a screen, so I don’t leave a trail of clothing behind me.

The strip costumes are “rip-apart”. (Think “Full Monty” Trousers. Whoosh, and they’re off?) so the Velcro sticks to itself. It sticks to other bits of the strip costume. It sticks to your sleeve. Having slowly put myself into the dozen items of clothing, and being uncertain of where I ripped them off in terms of beats of music and areas of the stage, I got into a panic and ended up ripping off two pairs of bloomers at once, getting my heel stuck in my gusset, and almost catapulting myself into the pit at one stage.

Each time you strip, and get it wrong, you then have to re-assemble the garments, velcroing them back together, before carefully getting into them and starting all over again. I will be reliving this over and over again until I get it right. To add insult to injury I have taken inspiration from the late great Terry Scott and tagged my strip in a tribute him.I can only imagine it will get easier with time. That time seems a long way off at this juncture..

Well.. I’ve not gone into the detail I might have about the past three days, but since they are a blur in my mind, they might as well be the same to you, dear reader! I’m off to bed. It is ridiculously early, but I don’t care. The duvet is calling!

Part Seven - The Technical's!

Apparently we are well advanced, and will be getting the week-end off, which is a heart warming thing to hear at the end of a long week. Since Monday my head has been filled with a great many things, and the Lyrics of the Bobby Crush song I sing in my opening will not go away. They are in my head morning, noon and night. Then, when the time is right to deliver them on stage where are they? Gone! Oh dear.. is it really time for Matron?

Thursday and Friday went spent in the studio running the show. This is good, as it acquaints you with what comes next- believe me, even though I wrote it this is a mystery to me at this stage.. and then we find spare moments to go and run lines and routines in the bar when we have a chance. I point out that the bar is actually closed, before you get any ideas!

At around 4pm we are joined by the fourteen children from the Palmerstone Stage School. We then rehearse their scenes first with one troupe, then the other- very useful if you need to rehearse a particular scene. My two problem scenes are the Nursery Scene and my opening- for different reasons. The problem with the Nursery is simple- I can’t remember the wretched lines! What idiot wrote lines that bear no resemblance to what follows? Oh.. that’ll be me then! In one part I keep the thought “hung” in my mind. During the lines I am hearing spoken by Ellie & Rikki I am thinking “Hung. Hung..” it is the only way that I can remember the next line is “Oh he hung on to it for years…” New lines Old Dog!

The weekend was delightful as it allowed the chance to hit the shops of course, and on Saturday night I went to see “Cinderella” at the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend.

I kind of knew this would not be the easiest of things to do- I approached backstage with very mixed emotions, and it was just so good to suddenly find myself with my second family- all in one place, all doing something that I know oh, so well. As soon as I arrived I spotted the two Brian’s-Brian Conley and Brian Godfrey at the Stage Door getting some, how shall we put it? “Fresh Air”! They had just finished their very first matinee at the Seaside Theatre, and were about to start the official opening night.

Brian Godfrey is, of course an old mate, and he is co-directing this show as well as giving his very fine and very experienced Ugly Sister. I chatted to him and to “Our Brian”, before dashing backstage to see the two leading ladies, Michele Potter and Denise Pitter- Cinders and Fairy. A quick chat with them and I was a few doors down seeing the lovely Dawson Chance- I cannot say how many pantomimes we have done together, and then it was time to go front of house and to sit through this show for the first time. In nine years. THAT was very strange, and yes, it too was a mixed bag.

I loved the show! It is as slick and funny and as magical as it has always been. There were moments that I thought- “Oh! So THAT’S what was going on when I was doing my Quick Change!”- I’d often wondered. Yes, obviously I was also mentally backstage whilst watching- thinking- Ah, we’re changing into this now.. That’s where I used to.. “ I would be lying if I said it was easy, there so far, far too many memories for that, but it was hugely enjoyable.

Called around backstage briefly before they went off to their opening night “do” in the bar. Had a quick chat again with everybody, caught up with Eaton James (Dandini) and met Prince Charming Christopher Drake and Sister Darren Southworth for the first time, and then saying goodbye to Dawson I thought it was time to make a swift exit before I made a fool of myself. Thanks for a fab show everyone- it was so good to see you all again.

Monday- today has been a VERY long day! I started off getting into the dressing room at 9.45am for photographs for our local paper- the Recorder. When they first asked for photos I was dreading having to put the make-up on and stick cold eyelashes on at an ungodly hour, but fortunately they wanted a picture of me as, err, well as me! “Would you hold this wig and smile”? Delighted to! “Can you point at that costume and smile?” I think I can manage that! It was all done and dusted in ten minutes- Hoorah!

We ran the show in the morning from 10.30 until 1.30pm stopping where necessary to tighten and tweak, and then had lunch.

Fatal! With omelette chips and beans inside me, forget it! I forgot most of it. My lines were dreadful, so used the afternoon as a good reason for going over the scenes that everyone felt we needed to work the lines on. Again- The Nursery scene for me, and the “Footie” scene as I call it when I support two teams at the same time with clever frocks!

When I returned from lunch with Isobel we were greeted by a curious sight. Like A Busby Berkeley movie most of the company were lying on the floor doing synchronised exercises in a circle- all manner of painful things involving muscles and limbs. I headed into our little tea room and put the kettle on in sympathy. Talking of kettles, I cut the tape that sealed “our” (I still think in the plural- guess that will take a while) touring tea set, packed in Nottingham on the last night, and was astonished not to see a kettle. I’ll root through the skip again, but maybe it got left behind?

The Quick Change area in the scene dock is a work in progress. It is freezing, and I’m sharing it with the toy cupboard and two rather scary suits of armour! When Sarah comes in tomorrow I’m hoping she will get it into the shape that she’d like it to be. This area is on Stage Right. Just outside the door on Stage Left we have a cosy, warm and well lit Quick Change room which I’d like to use more, but that involves trying to squeeze past the props tables in the backstage narrow corridor- so for now most changes will be done in the chilly dock, until we get more confident!

You might notice in photos of the “warm” Quick Change Room my new Carmen Miranda headdress (created by Pip Hazel) and the Costume- a simple affair of multicolour sequins. Hardly visible really….

Yesterday I removed all the light bulbs on one side of the mirror, being safety conscious, realising that the feathers were a hazard near to the bulbs. Having removed them Vivyan spotted it, and reminded me that the feathers are wired with piano wire. I don’t need to tell you the electrifying results if you popped that on your head and made contact with the National Grid? Ayyyy Carumba!! Blank bulbs were replaced immediately. I don’t need a perm at this stage of my life!

We moved on stage at 4.30pm and worked the scenes that involved children. Today the children wore their dwarf masks on stage for the first time, and also the company wore their Toy costumes and heads for the first time. This really is one of my favourite scenes- we’ve done it many times over the years in beautiful heads constructed by Mark Wheeler- and this year Loz has added some new music and some really cute additions. Star of the scene must surely be Nathan’s giant Teddy Bear! We rehearsed this several times- (doing it twice for each set) until we broke at 9.15pm- the children left earlier, and the night ended with Robert and I rehearsing our “Mirror Routine” with the actual mirror frame for the first time.

We did this about three times- twice flawlessly, and once when I got distracted by a hat falling off, and consequently blanked. You can’t blank in this routine. There are no words, just choreography for three and a half minutes!

Crawled home- that exhausting two minute crawl- sat down to take my shoes off and woke up fifteen minutes later. Bless!

Part Eight

A Dame’s Diary- Opening Night!

17th December 2009

Lazy morning- I sorted out a selection of programmes and pictures from my archive to take in to the theatre- we’ll be putting up a small exhibition of posters and programmes in the foyer. I ended up picking the most colourful and representative ones- Emile Littler, Francis Laidler and of course, Paul Elliott’s early pantomimes to have a selection. There is so much I could display, but there isn’t that much space.

After lunch arrived at the KMT for the 2pm run, without costumes. A very sensible idea that. It means that we just concentrate on the technical and scenic side of things, and check out the balance of the sound. We tech-ed the transformation of Wicked Queen to Old Crone, which also involves projection, and stopped to tighten up a few scene changes here and there. It was also a reassuring “line run” really for us all, just to check that there are no “moments”. I’m pretty sure there will be on my behalf, but we’ll wait and see!

One of the strange requests I have had is to ask if we can “De-Pea” the Maracas! There are eleven people rattling their Maracas during my number and, encased in fruit as my ears are, I had trouble hearing the band. Fortunately now all but four have “De-Pead!”

We broke at five with the first night looming at 7pm. Not a usual first night audience, as the entire house has been booked by various Brownie groups, and just a sprinkling of adults. The Ghost gag should go well I hoped!

At Five O'clock until the show went up , an eerie calm fell backstage. The fact that it was snowing indoors in the dressing corridor might have helped the atmosphere! Our roof vents act up that way sometimes! Art imitated life, as it Snowed at the end of act one on stage thanks to a Blizzard machine, while it snowed upstairs indoors thanks to a strong wind and Mother Nature!

Those few hours were spent with people either calmly getting into make-up slowly, or busying themselves dropping off cards and small prezzies for the opening. I suffered a “moment “ when I walked into my dressing room and saw all the cards, the flowers (Thank you Simon! An IBY Bouquet was so lovely!) and a phone full of texts from so many people. Thank you all for your words, your encouragement and for thinking about me. Truly.

I started my make-up early- 6.15pm in fact (that won’t last) and by 6.45 on opening night I was applying make-up while Owen (not yet dressed as a villager) was actually plumbing in my room, with tools he must carry about in his make-up bag? Upon removing my shoes I discovered the carpet beneath my feet was sodden! The radiator, long switched off due to it being like a sauna, had apparently been leaking for a few days. I hadn’t noticed a damp patch! So there I was with False Eyelashes and applying a veneer of lippy while the magnificent Owen Smith had a go at my waterworks with a monkey wrench. Fancy! As Dame Dolly is apt to say! The leak stopped. Owen vanished to become a Villager.

My scary moment is when I am completely on my own before going on. I go through lines in my head then start to obsessively tidy up. I’ve done it so many times- some folk pace, others read a paper, I tidy. I  wandered down to the Green Room intent on  putting away the cups but fortunately Isobel and Michael were there, the show had gone up, and I forgot to be nervous. I know why- the author in me took over. I was watching the show on the monitor to see which bits got laughs from a mostly child dominated house. I was extremely delighted in the ones that did, and in the rapt attention they gave to the “film” projected prologue and later, to my filmed entrance.

I have to say, no Dame could ever have got a finer pre-entrance build up! I have a sixty second film of me racing to the theatre, a crowd of paparazzi on stage with flash cameras, music timed to perfection- Ohh! I wanted to be out there watching it myself! This is no solo entrance, Oh no! a lot of people worked very hard to get this right, and I thank them all for it- especially Jason Kew and Marc Seymour and “Shoot You” for that amazing editing and filming. Dolly is definitely the Eva Peron of Ilford!

