The Manchester Diary
Monday 1st December-Wednesday 3rd December
Somewhere in Kennington, South London!
We're in a rather unique situation this panto- amazingly, we have the entire cast of principals back for a second year, along with the same Director, Choreographer, Musical director and two of our stage management team! The dancers are also all the same as last year bar three. I can't think of a previous pantomime when we've been this lucky. It bodes well for swift and easy rehearsals!
So- we all met up at the rehearsal room in Kennington without that 'First Day At School' feeling, it was more like a big class reunion. Being 'lovies' of course the first half hour was spent in 'kissy-Kissy' and catching up on what everyone had been doing since last February, and then straight into the 'blocking'- the part where the director tells you where to stand and where to get off-stage that is. Within an hour or so it was becoming clear we'd all retained the memories of the Southampton Production, and we forged ahead.
In case anyone hasn't read the Southampton Diary 2002/03, I'd better fill in the gaps- starting with the cast list. Once again topping our bill is, of course, Brian Conley (no, it's NOT a puppet.. it's the real thing) as 'Buttons' along with Dawson Chance (and Little Willy..a tortoise for the uninitiated in ventral..ventrickle..people who 'throw' their voices) as Baron. Then we have Lynsey Britton (Cinderella), Rachel Spry (Fairy Godmother), Sean Needham (Prince Charming), Jody Crosier (Dandini) and Peter Robbins and myself (Nigel Ellacott) as 'The Pretty Sisters'..well, WE think we're the Pretty Sisters anyway!
Rachel and Brian
Our Director as last year is Jonathan Kiley, with Paul Robinson again as Choreographer, Mark Crossland our Musical Director, and our stage management team of Kirsty Nixon (DSM) and Linda Louise Darby (ASM). Newcomers to the production team are Jerry Gunn, our Company Stage Manager (who I last worked with in Europe about fifteen years ago) Adrian Barnes, the lighting designer, Jillie Sinclair (ASM) and Sue Casey who is our Wardrobe Supervisor.
Sean and Jody
The 'Newbie' dancers this season are Soeli Parry, Danniella McLaren and Dean Ellis, joining our dancers from last year who are Michael Laidler, Rossana Stocchino, Lee Honey Jones, Phillip Dawonkewicz and Alice Chilver. The entire production has Paul Elliott as consultant and is brought to you by the magic of Qdos. I think that's covered everybody! Please don't enquire about the names of the ponies, as I will discover that next week. Rumour has it they will be led past our dressing room each day, so I won't take a guess incase I put my foot in it, if you follow my meaning'¦.
Daniella, Phillip and Rossana.
Thursday 4th December
We've all fallen back into the routine, and have now begun to run the show. This, of course is NOT the norm for a new production with a different cast. Having all worked together before makes rehearsals a joy. There is not the usual long periods of 'hanging around' waiting for scenes to be plotted, blocked and rehearsed. What we are doing is fine tuning and honing what was already a great pantomime, and having the luxury of a ten day period to do this in.
A few new ideas have been brought forward and rehearsed in, Brian has several new 'bits of business' he's put into his established routines, and Peter and I have several new costumes that we'll be unveiling on the dress rehearsal night. One or two bits are still 'in transit' somewhere, and we're hoping they will turn up on time. Fingers crossed! Because Peter and I were so heavily involved in the Post Office Xmas campaign, (I hope you have visited your local Post Office and collected a brochure?? Do it now..a Panto Dame isn't just for Christmas, its for life!) we have been doing a lot more PA's and publicity calls than usual. This has meant that costumes we would normally have sent to the theatre by this time, are only now going up (hopefully) to Manchester as we rehearse. In fact my 'boobs' are being handled by several courier companies as we speak..
Friday 5th December
Jonathan's goal for this week was to get us to do two complete 'runs' of the show today, and this has been achieved. The humbling thing about this week is the amazing job Paul Robinson and the three new Dancers, Soeli, Danniella and Dean have done. By today you could not tell who had danced the routines last year, and who has learned and perfected them in five days. Quite amazing, and a testament to professionalism. Well done guys!