The First Show

What can I say? From my point of view it was scary, it was a learning curve, as is every first night to gauge laughs, and it was virtually free of dropped lines by Dame Dolly! I had just three moments- no-one would have noticed I don’t think- one in the “Footy” scene when I was so delighted with my interaction with the “Man” I had picked, that I suddenly ran out of words. Thoughts even. I turned, stared at Rikki with wide eyes, and, bless him, in he jumped with my line- I was very grateful!

A little later I was doing so well in the Nursery scene, when I suddenly added the very words Ellie would be saying to me into my sentence, leaving her with no line. Quick as a flash she made up a new line and seamlessly we carried on. She and Rikki baled me out!

Having Sarah dressing me means I don’t have to worry or think about the costumes at all, which leaves me free to concentrate on the scenes. My big worries were the “Strip”- that seemed to go well- although again Stuart in the Pit pre-empted a possible problem by slightly slowing down as he became aware I was trailing behind- he slowed just enough for me to get my kit off and do the extra fast change dead on time.

All in all- for a Dame’s Debut, I couldn’t really have asked for better. I’m here, surrounded by mates, directed by my Brother, in my home theatre with a huge amount of support- No, I could not have asked for more. I have always said in rehearsal that I felt as though I was short of confidence. That I felt ill at ease. I’m still not bursting with confidence here on day one, but I now have that special feeling all actors get on opening night. We’ve done it! We got through it! With each passing show we will gain more and more confidence, and we will find daily ways to hone and improve- its what we do I guess!

I now have to wait for other opinions on the show, I’m too near to it to tell- but I must say from the bits I’ve seen, I think it is a great show- My first crit (which will of course be friendly! Ed.)  will come from a Simon Curtis who will be in to see the show on Saturday. I’m sure he’ll be passing comment!

The local paper ran a piece today on my return onstage here to the KMT after so many years, It also mentioned the circumstances leading up to this solo appearance. This whole panto, and all the past weeks of rehearsal have all been a tribute to a certain fellow actor and friend - I know that Peter would have been delighted tonight, and I could hear his voice at times in my head- But I still won’t get over the quiet in the dressing room. The automatic interval teas to all and sundry, and the sight of him in full Sister make up in his Primark dressing gown huddled at the Stage Door having a ciggie. The laughter that continued for thirty years.

Enough already. You know what I mean.

Tomorrow we do a show to a mixed house- all ages- tomorrow they will struggle through the snow that is now settling to see a show- and I’ll also be seeing Andrew Ryan and Marc Seymour sitting out there. Better be a good one then!

Snow White - Kenneth More Theatre - Saturday 19th December 2009

A Webmasters View by Simon Curtis

 

Like Nigel, coming back to the KMT is coming home for me. I was lucky enough to appear here in over 50 productions in a space of 10 years, and in fact the last pantomime I worked on was in 1996! Time has indeed flown, but it was lovely to see so many familiar faces both on and off stage. Amazingly it's been two years since i've seen Nigel, we email every day, and speak regularly but being in two countries makes meeting a little difficult (because Wales and England are so far apart!). Must try harder!

 

From the opening sequence 'In Outer Space' where the hi-tech magic mirror starts our story, it sets the scene for what is to follow in the next two and a half hours - which fly by! We are introduced to all the main characters - special mention to Rikki Stone who works hard throughout the show! Then the moment arrives for the entrance of Dame Dolly! Reading about the filmed sequence from the diary meant it didn't come as a surprise but it was a fantastic entrance - and a really great way to make an impression! 

 

Pantomimes are so audience reliant, and thankfully on Saturday we had a great crowd - the Salvation Army were in fine form - and children young and old (I include myself in that last category) enjoyed the mix of slapstick, local humour (Dagenham comes in for a special mention or ten),  boo-ed the Wicked Queen (Isobel Hurll on fine form as always), sung along with Big Fish, Little Fish (almost an aerobic exercise routine rather than songsheet!) and marvelled at the number of outfits Nigel seemed to have stored in the wings! As a die-hard West Ham fan, I was very pleased to see the Hammers make an appearance - especially with them being chosen over Arsenal!

 

I overheard two ladies in the bar in the interval saying how much they were enjoying it - 'I didn't expect the scenery to be this good in a provincial pantomime' was the quote that tickled me! The standards haven't dropped in the 13 years since my last KMT panto, and every element of the show made it a fantastic evening in the theatre. Tickets still available - you won't be disappointed.

 

Part Nine - 21st December 2009

Well, we’re four shows in since the last entry, and a total of eight shows down. It is quite amazing how, in that short space of time the confidence builds- not just my confidence (which Lord knows needed building!) but the confidence of the show itself.

From my point of view I was going through my opening routine in a corner of the building before I went on, checking that I had all the gags in the right order- and, when we opened I would not have imagined veering off to chat to the audience during it for fear of never finding my way back!

I also had the two numbers I sing in my head from the minute I woke up. I still go through the lyrics before I go on- and I guess I will to the very end, but it is not obsessive now! Eight shows in I have the confidence to interact with the audience, not just deliver lines.

I still have a gag or two that needs tweaking and, in one case removing! I have an exit gag in the “Woods” that just isn’t working- I thought it was worth trying, but it has now been trialled. Curious? Oh all right- by the time you read this entry it will hopefully be long gone..

Muddles:         “What sandwiches have you got?”

Dame Dolly:   “Well, I went to the butchers and I said have you got a chicken to make a sandwich, and he said “You’ll be lucky. It took me twelve weeks to teach the budgie to talk…”

See my dilemma? Farewell Chicken Sandwich Gag. I knew thee well..

Ellie, our lovely Snow White has stopped stripping on stage now. First her wig (during the public dress) then her petticoat. Now the Babes have caught it. Two little “Carmen Mirandas” have lost their skirts in the past two days. I have managed a neat trick myself. I managed to remove two outer coats in my strip without realising it. I discarded them in the Stage Right Wing, shimmied over to the Stage Left wing  and as I reached it realised I had run out of garments to remove. Greg on Stage Left looked as surprised as I did when I returned centre stage looking puzzled. I was sure I had put them all on!

There’s Snow Business Like SNOW Business: Monday Evening.

“Snow White and the… Dwarf”

During the matinee we all noticed a rather heavy downfall of snow outside- almost a “white out” for about forty minutes. The audience were unaware, having entered the building with no sign of snow. It stopped after forty minutes and we finished the show.

In between the usual glamorous life continued backstage- The first set of Juveniles trudged off through the light sprinkling of snow, and the cast’s thoughts turned to food. The Wicked Queen stirred a small cauldron of what turned out to be Minestrone soup- Isobel was having a light dinner, I munched on an M&S sandwich, and all manner of Chinese take-away and kormas were wolfed down in between shows.

I experienced my first “between shows” snooze. I acquired some thick foam  pads and a pillow from home, and two fleece blankets from the skip, and became unconscious for an hour. At 6.25pm we had the half hour call- and the startling news that outside not a lot was happening. Not many cars were moving and, since there has been no sign of a gritter in Ilford (or the rest of the UK I gather from the news) there was no sign of an audience!

Or Dwarfs!!

Yes- troupe one had gone home and troupe two were stuck in the gridlock that was our part of Essex/London. Looking at the monitor we can see the audience taking their seats. The auditorium was empty. When the foyer shop should be awash with kiddies buying things that flash and whirl and glow in the dark, there was no-one. Not a soul. Ne’er a sausage!

By 7pm, when we start, we had sixty people in the auditorium in total (it was sold out tonight) and two dwarfs! Vivyan made the decision to go up after a five minute delay, and when we started we were imagining Snow White saying “Hello you two little men, and hello to your five little friends who are over there..in the err..forest… out there..” with the prospect of disembodied (pre recorded)) voices talking to her!

Fortunately the Dwarfs are not on until three quarter way through Act One, but the Villagers and the Toys are! The Village scene had three juvenile dancers (One had literally just flown in through the stage door), and by the toy room scene fifteen minutes later we were up to the right number.

The audience were still drifting in when I entered twenty-five minutes in to Act One, and the last of them made it about forty five minutes after curtain up.

They were actually a very jolly house to play to. Having struggled to get here through the snow, I think they were determined to have a really good time.

I’m now settling in I think. I am no longer fretting about the words, I am feeling that I can communicate directly to the audience and have fun with them, and I have to say just as Andrew Ryan predicted on opening night, I am actually enjoying it. It isn’t easy being nice after thirty years, but I am learning fast!

I have a tiny fan heater now on the cold quick change table, and Sarah and I huddle against it during the changes- it reminds me of playing Bob Cratchit when I toured with “A Christmas Carol”, and trying to warm myself by the candle! The most wonderful thing is that Sarah now warms my big waterfall necklace before I put it on in the finale! There is nothing colder that a metal necklace the size of a dinner plate slapped on your chest, I can tell you!

The cold side also houses Rob (Our Technical Manager and Co Director) and Greg Bracken. They supervise the to-ing and froe-ing  of the scenery- the cottage, the glass casket, the toy room cupboard and the suits of armour and such like. Over on the other side presiding over the cues and “On The Book” is Dave Palmer, our Stage Manager. The rest of our crew consists of Andreas Jimenez, William Dignon, and our matching pair of twins, Lee and Nicky Caulfield. Pete Abery who designed lighting and sounds sits at the very back of the auditorium on his sound desk, against the back wall.

We’ll do a crew pic for this diary very soon, and I’ll go into more detail of what their roles are then. When I discovered that Lee & Nicky were crewing, I hoped that they might be able to make a very brief appearance in one of the scenes, when they bring on the Wicked Queen’s large magic cabinet. I won’t go into great detail, but lets say the brief appearance- which gets a big round- involves one set of identical twins, two blonde wigs that stick up and…Yes, you’ve got it!

We have four shows left before we have our Christmas break- that will have been a twelve show week for us, following on from a ten day rehearsal period. We are so lucky here that we don’t play Christmas Eve, so for the first time in about ten years I get two days off! Sheer Luxury!

Below is a photo of the entire cast and crew of the pantomime - more photos to follow!

Ilford Recorder Article - Snow White Welcomes Back Nigel

Link

 

Part Ten - 23rd December 2009

Two shows on Tuesday- 2.30 and 7pm. The afternoon was a bit muted, mainly because we had a large group of pre-school- the tinies. Even the shouting out at the ghosts in the bedroom scene was muted! Bless them. Very wee. It looked like no-one was in from the stage, they were that small!

The weather is still causing us problems here- not directly outside (although the roads are like an ice-rink) . It is the outlying areas that are pretty snowed up, and the audiences eventually make it through the grid lock.. and all the Dwarfs, of course!

Wednesday I was delighted that we had a special visitor- Paul Elliott and his wife Linda (Hayden) who came along to see the matinee. It was lovely to see them both. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous- When The King Of Pantomime comes calling you can’t help but be nervous! Even after twenty odd years! In getting the display material sorted out for the KMT Foyer last week, I put up a selection of Paul’s handbills from his association with Duncan C.Weldon, and from his own Paul Elliott pantomime company- bills with Ronnie Hilton and Dickie Henderson on them, and Helen Shapiro as Principal Boy and Sandy Lane as Dame- I hope he would spot them, and indeed he did!

Had a chat with Linda and Paul backstage before they set off for their second panto of the day- going to Southend (about an hour from here) to see Brian Conley’s “Cinderella” once again. It was so good to see them both, and it quite made my Christmas! At least I can face the second show without the nerves now!

Received a lovely greeting from Britt (Ekland) who is enjoying her Torquay appearance as Fairy Godmother. Britt is very much a double act these days, as Tequila her little chiau..chuahhaw…Chiiiahhoww…Dog -appears on stage as her Fairy Helper! She sent a great pic of them both in the Princess Theatre dressing room!

Owen- our Huntsman, Villager, Clown, King and plumber, can now add to his skills. We’ve had a posh flat screen telly in our green room for a good while now (courtesy of the KMT Theatre Club) but it has only functioned as a monitor to see the show on. Armed with an arial and some cable Owen Smith adds cable man to his list of accomplishments, and we were able to relax between shows watching telly and, more importantly, keeping an eye on the weather forecasts.

Fortunately there is a lot of melting going on outside, and a fair bit of rain. This bodes well for the Christmas travel arrangements. Normally, at this time of the year I am heading for a train on Xmas Eve, trying to get home. How amazing to think I am actually AT home! Even more amazing, I get Christmas Eve off- something I’ve not had since our first Brian Conley Cinderella at the Mayflower, Southampton.

The cast member who travels the furthest is Michael, Prince Alexei of Ruritania. He returns to his Kingdom in South Wales straight after the show, getting off at Port Talbot, which is like Ruritania only more picturesque! His train leaves paddington at 11.15am and I think he arrives just after 2am.

Michael is not alone over the next two days- Panto folk everywhere will be travelling the length and breadth of the country to be with their families and friends- I am so very lucky to be a few minutes away.

To all of you out there in Pantoland travelling- have safe journeys and a glass or two on Christmas Day- then its Show Business as usual on Boxing Day for all of us.

From Simon & Myself- Merry Christmas!

Ilford Record Review - Fantastic Festive Treat

by Lindsay Watling - 24th December 2009

Exotic costumes, a rapping fairy, an evil Queen and an outrageous dame can mean only one thing - the pantomime season has hit Ilford.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Kenneth More Theatre, Oakfield Road, was a visual feast offering something for everyone.

The younger members of the audience relished booing the evil queen and shouting at Snow White not to eat the poisoned apple. while the mums and dads got their kicks from the jokes - which ranged in subject from Redbridge Council to The X Factor.

Even the more elderly guests were brought to their feet at the end of the show when they joined in with the big fish, little fish dance.

In increasingly outrageous outfits that included a picnic table skirt and a pineapple headdress, Nigel Ellacott stole the show as Dame Dolly Doughnut.

From his sensational entrance via video link, to the hysterical striptease in which he dropped several dress sizes, he wooed with his singing, dancing and comedy, keeping the audience on its toes throughout.

Ellie Robertson put in an excellent performance as Snow White and the wishing well duet with Michael Conway, who played the suitable suave and charming Prince Alexei, was particularly impressive.

Robert  Quarry's interpretation of the evil queen's sycophantic servant also stood out. His comic timing is spot on and he bought the house down as Dame Dolly's reflection in the mirror scene where he mimicked her to cover up the fact he had broken her favourite mirror.

Also worthy of mention are Isobel Hurll as the Wicked Queen, Loraine Porter as the Fairy and Rikki Stone as Muddles, all three of whom successfully engaged with the children from start to finish.

Both traditional and contemporary, heart-warming and hilarious, the KMT's 35th pantomime is a fantastic festive treat for all the family. Three cheers for the cast and crew!

Part Eleven - 27th December 2009

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a short journey on a Boxing Day to get to the theatre since 1982. It literally took me two minutes. Many a Boxing Day  have I spent travelling, or worrying if I will make it to the theatre on time. Once, a thousand years ago Peter and I set off on a Boxing Day to get our lift to Bournemouth Pavilion, only the lift never turned up. These were the days before mobile phones- and we both ended up hitch-hiking on a motorway (we had no idea that wasn’t allowed!) in the pouring rain with a hastily written sign. Other years I have had a lift, but so early that I’ve arrived at the Stage Door three hours before it opened. When travelling a few years ago to High Wycombe we had a hair raising journey looking at stationary traffic stretching for miles, and got there on the quarter call.. all scary stuff.

This year it was poor Nathan who suffered the Boxing Day transport curse. The car he was getting a lift in broke down, and ground to a halt in Hertfordshire! Luckily he managed to make it through the Stage Door just on beginners, and all was well- but travelling at this time of year is such a nightmare- especially for those of us who work.

Currently – I am now writing this on Sunday 27th- today there was no Central line at all, the Jubilee line was not running and for about the forth day, no overground trains running from Liverpool Street to Ilford. Since the major sales are on in London’s West End you would think some transport system would be useful? Poor Ellie and Nathan both had horrific journeys today that should have been so simple.

The matinee was again full of very tiny children, they love the Toy room scene, and the Dwarfs and the Wicked Queen scares them a bit and they have no idea who the big woman in the spotty frock is, or why she wears fruit on her head at one point, but the evening was very jolly and had a mixed age audience who were very definitely “up for it!”. We all had fun doing this show!

I actually rang Panto Dame Damian Williams (at Sheffield this season) to return his Chicken Sandwich Joke. I told him it was virtually unused, and had one or two holes. He came up with a few other suggestions, but in the meantime I am resorting to a joke older than Grimaldi- the “Boiled Egg” gag. At least it gets a groan and sometimes a laugh! I have to say the other gags Damian gave me all get big laughs, so there was just one dud in the pile! I regret not being able to watch him on Sky One doing his show “Damian’s Are You Smarter Than A Ten Year Old”, but I’m always doing a show when its on.

Our Prince, Michael’s parents travelled from Wales to see the show, and thoroughly enjoyed it- we’ve had a few friends and relatives in this week, which is just as well, as after this week the tickets become extremely scarce- virtually sold out as from next week, give or take the odd few. Hoorah! The local paper “The Ilford Recorder” gave us a glowing revue, and we’re set to play to full house until January 23rd now.

The Bottom Fell Out Of My World

Well, to be accurate, my bottom fell out! In the “Drill Routine” I wear my “Slapper” outfit- the mini with the matching boots and huge pink beehive. It was pointed out to me that when I enquire if my bum looked big in it, it actually didn’t! To remedy this I thought I would enlarge it. I tried a cushion under my padded rear end, but that was too big, and pieces of foam were to small (I sound like Goldilocks now!) and then inspiration struck. Spare Boobs!

I’m sure many Dames keep a pair of spare boobs about their person. Mine were two removable  objects that Jordan would be proud of, and I thought they would make the ideal buttock substitute. This has worked well for several days. Sarah crams them in, and I get the right answer to my question. All went well until today. After a slightly energetic Rhumba movement, I could feel all was not well. One cheek was descending, and poking out from underneath the hem of my mini. To much mirth and amusement it fell out, and the bottom fell out of my world, so to speak! I will take my Rhumba a bit more sedate next show..

We revert to the 2.30 and the 7pm shows now until New Year’s eve, so we are more or less playing the same times as most other panto folk now. A few of them finish in one week’s time- with the school holidays being so much shorter now at Christmas, quite a few Pantomimes start earlier and are finished a week earlier than they used to.

Part Twelve - 29th December 2009

“Where There’s a Wills There’s a Way!”

We all got a phone call this morning to ask us to arrive at the theatre early- by one o’clock for a rehearsal. Those are the calls that make you jump. It means someone is off. I remember one a good while ago when I was shopping in Woking- it heralded the Rolf Harris Panto without Rolf for over two weeks. Rolf was very ill, and when we arrived at the theatre Gary Wilmot had already worked out a clever scheme whereby we all talked about Rolf a lot, but he never actually appeared. We all took various bits of his dialogue and split it up amongst us. No-one dared sing “Jake The Peg” or “Two Little Boys” I hasten to add!

Today it was Owen’s turn to be off. Due to a mishap he wouldn’t be here for the show, and a rehearsal of his various roles and scenes was called. Now generally the Ensemble cover the cast- in this case Owen was already playing Huntsman and understudying Muddles and the Henchman, so he in fact had no official understudy.

Rob our Technical Manager & Assistant Director took on the Huntsman role, and all eyes were drawn to our follow spot operator, William “Wills” Dignon as the obvious cover for Owen. It is not often that your follow spot operator can sing, dance and slot into a role at a moments notice, but here we were at an advantage. Wills is a veteran of six KMT pantomimes- all undertaken while he was a juvenile with the Palmerstone Stage School.

Wills, in fact was Dippy in an earlier Snow White here when he was seven years old, and appeared on this stage from the age of four until he was sixteen with Palmerstone- and then the lure of sport and a potential contract with a football club led to him moving away from the hoofing and into the huffing and puffing of first football, and now Rugby.- he plays for Woodford RUC when he gets the chance.

Wills has been watching the show obviously from his lofty perch in the “follow spots”, and fortunately had memorised quite a bit of the show. He very quickly ran through a few routines, an appearance as a ghost, an appearance as a Football Player (Ironic, but true!) and as one of Flower Fairylands spirits, as well as taking over the dancing clown in the Toy Room Scene. In fact, he filled in more than admirably in all the parts with a quick half-hour rehearsal. Rob performed the Hunstman, delivered the Heart Of A Pig to the Wicked Queen, and the audience was none the wiser that we were actually one down!

This will be something to tell his mates when he returns to Nottingham University in twelve days time- “What did you do in the Christmas break?” “Oh, I follow spotted a pantomime then played Clown, Ghost, Villager, Attendant and Courtier.. What did you do?”

It all made for an interesting show, I have to say. After the matinee Owen rejoined us, and Wills returned to the lighting gallery at the back of the auditorium- this now making his seventh KMT pantomime appearance over the years!

We’re in for some colder weather now, but at the moment our houses are doing fine. Today for example, we had a large party cancel on us (travel problems) and yet astonishingly we picked up 80 people “on the doors”- people who rang up on the day for tickets. Unusual, and I think it means word of mouth is getting around. Certainly there’s not many seats left after the 6th January until the 23rd.

From Simon and myself, Blwyddyn Newydd Dda iawn I chi - A Very Happy and Healthy New Year to you.

Part Thirteen - Eastenders Comes East - 2nd January 2010

First shows of 2010 today- early ones at 1pm and 4.30pm. I really like these early week-end times. It seems a convenient time for families to bring younger children, and, of course, I get to be sitting on my own couch at by 7.15pm of a weekend having done two shows- how good is that?