Back Into the Routine!!
The second run we did in front of Paul Elliott. Paul, the undisputed 'King Of Pantomime' is the producer who Peter and I began working for twenty-one years ago, and no matter how many times he's seen us, or directed us or produced us, you still feel you need to give him the best you can out of respect for his incredible expertise in all things 'Panto'. Fortunately it was a great run through, and I think we were all somewhat delighted! Especially as this means we can now have tomorrow (Saturday) completely off.
This day off is a blessing, as we will all be packing, doing last minute things as we wave goodbye to all our homes, loved ones, pets and, in fact, our lives until the 19th of January! From here on you '˜aint got a life..you have tech rehearsals until 10pm, dress rehearsals and weeks of twice daily. My next entry will be on the trusty laptop from Manchester!
Monday 8th December 2003
Arrived yesterday evening after a miserable journey courtesy of Virgin Rail! Oh yes it was! At one point the whole thing resembled a French Farce, but without the comedy. We were due to leave on the 2.55pm from Euston. The 2.55pm never actually left. It broke down on the platform. Everyone rushed across to the 3.55 which was already filling up, and we failed to get on it before it left at 3.15pm (work THAT one out!)..then we were instructed to return to our broken train as it would be leaving shortly, only to be plunged into darkness and locked in for half an hour. Euston staff alerted by my mobile phone call eventually released us.
I wonder if Mr Branson has thought of producing pantomimes?
Today Peter and I started to sort out our costumes which had arrived, not in a Virgin train obviously, but in a very large Paul Mathews truck. We travelled light as usual- three dress rails, twenty-two wigs, two wicker skips, three boxes, and probably a partridge in a pear tree. (let's face it, if that would get a laugh we'd wear it, right?)
The dancers and Babes worked in a rehearsal room near the Palace Theatre today, with the rest of the company called for costume fittings. Sue, the Wardrobe Supervisor had worked through Sunday unpacking the large wardrobe boxes that arrived at the Opera House. Meanwhile, the empty stage of yesterday began to fill up with literally tons of scenery, newly arrived from it's store in Edinburgh.
It's a fitup!
Peter and I usually find it best to try and sort out the dressing room first, then, when most of the scenery is up, we tackle the problem of a 'Quick Change' room. This is a space (usually constructed from spare flattage) where the bulk of the costumes are stored, and is placed in whichever wing of the theatre has the most space. The Opera House is not as big as the Mayflower, Southampton, where we all did the show last year. It is also not as spacious backstage, being an Edwardian Building. The Mayflower was mostly 1930's, and has a deeper wider stage.
We spent until about eight o'clock moving things around, and trying not to trip over frocks, feathers and shoes while we pondered how on earth we would fit all of our stuff into the very small dressing room deep in the basement, on stage level! We have two rooms, next to each other, but hope to turn one into an unofficial 'Green Room' for the company, so in there we've installed fridge, kettle, mince pies and the essentials of panto.
Tuesday 9th December, 2003
Called at 10am to the rehearsal room near the Palace. This turned out to be a large converted Art Deco cinema, which still retains its original Cinema auditorium, and a wonderful 1920's lift that wouldn't be out of place on the set of Paul Elliott's successful musical 'Thoroughly Modern Millie'.
We did a full run through of the show, with Mark our MD and Paul Robinson, our choreographer. Broke for lunch, then dashed around the shops trying to find a few 'prop' items and things to spruce up the dressing room'¦Hoorah for 'Poundland', we've fully furnished many a dingy dressing room with their help in the past!
Afternoon was spent doing sound checks. This involves being 'Miked up', and waiting your turn to errr..be checked I suppose!. It also involves minding your P's and Q's backstage and never indulging in gossip. Any such indiscretions could be broadcast to the auditorium and most of greater Manchester if you weren't careful!