The first show was a jolly one, all the better for having had two full days off- I’m sorry to keep mentioning it, but we do get a good deal here at the KMT with regards to holidays! The only down side was that the “cold” Quick Change area was almost sub zero, having had two days to chill out completely. Putting on those icy frocks was an ordeal, and seeing steam issuing forth from Sarah’s mouth only made me move quicker!

No time for a nap between, as we have half an hour before the next “Half Hour Call”. I realise there are mates to call before their pantomimes finish tomorrow. All over the UK a fair number will finish tomorrow, January 3rd. Most of these have been open well before us, and with earlier starts (some in November, others around December 5th) they are finishing now just as the school holidays finish.

Amongst the pantomimes finishing their runs tomorrow are Blackpool, Basingstoke, Bournemouth, Llandudno, Crawley, Southsea, Torquay, Tunbridge, St.Albans, Poole, Grimsby and Gravesend- so if you were planning a visit, too late I’m afraid!

Here at Ilford we are actually almost completely sold out now after the 6th, which is heart warming. Each year in May we take our Panto Roadshow around the local schools, so I’d like to think that helps open channels of communication with local primary schools when it comes to panto time- and helps with bookings.

The second show we knew we had a few special visitors in to see the show, and delighted to see my neighbour Anna Karen in to watch the show, along with Anna’s telly sister Barbara Windsor and Scott Mitchell- an Eastender’s trip out East- except that Anna already lives here, and has done for a very long time! Barbara’s panto career is spotlighted here on the IBY main page, and one still lives in hope that there might be one or two magical Windsor pantomimes yet to be seen in the future! Scott  has made many a panto appearance as Dandini and Prince Charming, and Anna has a great many panto Fairies, Empresses and Step-Mothers under her belt, often in the Guise of “Fairy Olive”, in recognition of her “On The Buses” character from TV and film.

While this Telly Family were in the house seats, they were joined by a member of my own family, Anthony Lynn, my cousin,  who is on a visit from seeing his parents in Swansea, en route for his home in Florida and New York.

Cousin Anthony and Viv

Anthony  is no stranger to the world of panto, having played Wishee Washee, and Idle Jack, Captain and Mate and assorted roles in panto here at the KMT and all over the UK- he is now Associate Producer for Disney, and puts on “Mary Poppins” in the States and abroad-it is shortly to open in Australia! It was so lovely to see him, it has been four years, and lovely to catch up with his news. Anthony recently caught up with his Swansea mate Catherine Zeta Jones (from the Mumbles, like Vivyan & Me!) in the Broadway version of “A Little Night Music”, where she stars with Angela Lansbury. Now add to this the co-incidence that our Michael Conway was chatting to me in the Green Room tonight- and we were talking cousins. His cousin is Michael Sheen, Hollywood star (Port Talbot born you see, like Michael!) and his other cousin is Caroline Sheen- an actress who will be playing Mary Poppins, produced by my cousin Anthony in America – small world of glittering show biz, huh Sweetie?!

Interesting Fact number 42. Isobel Hurll, our Wicked Queen has known Barbara Windsor since she was eighteen years old. They both worked at Winstons, and at Danny La Rue’s club in the West End (see our IBY Spotlight on Danny’s career), and have worked together many times since- and I have them both on DVD  in the Film “Come Spy With Me” starring Danny and Barbara with Isobel dressed in head to toe leather called “Rachel Prejudice” tying up Barbara in her role of Agnes while Danny, also dressed in leather sings a number!

Curious fact number 472. How Catherine Zeta Jones may well have my sheet music for George Formby’s “Mr Wu’s A Window Cleaner Now” in her bottom drawer in LA. Years ago  Cousin Anthony organised a big charity show at Swansea Grand for charity- Catherine was in “42nd Street” in London at that time. End of the night I returned home and discovered Catherine’s dots in my music file, and never found my Ukelele  dots. You never know….

Well, lovely to see our visitors this evening, and look forward to seeing more mates over the next few weeks as pantomimes finish, and folk are able to come over and see us. When this show ends I’ll be heading off to see both Birmingham Hippodrome with Joe in it, and Wolverhampton with Stefan and Nic Greenshields in it before they close.

Part Fourteen - 7th January 2010

“Ice To See You- To See You, Ice!”

Absolutely freezin’ here, but since that applies to all of Pantoland, I don’t need to tell you that. Stories abound of Pantomimes with closed circles and galleries, of houses reduced to sixty and eighty instead of the full houses that had booked- the snow has certainly left its mark.

Here in Ilford we have not had dramatic snowfall, but the areas that we serve, further out into Essex have been affected. Yesterday matinee was not good, with a large number of the audience cancelling. If the side roads are all blocked and some of the trains are not running, we are likely to see a reduction in our houses. I believe (looking on the message board) that Swindon fared about the same as us. There were not many in in the matinee, but we did better in the evening.

Our Front of House and Backstage Crew

Our greatest commuters are Ellie, Nathan, and  Jocelyn- they all rely on Public Transport in London, and Isobel who drives from Islington. The trains went back to normal after the Christmas break yesterday, only to be disrupted by the Snow. Once again trains have trouble reaching Ilford from Liverpool Street. And this with just an inch or two of snow? Glad we’re not doing “Snow White” in Canada!

At least the Snow is in keeping with both our title and our Act One Finale. When we opened how the children gasped at the Snow falling on Snow White’s Cottage. How they cheered! Now they look up thinking someone has left the window open!

Today, Wednesday we had our “Grab Bag” or “Secret Santa” between shows. Everyone gathered in the Green Room to hear a poem about them read out, and receive their surprise prezzie. It was all wonderfully civilised and there were some excellent verses- all as clean as Snow in fact! Honestly! What a refined lot we are!

I have been forced to abandon the “Cold Side”. That sounds very “Star Wars” on relection. “Heed the Warm Side Luke”- The Cold Side (The Quick Change Area Stage Right) was not luke. It was not cold. It was Sub Zero. Sarah and I have suffered for our art for too long, and, as the freeze set in we could literally see our breath. Not good when standing in your knickers with your teeth chattering. (That being me, not Sarah. She’s no fool!)

We moved everything into the off stage WARM Quick Change Room. It is very crowded, and I have to leg it across the back passage (sigh. I know it is Panto but please….) and it means we have to be a little faster, but OH! What a difference! No longer dreading the changes and fearing pneumonia. Here we are, and here we stay!

To those travelling to see a panto- Bless you all! Keep warm and keep safe, and that applies to all those trudging through the Snow and Ice to put make up on and entertain those frozen travellers.

Part Fifteen - 8th January 2010 - KMT Birthday Party

Despite the cold and the ice rink that has formed where a pavement used to be, we were full this evening, and in fact had one of the best houses we’ve had- a very jolly lot they were. Just as well really, as this is the Kenneth More Theatre’s 35th Birthday today!

This very day all those years ago my Brother Vivyan opened the doors on this theatre for the first time. There were a good few faces here tonight who were there that evening, including Barbara Hills (Barbara heads the Theatre Club which keeps the KMT afloat with many volunteer staff front of house, and raises considerable sums of money for the KMT both backstage and front of house- hence our lovely posh Green Room!)

The Chairman of the Board Clr Ronnie Barden made a speech praising the theatre and all us lot what appeared this evening, mentioning the astonishing fact that Robert (Quarry) has been in every single pantomime since we began! Then after a speech by Vivyan, the birthday cake was cut, and a good time was had by all. Not too good a time as a good few had to brave the Over ground and the Central line to get home, and we all have a 1pm matinee tomorrow.

The Welsh Mafia is on the increase here. Michael introduced us to his friend James Rees who also comes from South Wales- not just from my home town of Swansea, but the very area where a lot of my relatives hailed from- a few streets away in fact! I’m sure it’s a plot by Prince Michael to take over Essex myself! James has just returned from appearing on a cruise ship in Australia and has a tan that reminds us there actually is a sun out there somewhere- just not over the UK at present!

Ellie produced the prize for Tami, who won our quiz a few nights ago- a home baked cake of her choice- chocolate, in fact, and bless her, a second cake for the rest of us! This Snow White actually makes delicious cakes- a fact she tells the Dwarfs every show, but it is true. Two shows a day and still finds time to bake- that’s a true Fairy Tale!

A good few Pantomimes end this coming weekend- and by the 10th January my mates at Dartford “Cinderella” will be packing their buckets and spades and leaving Southend, as will the Eastbourne panto. Over at Dartford Lesley (Joseph) and Martin Ramsdin & David Robbins will have had their last night party, and the other pantos that finish this weekend include Bristol Hippodrome, Grays, Harlow, Ipswich , Guildford- Hilary O’Neil has her last night on Sunday, as well as Northampton, Hull, Swindon and High Wycombe.

Here at the KMT we have two full weeks left after this week, and after we close there will be only a handful left to run up to the end of January. Hopefully I’ll see two of them before the 31st- Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

Part Sixteen - 9th January 2010

Two shows today, at the delightful times of 1pm and 4.30pm- a really good idea if you are planning the company meal- means that you can do two shows, socialise and still be home in good time!

Both shows were very perky today. There was a moment in the second show when the spirit of “live theatre” showed itself. I picked my “man” from the audience as usual,  and then,  just as Muddles enters the haunted bedroom and wakes me up in my bed, as the door creaked open  a child’s voice yelled out “It’s Richard!” (the name of the man). The house cracked up. Rikki and I cracked up! You don’t get that in a DVD I tell you!

It started to snow in between shows, but thankfully didn’t seem to settle that much. I took the opportunity to ring my friend Jeffrey Longmore at Bromley. Jeff is Dame there, and their panto run finishes tonight- he’s been there with the truly delightful Claire Sweeney and has enjoyed a wonderful season.

I also rang Southend tonight to say farewell and wish everyone a great last night in “Cinderella” there. Brian Godfrey tells me that the panto run with Brian Conley has again beaten previous records, and took over the million pounds at the box office! I wished everyone a great show, and hope to see a few of the cast here at Ilford over the next couple of weeks.

Ron and Dougie

I was very honoured to have a visit from IBY regulars Dougie Cringle and Ron- they actually trained it down from Glasgow to see the show! How amazing is that? In all this snow and travel chaos. I was delighted to meet them, and to say “hello”- their names familiar to me from the site, but we’ve never met before. They are both seeing their sixth pantomime today, and head off to see Wimbledon then Glasgow (again) before the end of the panto season. Great to meet you guys!

We had our very first company meal tonight- a pizza no less, and there must have been about thirty of us there I guess? With all the commuting and the bad weather this is the first chance we’ve had to go out as a company.

During the breaks in the shows Rikki has been filming for our last night premier- last year he put together a film about the life backstage- well, the staged life backstage, and is following it up with a sequel for this year.

We said farewell to Wills tonight- he leaves us tomorrow. Sadly, with Owen not being able to finish the run now, we’ve relied on Wills, and tomorrow we welcome Phillip Rowlands into our team. Wills returns to Nottingham Uni. Cheers Wills, we’ll miss you!

Phil will be appearing as from tomorrow evening- a veteran of several KMT pantomimes he is also the voice of one of the Dwarfs, so he’ll be able to appear on stage and talk to himself with luck!

Company Meal

Part Sixteen - 13th January 2010

At last- the thaw! Streets are finally clearing, and the back of the theatre is not an ice rink anymore. The oddest entertainment item I’ve seen recently was that London’s “Winter Wonderland” in the park was cancelled due to snow!

Several full houses lately, despite the weather- and a large number of school parties, cubs, brownies and the like filling the seats.

Philip has now learned all the dance routines, and has five shows under his belt to date. Luke our Dep drummer was taken ill, and  Malcolm our regular drummer was not available until the second half of the show, so up to the line stepped Nicky Caulfield, our fly man! So, to date our Follow Spot operator, Wills has stepped in as chorus, and now our Fly man steps in to drum the first half of the show, until Malcolm arrived and took over!

Nick and his twin brother Lee (on follow spots) already have a brief moment on stage wearing blond wigs which gets a big reaction, and now Nick can add drumming a panto to his credits. Talking of the flys, we suffered a mishap on Tuesday evening. After the “Mirror Routine” the cloth flew out, but the cables on the flying bar came off the main wheel, and wedged solidly. The cloth was stuck with three foot of it on show.

Fortunately this cloth is only used the once in the show. Had it wedged when it was flown in, we would have faced two options- cancel the show (never!) or play every single scene with the available scenery BELOW this wedged cloth! Fortunately it was stuck up in the air, unfortunately it would not budge. A phone call was made to the “AA” of flying, so to speak, at 9pm that evening, and  by 8.30am Tony Doulch who originally designed our system was diverted from a job in Scarborough to reach us. It took an hour to release the flying line, and we are fully operational now! A long day for Rob our Technical Manager- in at 8.am and after the two shows home at 10pm.

Delighted to have two visitors tonight- my old mate Susie McKenna and Tameka Empson. Tameka has just finished playing Empress Of China in Susie’s  Hackney Empire “Aladdin”. Susie has had a busy season directing and producing the Empire show as well as a revival of her “Christmas Carol” with Gareth Hale at the Arts Theatre in London. Lovely to see them both- Susie in my eyes is still the best Principal Boy- the doyen of many pantomimes at Nottingham Playhouse, Oldham and for Paul Elliott- she played Dandini with us in several pantomimes in the past. To find out a little more about Susie you can check out an interview I recorded with Susie a while back on this site.

As we now only have fourteen shows left I think we might be seeing an increase in visitors- the only worry is, I think many of the shows are sold out! Sunday is going to be an interesting day- my friends Jack and Ian will be seeing the show, having recently flown in from a snow bound New York, and will be sitting in an auditorium with virtually every Mayor in London, from Hackney to Westminster on our annual “Mayor’s Night”- more of that later! By sheer co-incidence London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson will be making an appearance at the KMT the next day (our day off, so our stage is at your disposal Boris) and my dressing room will be occupied by a glamorous blond friend of mine  who is NOT Boris! All will be revealed later!

Now more shows and hopefully no more snow!

Part Seventeen - 14th & 15th January 2010

Thursday

Delighted to have the sheer luxury of just one show today, and one Friday. Having spoken to mates in Pantoland still doing two shows every day, I feel very grateful of this chance to rest up a bit, and then enjoy the evening show for a change.

Also delighted to have two visitors to the show on Thursday Evening- Keith “’Appy” Hopkins, and Barrie Stacey. Keith was Dame here the year before last, and last year for Paul Holman. Keith has been playing Dame and directing pantomimes for a good many years- he learned his trade working with the late Tommy Trafford.

Keith has been a bit poorly this year, and fortunately is now well on the road to recovery- he most certainly looks it, and will be given the all clear to return to work in March. He’ll be directing the spring seasons for Barrie a few weeks after that.

Barrie is now I believe this country’s oldest working producers and agents. He is bringing his children’s show “Hansel & Gretel” here shortly, and taking “Goldilocks” and “Jungle Book” to theatres around the UK as he has done since the 1960’s. Barrie is into his ‘Eighties, and as spry and as witty as he has always been.

Peter & I were put together by Barrie. It was his suggestion (we were both “with” Barrie’s agency, but had not actually met) that I meet up with Peter Robbins and discuss the possibility of playing “Sister” at Ilford in 1981. Peter had played the part at Crewe, and Barrie, so acutely as it turned out, believed we would “hit it off”.

Twenty nine years down the line I was talking to Barrie tonight when he said something that made me feel terribly humbled and deeply touched. Barrie turned to me and very quietly said “Peter would be proud”.

 Thank you Barrie for introducing us. Thank you for your amazing insight.

Friday

A cracking show tonight- audience most definitely up for having fun! During the half hour call I was introduced to a lady from Holland who is studying make-up. This gave me a chance to put a few pics on this diary in response to e-mails I get often. I’m often asked about the Dame make-up. How long does it take, what sort of make up is it..so I decided to provide a very brief guide to “The Seven Minute Dame” here and now!

The Seven Minute Dame.- Not recommended to everyone, but years of putting make-up on in a hurry (too much gossip and tea during the half hour calls) years of throwing it on in kitchens, swimming pool changing rooms, disabled lavatories (we had a tea party in one for E&B’s publicity Guru, Lara O’Connor once- early Roadshow days!), years of applying make up in freezing scene docks (No dressing Rooms) and in corridors have led to the “Seven Minute Dame”. First switch on your iPod (it used to be turn on your cassette, but you get the idea) and make certain you have shaved first. Sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin!

Step One:

Curiously I never sit comfortably. I have no idea why, but I’ve developed a habit of applying my make-up standing up. Generally wearing my jeans and moving about.

The first thing I do is to block out my eyebrows using “Eyebrow Plastic” (like all of my make up it comes from Charles Fox Ltd in Covent Garden. If you are reading this Chas Fox, can I get a discount now?)

The eyebrow plastic is sometimes called “Morticians Wax”- I guess it has other uses, but it is the modern version of “Soaping out” your eyebrows with a piece of soap. It forms a layer that adheres to the make up base.

The Base: Step Two:

The base I use is Pancake. Fox’s used to refer to it as “Peaches & Cream” but it is boring called number 5W now. Not so romantic eh? I don’t sweat. I mean it. I actually virtually never sweat, so water based make up is great for me. If you sweat a lot you will probably need to use grease based make-up. Before I apply the base pancake with a damp sponge I do apply a very small amount of grease (same colour 5W) directly under the eyes. This is (cough) “an age thing”.. I know, approaching thirty this is no worry to me, but one must plan for the future..

The grease is applied, then the pancake goes over face & neck, and the eyebrows all but vanish. We have the blank canvas.

Step Three: The Lenses

Those myopically challenged Dames will know this bit. I only wear lenses for stage, so I put them in about now- definitely they go in before the eye make up is started. The lenses are popped in and then sadly, the rest of the process is a blurry task performed by guesswork, by touch and using a huge magnifying mirror! I used to watch dear Danny, bless him, as he applied his make-up so beautifully and so swiftly. He used a magnifier, but mostly his make up was performed by touch. He didn’t see so well in his later years, but he knew where it went.

I can’t see anything close up once the lenses are in, so I lean very closely to shiny reflective surfaces and get on with it.

Step Three: The Highlights, Colours and Eye brows

I use water based colour for the eyes, a mid blue Kryolin colour that goes on with water and a child’s paint brush. It is the right shape and thickness for the eye shadow which is painted over my blocked out eyebrows.

Just above that blue goes a line of white highlight- again a water based paint, put on with a thinner brush, and with a finer brush the same white is applied to just below my lower eyelid. This “widens” the eye. It replaces what we used to do with a grease stick of White Leichner (number 20) and a sharp cocktail stick! The brush method is MUCH safer!

The trickiest bit of all (I may be speaking for all Dames here- I’m not sure) is the eyebrow. I personally “trace” the brows with a black eye pencil very lightly. Then, if satisfied they are in the right shape, I fill them in properly with black water based paint, using another brush I have chosen because it is the right thickness.

Brows are tricky. You can one perfect, but the mirror one (usually the right one for me, as I’m right handed) can be tricky to match. One can be a bit too thin, so you thicken. Ooops.. now the other one needs to be thickened- ooops! Now more.. and you can end up looking like Groucho Marx.

The other highlight is on the top of the cheek bones and the bridge of the nose- I use “Stargazer” white powder for this, again applied in seconds with a brush, followed by the rosy red cheeks which go on with a Stargazer red powder and brush.

Step Four: The Eyes and The Lips.

The other tricky bit! I use liquid liner- black to draw a thin line under my eyes, and a thicker line on the upper eyelid. It extends out a tiny bit in an echo of ballet or “opera” eye make up. Not too much, but a tad.

The eye liner can clog, or spatter, or “bleed”- this depends on two things. The younger your skin, the easier it is to draw a straight line with eye liner- those of us in our prime find tiny lines can get in the way, but you have to be bold and lick it across the lower eye with one swift stroke, then keep your eye perfectly still for twenty seconds until it dries. Then on to the next eye.

Finally the lips are applied. Some use a brush, I slap it on with a lipstick purchased from Charles Fox. Expensive, but only theatrical “lippie” will contain the depth of pigment you need for stage- akin to the old “Carmine” stick of Leichner make up. I use 080 by kryolin, or “Hollywood Red” as they used to call it. Peter always referred to it as “Slut Red!”

I outline the lips with a sharp black eyeliner pencil, and then apply the lashes.

Lashes- I use Clown Type lashes- I buy them in bulk, forty pairs at a time. I use the self adhesive strip they come with (I find it sticks better than copydex or eyelash glue personally) and I customise them by cutting them to shape (they are plastic) and shortening them to suit my eye shape. They are stuck to the eye socket, not on the eyelash- that way you cannot see them at all when they are on- I mean I cannot see them! I thicken them with a quick lick of liquid eyeliner. Like my contact lenses, I tend to use these lashes as daily disposables- sometimes I recycle a pair for a “one Show Day”, but as a rule I’m happier with a new pair each day. I feel justified as I made a pair of thick black plastic lashes last three years once as “Sister”- they were doused in boiling water each night, and glued on with copydex each day, and lasted for years!

The final make-up product I have is Theatrical Blending Powder. It is for powdering down greasepaint really, but I use it for two reasons. It helps to dust a shiny nose in the interval, and, more importantly for me- I have it in the red cardboard circular container it has always been packaged in, because of the smell. Since I was a child there is one smell that instantly says “Theatre” to me- it is the smell of Leichner pink theatrical blending powder. Nothing else smells like it- to me it will always mean “Show Time!”

It sounds long, it sounds involved, but it really does only take between seven or nine minutes in total- honest guv!

Part Eighteen - 17th & 18th January 2010

Two shows today, beginning with the 1pm matinee. I think today a few of us reached “The Wall”. “The Wall” is that moment in a run when you discover that you are tired, and it quite often comes about a week before the end of the run. As a rule the last week tends to fill up with visitors, kids parties backstage, the Panto Last Night Party, and the final week flashes by.