During this Peter and I once again tried to tackle the dressing room. I know it WILL eventually be sorted out, but at the moment that day looks far away. The greatest achievement was seeing a gap in the stage left wing, and, aided by a great stage crew, getting a spacious quick change area built and carpeted. The carpet isn't a luxury. It deadens the noise, and, if your eight hundred pound frock hits the floor, it doesn't get damaged. We'll be sharing this space with Lynsey- as Cinderella she'll have a lightening quick change from rags to riches.
Inspiration, and an extremely helpful Theatre Manager may have solved our space problem. Our small dressing room has a rather strange rag-rolled unit against one wall. With this dismantled and a bit of reorganising tomorrow, I think we'll have gained the space we need. Fingers Crossed.
In the auditorium Jonathan our director and Adrian the lighting designer worked on the show, while the crew and stage management worked with Patrick Malloney, the Production Manager continued the 'fit up', the construction of the scenery and the flying of the scenic cloths, lighting and lasers.
I don't know if this is a reflection on parking in Manchester, but while Cinderella's Golden Coach was parked on the pavement outside the Opera House Stage door, someone attempted to nick the coach lamps! They failed, but left them worse for wear. At least it had all of its wheels left'¦and no, it wasn't clamped either!
Tomorrow we begin the Tech Run. Our call is basically 10am to 10pm. Early night all round I think..
Wednesday 10th December, 2003
Long day- we got to the Opera House at 9.30am, and left it with sore feet at 10pm. A very friendly and helpful crew worked throughout the day to 'tech' the show. By 10pm we had got to the 'Slipper Fitting Scene', which is three quarters of the way through, so a good tech in all.
Tech rehearsals require a lot of stamina, and patience. You are rehearsing basically for the stage crew, to enable them to set up, strike and reset scenes slowly, adding the lighting, flying effects and special effects. We've added costumes to the Tech (this is not always done) and, as we've all done this show before, it helps the wardrobe department, headed by Sue and the dressers to get to know who changes where, and when.
I always think of a Tech as 'Panto Traffic Control' with the director, choreographer and Production manager in control. Traffic jams build up in the wings when scenery trucks fill up a previously empty space. Where I planned to do a quick change turned out to be where Rachel (Fairy Godmother) would in fact be landing and removing her flying harness. Oh! I've given the game away.. it IS done with wires. Tch..these are the problems we work out during the day.
Our dressers, Heather and Angela were faced with all our costumes this morning, each costume having its own wig, shoes and accessories. By this evening they got to know which was was, and where the changes will take place.
Our green Room has begun to become very useful. Gallons of tea and mountains of mince pies were consumed between scenes. Often, in a Tech you can be waiting for an hour to make an entrance, so our 'Stage Door Canteen', in reality a very small dressing room, can be useful, especially for those who have dressing rooms up five flights of stairs.
The ponies arrived about 6pm. I'm not sure, but I think they are our usual 'boys'. I'll find out tomorrow if the names 'Tonka' and 'Star' are on the list. I think those ponies and us Sisters have done at least ten pantomimes together.
Lynsey is suffering from a bad cold, and hopefully with lots of steam inhalation and lemsips, she'll be fighting fit by opening night. Tomorrow we are called from 1.30pm. We'll carry on with the 'tech' where we left off, and then the plan is to do a full dress rehearsal in the evening. A chance to dash around the shops to find last minute props, including an illusive item.. a hand mirror. We use it as a prop, and discover nobody seems to sell hand mirrors anymore..you know, the sort you used to find on dressing tables? Tomorrow we'll hunt one down!
Thursday 11th December, 2003
Morning off! Peter and I dashed around the shops, and once again failed to find a hand mirror. Elusive prop..for now we'll have to use a square one, and hope that does the trick.
Called at 1.30 to continue the Tech Rehearsal. We continued from the end of our 'strip' routine, through Dawson's spot with Little Willy, into the Slipper Fitting Scene, and the fabulous 'Over The Rainbow' sequence just before the finale.
Went out front to watch the 'Rainbow' sequence. I sat in the empty circle gazing at all the wonders of Pantomime. The stage looks fantastic. All the sets glitter, and in this sequence just Brian, Rachel and Lynsey appear in laser lights, surrounded by a bank of moving lights to sing 'Over the Rainbow'. It's a moment where the Fairy Godmother says goodbye to Buttons, and, I suppose Buttons says his goodbyes to Cinderella before she marries the Prince. The whole thing is quite stunning, and makes you realise how all the elements of sound, lights, musicians, crew, stage management and actors can create a fairytale come to life.
The Stage Door Keepers!
It was only my stomach rumbling that broke the spell. Definitely time to eat! So much for magic, where are the sandwiches!
The tech went smoothly, and the dress rehearsal that followed from 7pm to 10pm went straight through, with virtually no stopping. It goes very quickly, as ever, and because this stage is smaller than Southampton, we have no 'Cross-Over' for most of the show. The 'Cross-Over' is usually a passage either behind the stage or the scenery where if you exit Stage left, and re-enter Stage Right, you can cut across. Sadly we have to go down stairs, walk under the stage, then up a flight to get to what is effectively fifteen feet from where you started! Not good in 6' block heels and with legs that have yet to be lagged for the Winter.
Had a chat with the BBC today. Peter and I are going on our favourite Radio 4 Kids programme 'Go For It', which goes out I think on Sunday 21st December. We made arrangements to record our contribution, as we'll be doing a show when it does go out, so we'll be linking up with the children in the London studio from the Manchester Studio, and answering questions on the history of Pantomime. Looking forward to that!
Had a quick medicinal drink in the pub next door (owned by Coronation Street's Liz Dawn - Vera incidentally) then headed back to our flat to write out the first night cards- I think tomorrow will be pretty tight for time. Notes at 12.40pm, full second dress rehearsal (in make-up) at 2pm, then Opening Night at 7pm. Definitely take sandwiches and get loads of sleep tonight!
Friday 12th December, 2003
We did another full dress run this afternoon, this time in full make-up and costume, and with a the full band, effects and pyrotechnics. Seemed to go very well, and finished at around 5pm.
The rest of the time before opening spent in the usual dash to complete first night cards and gifts, another tradition that goes back quite a way I'd imagine. Time to raid the fridge for food as well- our 'Green Room', tiny as it is now has a fridge resembling a small branch of Tesco, the surfaces filled up with everybody's contributions of mince pies, chocolate and a full range of herbal teas! Lynsey who is recovering from her cold keeps a packet of something very odd on the counter which she melts into hot water. I have no idea what it is, and no desire to try it.
Delightful delivery from the post office this afternoon, an opening present from Simon and the marketing department, who put together our Post Office campaign, how did they know 'Bolly' was the sisters favourite tipple? Thank you guys!
Who'd have thought you could get 'Bolly' from the Post Office!!
By 6.30pm that deadly hush falls over the building. Everyone in their dressing rooms applying make-up, and enjoying the brief moment of calm before the Opening. Even though we've done the show before you still need that 'edge' before you go into the unexpected. What we hadn't expected was the amazing response from a packed house- a truly warm Northern welcome!
The show went superbly. By '˜eck, they know how to laugh up here! We couldn't have asked for a better opening, or a better reaction to the show! At the end Brian made a speech thanking the staff, management, crew, cast and musicians- all the elements that came together to achieve tonight's opening performance.
Drinks in the circle bar after the show (and after drinks in the Sisters 'Boudoir', so we were a jolly lot when we left the building at about 11.30pm!). Tomorrow we have two shows, and Sunday off to relax. I spoke to a few panto mates on the phone today, mostly those who open today. Also had a lovely message from Ray Meagher (Ray plays Alf in Home & Away) from Sydney wishing us all luck, and a chat with Britt (Ekland) who opens tomorrow in her panto.
All in all, a great night- Hoorah!