Certainly today I found myself thinking I was tired- first time this run really, but then you shrug it off, and gird your loins (whatever they are!) and storm ahead. We sell energy in Pantoland. We sizzle with it- hopefully- we crackle with it- we feed off the energy that the audience gives us, and admitting you’d like to curl up in a corner sucking your thumb once in a while is permissible! Hello Wall!

Both shows went well. My show time genuinely flies by. My indulgence as author was to write myself in as last on- about fifteen minutes after the panto starts. During that fifteen minutes I can quietly potter in the dressing room, idly dusting my nose and listening to the audience reaction on the tannoy. When Rikki starts his number Sarah appears, and she helps me clamber into Dame Dolly’s opening costume, and reminds me to put my radio microphone on FIRST rather than forget it, and try and stuff it down my frock after it has been done up!

More visitors - Shelley Wyatt, Natalie Cleverley and her daughter Lori, and Jason Belne

I meander down the stairs, and that is the last time I see the dressing room until the end of the interval. From fifteen minutes in to the show Sarah and I are changing, I’m going onstage, and then changing – from Opening into Football (two costumes in one) then into Nursery & crinoline, and out of that into the Picnic base. Short break- enough time to make and take a few sips of tea, then into the picnic table, into the mirror routine dress & trousers, then its break time!

Ten minutes later Miss Ford and I are to be found upstairs, me clambering into the fourteen pieces that make up the strip, waddling downstairs and then we’re off and running again. This carries on through the bedroom scene, the Copacabana, the Drill routine, the Coat and Hat, the Pink and lilac costume that everyone seems to like the best- and then its finale time. All this in the space of two hours total! Hello Wall!

SUNDAY- Mayor’s Night!

Again, two shows, but the second one is a show with a difference. Today the KMT plays host, as it does every year to most of the Mayors and their consorts and their accompanying children in a special performance. It was quite something to be in my position- looking out at a sea of solid gold chains gleaming in the reflected light! We had very many dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the mayors of Richmond, Morden, Enfield, Southwark, Barking & Dagenham, Kingston, Waltham Forest, Redbridge (of course! We are in Redbridge) and many others.

The Mayors and their chosen children were entertained across the road in the Town Hall by our Mayor, and given a tea party, before heading across the road to see the show. A very jolly one it was too!

Dame Dolly’s “Boyfriend, ”picked from the audience  today was Ian, the Mayor of  Kingston Upon Thames- and I couldn’t have asked for better- a great sport!

I also had three friends in at this performance- newly flown in from New York- Jack Watters and Ian Archer-Watters . Ian has recently retired from a dancing career with Les Ballets Grandiva which took him to forty cities across the globe. Delighted to welcome Britt Ekland  at the KMT today, Britt has just  returned from playing Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella” at Torquay.  I managed to get them seats next to each other, and then at the end of the show Alex Hanrahan did a great job of looking after them in the dressing room while us lot in the show had our picture taken with all those Mayors on the stage. An amazing photograph, which I look forward to adding to this Diary soon!

It was so good to catch up with Jack, Ian and Britt, and get all their news. I think it was a year to the day almost that Jack visited Peter & I in Nottingham to see “Cinderella”- what a year this has been since. Britt I will also be seeing again tomorrow!

Having visited us here at the KMT for the first time, she’ll return tomorrow on my day off to borrow my dressing room for a photo shoot. The photograph taken will be destined for an exhibition that will raise money (and awareness) for Guide Dogs For The Blind, with the acclaimed photographer Adrian Huston exhibiting the photographs. Britt’s lively chihuahua Tequila will be with her tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to calling in after the photo shoot is over.

A little weary tonight, but we have a day and a half off then, as I mentioned, the week will just fly by. Every day there are mates in from Pantoland, and a couple of parties to attend- it will really speed by in a flash.

A Mayor or two!

Monday 18th

Just called in at the KMT to say “Hi” to Britt and Tequila- they were having their photo shoot in the dressing room- Tequila very proud in a sparkly collar, whilst chaos reigned below in Panto land. The Boris Johnson scenic vans had arrived and a great number of people were putting up a set on our stage, removing all elements of Pantomime in readiness for Boris’s public talk/meeting on the environment this evening.

Nigel, Tequila and Britt

A  Blonde Hollywood Star in the dressing Room, and A Blonde Boris due to arrive- the KMT was fair bristling with excitement !

THE STAGE REVIEW - Mary Redman 18th January 2010

Vivyan Ellacott, KM Theatre’s legendary general manager, retires soon. We hope he’s retained as director of Ilford’s technically groundbreaking pantomime. His “baby brother” Nigel writes scripts and designs utterly fabulous, high quality costumes.

Snow White lives up to this long-established reputation. A pin-sharp script, immaculate comedy timing and great legs combine to make Nigel Ellacott’s “Salvation Armani”-wearing, banjo-playing, burlesque-influenced Dame totally in control.

Local young talent Rikki Stone consolidates his full of fizz, confident Muddles, while Michael Conway - soon to be in Jersey Boys - is a good-looking Prince, with lovely Ellie Robertson as his charming heroine. Both romantic characters having excellent singing voices.

Loraine Porter’s forgetful, snazzy Fairy also choreographs in bright fashion. Imperious Isobel Hurll’s Queen channels Catherine Tate, with Robert Quarry as quavering Ramsbottom.

Special effects and cutting-edge technology are Vivyan Ellacott’s trademark. His magic mirror, Dame’s shopping film and novel way of finding audience patsy Matt don’t disappoint.

Although our posteriors would enjoy a running time cut, this show, packed with fast paced action and mercifully no shocking pyros, is superb.

Part Nineteen - 19th & 20th January 2010

Hard to believe it, but we’re into our last week. Only eight performances to go, and full houses for every show- packed to the rafters we are! We’re getting a good few school parties in at the moment, both afternoon and evenings, more so than individuals booking the panto I’d say.

Very delighted to welcome Kathryn Rooney and Michael Harrison to the KMT this evening. It’s not Kathryn’s first visit, as she and I have attended a corporate event here before. Kathryn is currently rehearsing “Calendar Girls” tour which sets out on the road next week. Kathryn has been with the play in the West End up until now, and goes out with it for the next twelve weeks. The first leg of the tour has Lynda Bellingham, Gemma Atkinson, Judith Barker (Judith is the wife of Nottingham Panto Dame Kenneth Alan Taylor), Hannah Waterman, Letitia Dean and Jan Harvey.

Michael and Kathryn

Later in the spring the cast changes to add Anne Charleston, Charlie Dimmock and Sue Holderness. For tonight I think Kathryn will be firmly in the realms of Snow White, having played the role so many times in panto!

Michael, of course is the head of all things Pantomime for Qdos. He has been travelling the length and breadth of the UK overseeing the productions as well as writing and directing the Birmingham Hippodrome panto “Sleeping Beauty”- a brand new title for Qdos, and “Cinderella” at Newcastle. I am not certain how many pantomimes Michael has seen this season, but it must be around twenty! We were joined by Andrew Ryan tonight- newly returned from Nottingham Theatre Royal’s “Jack And The Beanstalk” which ended its long run on Sunday. Andrew has been giving his Dame Trott with Paul Zerdin as Jack and Nigel Havers as Fleshcreep for the past six weeks.

My friend Terry Powell was in to see the matinee today, and gave me some very useful prop advice that will help with the strip routine- Terry has been working on pantomimes for a long while now, and has worked with the principal set designers from Tod Kingman at the Palladium to Terry Parsons in recent years.

Also delighted to see my friend Chris Abbott at the Panto tonight. Chris lectures at the London University and is encyclopaedic when it comes to panto. He is currently working on a book that will feature the history of the pantomimes produced at the Salisbury Playhouse, and the connection with the Salberg dynasty of pantomimes. Chris has given us an exclusive sneak preview of some of the information in an article he has written especially for IBY.

Wednesday 20th

Took a brave, or possibly foolish step tonight of taking a secondary school group to task during the Boudoir Scene! I’m not sure whether it was in Dame Dolly’s remit, but I’m afraid they were a little “over excited” and after a  good few gags were crushed by random heckling and misguided shouting out, I decided a quick lesson in Panto Etqiuette was due, so I gave them a few pointers in panto behaviour! It solicited a round of applause from a large group of  ladies from the WI, the school party behaved itself from there on, and all was well in pantoland! There is a time and a place for yelling “Its Behind You” and during punchlines and songs is not one of ‘em! Fortunately their energy was controlled and remained vibrant, so we did enjoy a jolly show!

Colin and Chris

It was a full house for both shows today, and I did manage a quick nap in between shows briefly. Still trying to avoid sugary things during the break, as it does make me want to curl up and shut down! Visitors tonight included Panto Dame Christopher Marlowe. Chris has just finished panto at the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill will Linda “Birds Of A Feather” Robson in “Beauty And The Beast”, Chris and partner Colin Luke travelled up from Southsea tonight to see the show, and it was lovely to see them both. Chris of course is no stranger to the KMT, having appeared in a good many pantomimes here, and , along with Andrew Ryan appeared in the long running UK and European tours of “The Rocky Horror Show” which originated here.

Dave and Kevin

A good night for visitors, my friends Dave Windmill and Kevin Moriarty were here to see the show- they have seen various versions of the Brian Conley Cinderella over the past few years, and made the trip here to see my “First Dame”. Sitting right in the front row (all other seats booked a while back) were Kevin Powling and Gerry Westley from Planet Visual Wigs. Kevin and Gerry have been mates for a very very long time, and have created panto wigs for me since the early 1980’s- and create  Wigs  for Dames and Sisters, fairies and villains throughout the country. They also provide wigs for musicals like Dr Doolittle and Phantom Of The Opera as well as for film and Television. Formerly “Bodyline” they now work with Planet Wigs producing those solid fibre wigs we rely on so heavily in Pantoland. If you want big hair, it has to be a creation of Kevin and Gerry’s you put on your head!

Kevin and Gerry (and in the background above Nigel's head a picture of Simon!)

Part Twenty - 21st - 23rd January 2010 - The Last Days

Thursday 21st January 2010

Matinee:

Two shows today, unusually, as we would normally be doing one, but the schools are still booking, and the houses are full, so hoorah for us! The Matinee was quite gentle, as the average age of the audience was very young, and some of Dame Dolly’s material went “Whoosh” over their tiny heads!

So very delighted today to have some special visitors in the shape of Freddie Lees, one of the country’s top Pantomime Dames,  and Bob West who has known me, and indeed my cousin Anthony for a good many years. Bob worked for Cameron Mackintosh and was based in Islington for a long while.

Freddie, Nigel and Bob

Freddie Lees is my hero! When I was growing up in Swansea Freddie was a regular at the Swansea Grand Theatre, appearing in rep and in pantomimes- sadly not all the time, as his panto career took him all over the country, as the favoured Dame of the “Big Names”, including Ken Dodd. Freddie would make guest appearances in the rep, and these were my special times t “The Grand”- to see him as Fancourt Babberly in “Charley’s Aunt” was to watch a true master of comedy at work.