Saturday 13th December, 2003
Always a need for caution on the show the day after opening, and following such an amazing response last night, you always feel cautious. Was it a fluke? Will they be less enthusiastic? The answer, thankfully was a resounding 'No!', the Matinee audiences enjoyed it just as they did last night, as did the evening crowd. Actors have to be cautious as well that they don't relax too much the second show.. that air of 'we've done it now' shouldn't be in evidence. Each and every show requires the exact same level of energy and concentration as the first night- after all, the audience is seeing it for the first time.
Having said that, in the pub afterwards we met a couple who had just seen the show, and were booking again for January to see it a second time. THAT is what we like to hear! I guess in this day and age there is so little variety and (lets face it) Entertainment on television, we are that last remaining link with the world of pure escapism and good old fashioned variety brought up to date'¦singers, dancers, ventriloquists, speciality acts, comics and sheer spectacle- this is the domain of our pantomime.
Not that long between shows really. We came down about 4.55pm and the half hour call was at 6.25pm. Enough time to eat a sandwich, set your props, touch up the make-up, and it's time to go again.
Evening show was great- everyone has started to settle into the 'This is where I'll stand' routine backstage- you kind of get to know where is good to stand so that you don't get in the way of flying wires, ponies and scene changes, and people tend to fall into a routine of always being in the same place at the same time during the show- traffic control!
In the pub afterwards (well.. it is next door and it can be thirsty work) we said our goodbyes to Paul Robinson (our choreographer) who is off to his next job in Cyprus, and to Jonathan our director, who will return in a fortnight.
Monday is Press Night, when the newspapers will come in and review the show, and tomorrow is'¦ A DAY OFF! I think a small number of the company will be getting together to go to the cinema, and we'll be '¦err..shopping. Retail therapy is an art in itself, innit? Here's to a long lie in!
The Reviews are in.......
Manchester Evening News
Tuesday 16th December 2003
Conley's the Prize guy in this cracker
It's fabulous. It's a cracker: It's just what pantomime is all about. In fact its exactly what a child's very first visit to the theatre should be- a mixture of magic and laughter- and there's a bonus, the adults enjoyed it as well.
Much of the goodwill, apparent through the splendid production, is generated by multi-talented Brian Conley, as Buttons, who surprised his unsuspecting audience with a spectacular entrance, and from then on he could do no wrong. His cheeky grin captured the hearts of young and old alike. A true showman, he held the audience in the palm of his hand, but couldn't resist expanding his considerable talents with some of his own original creations, like Nick Frisby and Dangerous Brian.
The fact that he can belt out a song as well, with a great raunchy rock and roll voice, is the icing on the cake. Lynsey Britten is a delightful Cinderella and there's an amazing laser transformation scene, complete with four real Shetland ponies, which brought appreciative gasps from the audience.
In Jonathan Kileys glossy production, there's lots of audience participation and the chance to boo the Ugly Sisters, Britney and Whitney, played by Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins, who make extraordinary costume changes with every entrance.
Ventriloquist Dawson Chance, along with some help from his cute puppet pals, plays Baron Hardup and Bolton born choreographer Paul Robinson integrates the dance routines perfectly into the action. There's a clear story line for the little ones to follow and the lavish sets and costumes make this magical mixture of musical extravaganza and traditional pantomime a real event in the splendidly refurbished Opera House. It certainly signals the start of the Christmas festivities and is definitely worth the price of a ticket.
Oh Yes It Is!
Thursday 18th December, 2003
The past week has flown by. I guess twice daily doesn't leave very much time for the 'Real World', and in our underground second home beneath the Opera House it is easy to forget it is out there. We have no idea of the weather or the time down there, as it has no windows, but it has acquired a festive look in the past few days..well, some very nice coloured gels in our green room lighting, to give it ambience!
Had a visit from Nick Thomas, the boss of Qdos on Tuesday, and he seemed very pleased. This was, he told me, his eleventh pantomime in about eight days. That takes stamina, he will have doubled that by next week.