Later, my Brother Vivyan moved from the “Grand”, where he worked with John Chilvers MBE, to open this theatre in Ilford, and it was a huge thrill for me to appear in “Puss In Boots” (as “Puss”) with Freddie here at the KMT, something I have never forgotten. Watching a master craftsman at work is something we all hope to be able to do, and I am so grateful I got that chance. Not just here, but seeing Freddie in pantos around the UK, in shows like “Oliver” in The West End, and on tour-in comedies like “My Fat Friend”, in “Last Tango At Whitby” and “The Sunshine Boys”. Most recently I saw Freddie with my friend Brian Conley in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at the London Palladium as the Toy Maker.

It was a great joy to have him in for the matinee today, even if I did feel nervous at the prospect. Seeing Freddie work a pathos scene as Dame is one of life’s treasures. Singing “You’re my everything” as he stitches Aladdin’s trousers, or sending Daisy The Cow off to market- no other Dame that I have seen has ever handled true pathos that brilliantly- A lot of Dames can be funny- and none more so than Freddie Lees, but they can’t all bring a tear to the eye like he can. Such a joy to have him and Bob in today.

You could say it was “Wicked”- a bad link to our other visitors- direct from the Apollo Victoria where they are appearing in “Wicked” we had Sean Needham, Michelle Theunissen and her husband Pharic Scott watching the show today. So great to see them, and knowing how tight they were for time, we worked out a plan so they could depart ten minutes before the panto finished to allow them to get back for their show- they have a warm up at 6.20pm in Victoria- tight timing, but thankfully they made it!

Sean, of course is no stranger to Panto, having played Prince Charming in the Brian Conley Qdos “Cinderella” with me for several years. He’s often been to see the KMT panto each year. Michelle and Pharic were both here last year in “Aladdin”, so it was a chance for us all to catch up before the show, and during the interval, before they all had to fly off.

Between shows the “Babes”- the fourteen Palmerstone Juveniles has their party and disco (are they still called Discos?) in the studio theatre- goody bags and fizzy drinks all round!

Phillip fitting in well!

Evening:

We’re awash with Dames in this building today! Upstairs in our Studio Theatre this week we have Damian Williams rehearsing for his tour of “The Mating Game”. Damian has just finished panto at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield for Evolution, as Dame in “Beauty And The Beast”. Sarah Whitlock, Fairy Godmother is also rehearsing with Damian, and as Freddie Lees left the building after the matinee another two Dames arrived- Nick Wilton and Brian Godfrey! Add Andrew Ryan to the assembled crowd and we have a good many Dames!

Nick has just finished playing Dame in Snow White at Weston Super Mare, for Paul Holman Associates, and Brian Godfrey has just completed the “Cinderella” run at Southend with Brian Conley as “Sister” alongside Darren Southworth.

Nick brought the lovely Lynette McMorrough with him- his good lady wife, and direct from Weston we had Jody Crosier who played Prince in the pantomime, and – “listen carefully, I will say theese just wonce”,..Vicki Michelle who played the Wicked Queen.

Brian and Jody

Jody of course has played Dandini in the Conley Cinderella with me for a good few years, and, by co-incidence ran into his fencing partner and Prince Charming Sean Needham who was rushing off as he arrived!

Vicki Michelle arrived with husband Graham Fowler- I’ve appeared in a few Panto gala shows with Vicki- we did a big gala at the Hippodrome a few years back, but I’ve never done a panto run with her- so far. Vicki is a local lass too!

Daisy the Cow arrived tonight- in the big wicker basket she left Ilford in during November- she went off on her holidays as a hire to Paul Holman. Paul brought along both Daisy The Cow and his business associate John Ogle to see the panto, and of course ran into his Weston Super Mare cast at the same time. Its like a huge Green Room here at the KMT at times!

I was doing the birthdays spot in the panto tonight, just towards the end of the show and glanced over to the extreme right of the auditorium- grinning up at me was my mate Brian Herring and next to him Simon Lipkin! I’d not noticed them before, but I’d heard some “pro” laughter coming from that direction from time to time, and had no idea they were both in to see the show.

Brian, master puppeteer and panto writer had worked with Peter Robbins on several of the Henson Muppet Movies, and on “Little Shop Of Horrors” film for Warner Brothers- he came up to see us both in Nottingham last year when we did panto there. He’s now come to see “My First Dame”, almost a year to the day.

Local lad Simon, like Nick Wilton has appeared in panto here at the KMT- Simon in fact played Muddles in our last “Snow White” five years ago, and both he and Brian Herring have just completed a very long run in Susie McKenna’s “A Christmas Carol” at the Arts Theatre London starring Gareth Hale as Scrooge.

All in all that is one “pro packed” audience tonight! The show was great, and is was so lovely to meet up with everyone in the bar afterwards, and to catch up on the panto news. Brian Godfrey and Vicki Michelle are now about to tour together in “Wife Begins At Forty”,and I’ll get to see it when it tours to Bromley or Southend soon I hope!

FRIDAY: Fish And Chips!

Just one show today, which was great- and traditionally the KMT hosts the awards ceremony and “Fish And Chips” supper at the end of the show.

For a couple of weeks now there has been a stack of nomination papers and a box to place your potential award suggestions left in the green room. Rikki I think has been the most prolific poster of nominations- between filling out the forms and making his mysterious “Last Night Film” on his camcorder, he’s been a powerhouse of activity! This film is being made with Michael, and the plan is, I think, to show it straight after the last performance!

Another Pantomime Dame visited today- James Horne, recently returned from panto at Peterborough. So good to see James again. He arrived with “Premier Pantomimes” producer, Stuart Morrison fresh from their “Beauty And The Beast” at the Cressett Theatre.

James Horne, Stuart Morrison, John and Nigel

We had a swift catch up after the show, and then we had to dash to the theatre’s studio for our sit-down supper, organised by Barbara Hills, who heads the Kenneth More Theatre Club. The club provides the amazing teams of front of house volunteers who keep the KMT afloat. During the evening Vivyan made a speech praising their work in keeping the theatre going during the terrible weather conditions we had. When audiences could barely get here the volunteers were already here to welcome the snow bound travellers! Our valiant volunteers were in attendance at the “do” tonight.

The Fish and Chips devoured, Vivyan begins the award ceremony- this usually takes an hour or so, and involves some deep ritual humiliation and raucous laughter all round! The prizes themselves are generally not worth the price of admission, but in this case they were novel!

A Selection of photos from Fish and Chips Evening 2010

When Dame Dolly makes “her” entrance, she is accosted by the Paparazzi, snapping flash photographs. What I hadn’t realised was that these disposable flash cameras actually have film in them! The awards were the results of Jocelyn, Tami, Owen, Nathan (and then Wills and Philip) snapping away . Not great photographic works of art they were mostly pictures of Dolly’s elbow, the back of her head, a corner of her shopping bag or the floor- but they were “of the moment” and extremely cutting edge!

Delighted to have Owen back with us for the supper, along with Wills joining us (he sets off for Amsterdam tomorrow. Uni has changed since my day, I’m sure he’s only been back a few days?) and a very jolly time was had by all!

Andrew Ryan, Wills, Nigel, Owen and Mark Seymour

Loraine presented Vivyan with a panto memento, speeches were made, and the wine was flowing. It seems like in a few hours we will be back here for the final two performances. In fact it IS in a few hours- our first show is at 1pm!

Saturday: The Last Day.

Today’s special visitor was the Man In The Mirror himself, Peter Beadle. Peter recorded the voice of the Magic Mirror back in November, and this is the first time he had heard it! He brought his family along, and young son Charlie seemed singularly unimpressed at his Dad’s acting- I think he preferred the bit where the Wicked Queen gets trapped in the mirror! It was fun asking those who had never met Peter what they thought he looked like, based on just his voice! Tall dark and distinguished was the verdict!

He has been Abanazar and Emperor Of China here in KMT Pantos of the past, and I had the great joy of touring with Peter in “Wind In The Willows” when he played Badger a good few years ago, and it has been great working with him again, even if he wasn’t actually there!

The shows flew by today. The last ones always do. The packing up starts with bits and pieces in the dressing room being packed away. I generally strip my room before the second show, leaving only “honey Bear” up on the wall. This mascot bear was given to me by Suzanne Kaye over thirty three years ago- maybe more! We played “Mother Goose” at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre and it was my first night present from Suzanne, the Principal girl. We’ve been friends ever since, and “Honey Bear” has been in every show I have ever done. He is the last thing to go in my bag as I leave.

Both houses were excellent, and a great feeling of relief flooded over me as we neared the end. It has been something of a journey this panto. The relief I guess is in actually making it. I know one thing- I made the right decision to do this season here at home. I cannot explain the huge amount of support and help I’ve received. I guess that is family- not just actual family, but that family that you acquire every time you do a pantomime.

All Packed Away - almost!

Ask any Panto performer- they’ll tell you that within a few short weeks a family is created within the company- it compensates for being away, from not seeing your friends or real family maybe, it suffers with you through colds and freezing conditions and laughs with you when things go wrong on stage, or when they go well!

Here at the KMT there was already a huge family feeling, due to the fact that so many of the performers and the crew and the front of house staff have all worked together so many times. Where else do you get actors who have appeared here for 35  years like Robert- for over twenty years like Loraine and Isobel? This family welcomes the new members- Ellie, Jocelyn, Nathan and Michael, and welcomes back their previous members- myself included.

Rikki and Michael presented their half hour film at the end of the final show. We all sat in the auditorium and fell about laughing at the film. It was funny and it was filthy but most of all it was made with great affection and joy.Isobel’s scenes and Michael’s very funny contribution were extremely funny, and I will never be able to watch an advert for sofas the same after this!

Afterwards Loraine very kindly supplied a buffet and we were able to say good-bye properly- so often the curtain falls and half the cast have gone by the time you hang your boobs up!

The Crew

I have had an incredible journey over the past two months. I’ve learnt a lot- by being allowed to evolve I have been able to weigh the audience reaction to my material, and adjust it as the weeks went on-cutting bits that didn’t work, honing the material hopefully into a “softer” dame approach. Confidence grew during the first week, and that feeling of being “half” diminished.

I have learnt that there is always a family around you at Panto time- I had one in Southend this year, who I miss, and one here at Ilford, so I’m very lucky. I was at home, I was among friends and, my goodness, I can’t say how grateful I am to all the mates who came out to darkest Essex to see the show- so many of you- I am deeply grateful, and hope you all enjoyed!

It all finished so quickly, but now everyone returns to their rounds of auditioning- Nathan has one Monday, then Ellie-.Michael (I will miss his laugh so much- once heard it is not forgotten!) sets off for a year at the Prince Edward in “Jersey Boys” and the rest of us leave pantoland behind for a while anyway.

Next week I’m off to see two of the last pantomimes still going- to Wolverhampton to see “Cinderella” with my chums Stefan Dennis and Nic Greenshields, and then on to Birmingham Hippodrome- my second home I always feel- to see Joe Pasquale, Ian Sandy  and co in “The Sleeping Beauty”. I might be adding a postscript to this diary on those two shows.

So- This Dame’s Diary is all but done- Thank you, each and every one!

Part Twenty One - Midlands Magic - And A Touch of Hairspray!

Just a big thank you to everyone concerned for two superb days watching the Wolverhampton and Birmingham pantomimes recently. Travelled up to see the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton’s “Cinderella” on January 27th, and then the following day saw “Sleeping Beauty” at The Hippodrome Birmingham, and had a great time at their “end of run”  party afterwards. Both these pantomimes were the last to close in the UK, with the exception of the Brick Lane Music Hall panto (which I’m seeing this week) which runs on into Late February.

Wolverhampton was Grand!

The Grand Theatre was where Peter and I were due to be appearing as The Sisters this season, but sadly this was not to be. For me going to see the Southend Panto, With Brian Conley last month was the most difficult part, with so many memories of the past nine years and all the associations.

Going to Wolverhampton was not the same, and this very jolly show was such a delight- with mates like Stefan Dennis, Nic Greenshields and, of course, Janette and Ian to meet, and a lot of news to catch up on. It has been something like seventeen years since I last worked with Stef, when he played Buttons at the Bournemouth Pavilion. We’d met up since, but tonight was a great opportunity to catch up news. Nic, on the other hand is a local lad- local to Ilford I mean, and I see him a lot more- Australia being that little bit further away. It was good to catch up with him, and also with all things “Krankie” after the show.

Enjoyed “Cinderella”  hugely- this version has an interesting twist- Dandini is the villain! To fit in with Stefan’s character from “Neighbours”, this Dandini is a scheming cousin of Prince Charming who stands to inherit the throne if The Prince fails to marry before a certain time. He does everything in his power to prevent the Prince (Nic Greenshields) from meeting the girl of his dreams (Danielle York). Dandini even sides with the Ugly Sisters, played by Nathan Kiley and Ben Stock, but is thwarted by Buttons- played by Wee Jimmy Krankie and The Baron- Ian Krankie as the plot unfolds! Throughout it all local lass Niki Evans waved her magic wand as Fairy Godmother.

One moment took me by surprise- among the many wonderful costumes Nathan and Ben wore, I suddenly sat bolt upright-That’s Mine! I thought- Oh and THAT’S mine too! I wasn’t dreaming. I’d forgotten that about eight years ago when I was designing costumes for Qdos for Ugly Sisters , I sold them our “Hat And Shoe” costumes, rather than make a replica. Peter and I had worn them in a few shows- the making of The Hat was featured in the “Pantoland” documentary I recall- and there they were, large as life and big and bold as ever! One Giant Hat, One large Stiletto Shoe! When we wore them with Gary Wilmot he would say

“What have you two come as?”

“Hat”

“Shoe”

“Bless You!”

Oh how we laughed!!

Talking of laughing-the highlight of the night for me was Janette’s impersonation of Susan Boyle in the ballroom. In the flesh it was hysterically funny, and made me laugh throughout the show just recalling it. I know it is not the same, but for a glimpse try looking up Janette Krankie Susan Boyle on youtube! The Panto was produced by Michael Harrison and Directed by Alan Cohen with choreography by Stillie Dee. Musical Director was the delightful David Lane, another local- David actually lives in Hollywood! That is a suburb of Birmingham in case you are wondering, and was our MD at the Hippodrome a while back, and accompanied us on several shows we’ve done in the Midlands.

Had a great time chewing the cud with The Krankies, Stefan and Nic- Nic is fresh from playing The Phantom at London’s Palace Theatre, and at 6’7” is potentially the tallest Prince in Pantoland! Seeing him standing next to Janette is another highly memorable Panto Moment I will treasure!

The flying horse Pegasus is like an equestrian Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a very magical moment. If you can’t have the real thing, then Pegasus is the natural successor in pantoland!

Huge thanks to Company Manager Paul Bouchier, and indeed to Peter Cutchie The Chief Executive of The Grand who looked after us so wonderfully, as always. Thanks guys- Like Cinders we had a ball! I see that Christopher Biggins will be here next season- I’m sure he’ll have a great time in Old Peking!

Hip Hippo-ray!

The next day it was The Hippodrome- my second home! Over the years this theatre has become the most familiar to me, apart from The Kenneth More, naturally! It has to be the premier pantomime venue in the land and, judging by tonight’s spectacular show, it now beats anything that has been before in terms of lavish spectacle and … well, let’s just say that a lot of money has been spent and a lot of money has been made!

The Palladium pantomimes were always a benchmark in the past. This show has outdone the Palladium- the effects seen here were not even in existence when the Golden Age of West End Pantomimes were around. This one has it all!

From the moment the fabulous Ria Jones sails across the stage, seemingly flying without the aid of any device- your jaw drops! A glamorously evil Carabosse, Ria’s voice soars as high as she does zooming over the pit! It seems hard to believe that I played Sister to Ria’s very first professional pantomime at The Grand Pavilion Porthcawl- I was there at the outset of this truly amazing performer!

Her brother, Ceri Dupree as Lady Passionella must have about twenty-two changes of incredible costume- some almost scenic in the length of the trains, and has totally recreated the glamour that was Danny La Rue in the ‘70’s and brought it bang up to date. Two incredibly talented performers, but then what else would you expect  coming from Swansea? We are a talented lot you know. Just ask that Catherine Zeta Jones when you’re passing!

Joe Pasquale as Muddles proved why he is among the most sought after panto performers we have- comedy, pathos, a mix of modern and music hall- the perfect Muddles in a story that has long been awaiting the kiss of modernity to bring it back to life. Amazing 3D effects, like a vast theatrical computer game, Ray Quinn as an up to the minute Prince awakening Lucy Evans’s Princess Beauty, a Good Fairy in the powerful performance of Lucinda Shaw, Carabosse’s agile sidekick Slimeball- Alex Woodhall, and a Fairytale King And Queen played by James Paterson and Kate Dyson created “The Pantomime Of Your Dreams” as the logo says!

Michael Harrison directed, and Jon Bowles choreographed and Robert Willis was Musical Director. Overseeing all things of importance backstage was our old mate Ian Sandy. An ensemble of ten completed the line up- to use Ceri’s catchphrase, the whole show was “Faaaab-ulous!”

Party Time!

I seem to be at the Hippodrome every ear when the cast celebrates its success,, and has its farewell party. It is always a pleasure and a joy to be there, and this year was no exception- Qdos threw a very swell party, and looked after us visitors so well- a huge thank you for the hospitality, Especially Hippodrome chief Exec Stuart Griffiths and of course Qdos.

Visitors this evening included the head of Qdos, Nick Thomas and his wife Sandra, and  David Ian .David enjoyed many a Pantomime as Principal Boy before going into management- he too did one at Ilford’s Kenneth More Theatre, “Puss In Boots”- seems like only yesterday!

Laurie Mansfield, and Jonathan Kiley were here, and from Newcastle Pantomime (also directed/written by Michael Harrison) we had Clive Webb and his wife Anne. It was great to catch up with them, and to hear about their forthcoming “Circus Hilarious” tour that Clive & Danny Adams will be taking on the road.

“Dame Rita” from Newcastle Chris Hayward was here,  as was Paul Zerdin and Andrew Ryan from Nottingham’s “Jack & The Beanstalk”.Ran into Matt Slack- Matt just finished at Dartford with Lesley Joseph and rejoins her on tour in “Hot Flush” The Musical.

Caught up with Allan Stewart  who has enjoyed yet another swashbuckling season in Paul Elliott’s production of “Robinson Crusoe” at The King’s Edinburgh. I have yet to see his Aunty May, I’ve only seen his Buttons- that’s the problem with dressing up as a lady I find- you rarely work with others who do, if you get my drift? Allan’s Aunty May’s Diary can be found on his website- there’s a link to it from our Performance Diary under Edinburgh!

I saw my friend Rob Clayton who has just completed the Cardiff run of “Robin Hood” with John Barrowman-and Tom Doyle, Mike’s Doyle’s son who I last met at this theatre when he was a very small boy. I suddenly felt quite old to discover Tom is now twenty! Robin Hood heads off to Glasgow next season- “Fandabbidozi” I say!

Sleeping Beauty here will be heading for P….err a place other than Birmingham. How silly! I nearly let out a state secret then.

As they do each year the company held their pantomime awards ceremony, hosted by Ian Sandy, and Michael Harrison made a speech- short and sweet.. well, sweet anyway (!) thanking everyone concerned for making this mega record breaking show such a success.

Left in the wee small hours having had a very magical couple of days of Midlands Magic! Thanks to all concerned- what a swell party that was!

Hairspray!

A week to the day, and I’m at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London to see Brian Conley in “Hairspray”. Brian was in this show up to his pantomime season at Southend Cliffs Pavilion, and has now returned for a month before taking it out on tour- sharing the role of Edna with Michael Ball.

Good to catch up with Brian- when I last sat in his dressing room it was on his second performance of “Cinderella” at Southend last December, and I was just at the end of my rehearsals for “Snow White”- seems like an eternity ago!  Here I am on Brians second show in “Hairspray”. His new Wilbur is played by Mickey Dolenz no less! I last saw him on stage at the Mermaid Theatre in London in an off Broadway Musical called “The Point”- I don’t remember much about it- I think it was about thirty six years ago perhaps- but it had an amazing set and (I think) a dog! From Circus Boy on TV in the 1960’s, through the “Monkeys” on Television, through directing motion pictures and musicals- like the song says, he’s Ageless!

Brian and Mickey looked as if they had worked together for years as they performed their duets- seemingly effortless- Brian’s characteristic style- and Mickey’s charismatic performance- yet this was virtually straight from rehearsal. How amazing that they both gelled with each other- it was truly a joy to watch.

Witnessed the truly amazing performance that is Sharon D Clark too- Sharon needs no introduction to the West End (or indeed to Pantomime fans at Hackney Empire) but to witness the most powerful voice on any stage anywhere is a great joy! Her Motor Mouth Maybelle could literally raise the roof here!

The house was packed- many youngsters there- and it got a huge genuine standing ovation. It is criminal to discover the show comes off in a month- but fortunately the rest of the UK gets to enjoy it on its year long tour.

Incidentally Panto Dame Ian Good will be looking after the show when it takes to the road. He is currently the resident director. A huge cast this- something like sixteen in the orchestra pit, about forty involved in the show and, I believe about ten wig stylists and wig dressers- hardly surprising given the high octane high energy content of the show.It  ruffles the audiences hair I tell you!

Thanks Brian, Thanks Sharon- What a party!

Part Twenty Two - Dames Gallery!!

 

This page was last updated 3rd March 2010

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