On Wednesday we were visited by Paul Elliott, our producer, and he too was extremely pleased with the show. 'Extremely classy' he described it, or he may have been complimenting the Sisters, I'm not sure! It went very well that night, and it is always a delight to see Paul who gave us our first E&B Pantomime twenty one years ago this Xmas.
Peter and I actually ventured out to The Press Club Last night, and gave up the mug of cocoa and the zip up slippers to enjoy the company of not just our show, but several other show folk who go there- last night we had cast and crew from Taboo at the Lowry, Grease from the Palace and members of the Scrooge Company who are currently playing Liverpool. It was a good night. Dean and Lee (two of our dancers) excelled in the Karaoke department. We also chatted to our band who we very rarely see.
Don't know if you know this (not a lot of people do..) but quite often the orchestra can't see anything that happens on stage. August our drummer/percussionist and Mark our M.D can see the stage, but the other guys are beneath, and as yet have no monitor to watch the show. They had several questions about gags that they had heard, but had never seen, and we were able to describe what is happening in this or that scene, and why the audience is laughing at this or that point.
Friday 19th December, 2003
On the 'Dr. Stage' front, Lynsey is virtually recovered from her bout of '˜flu, and Rachel has got a bad cold. What totally amazes me with both these ladies is that you would never know anything was untoward. I guess that is the secret of voice training. Peter and I croak naturally when it comes to singing, but these ladies are downing their potions and giving it full belt on stage. Rachel tonight felt..what is the word? 'Dog Ruff' before the show, and has to endure being strung up on a wire whilst belting out a sensational version of 'Keep on down the road' with streaming eyes and a hacking cough. ..none of which you would ever suspect. Real 'Pro's' eh?
Meet the Crew!
The public face of a pantomime is usually restricted to the people the audience sees as it enters the theatre- the Box Office staff, Ushers and Usherettes, and the actors they see onstage.
However- backstage, hidden from the public gaze there are often upwards of twenty people who make the show happen. Not always backstage- you can find follow spot operators high up in the 'gods', the Upper Circle, or a sound mixer at the back of the stalls. Here at the Opera House we have a crew of over twenty people'¦.and this is who they are:
Resident Stage Manager: Anis Khan
Chief Electrician: Paul Binks, Deputy Electrician: Andy Morbey.
In the Flies- working the scenery is head Flyman Rick Douglas, along with John Wildridge, John Marley and Gary Wall.
In the 'Gods' working the (follow) spots: Tom Beardmore and Paul Knott.
On stage Right and Stage Left: LX Float, Mike Chambers, along with Patrick Collins, Dean Williams, Jamie Round, Tom Aspley, Darren McKeown
Dressers who help us all do our quick changes and work in the wardrobe department: Angela Ifill, Emma Gabler, Heather Rainsbury and Louisa Pye.
If you were to do a head count during the show you would come with around 30 people off stage and 14 people onstage with a further 5 in the orchestra pit: nearly fifty people before you start counting the front of house staff and theatre management..stage door keepers and marketing staff'¦Pantomime is quite an industry!
Monday, 22nd December 2003
the names running clockwise from outer are....
Lynsey, Sean, Rick, Hannah (bam bam) Rachel, Michael, Peter, Marcus (sound), Mark (M.D)
August (Percussion), Paul, Kirsty (DSM), Gary (flys)
In the outside world things are hotting up- well, in terms of hectic last minute shopping and office parties! In fact, it's turned quite cold. Cold enough for some snow on the outskirts of Manchester. Nothing to worry us, snug in the basement of the Opera House, but a worry if you are a Panto Pony, and you live off the beaten track'¦.
By 3pm it was becoming apparent that our four white Shetlands were having difficulty being transported into the City, and that Cinderella's Fairy Godmother might just have a problem on her hands. The transformation scene happens at around 3.40pm, and so far no sign of Cinderella's transport in sight. Jerry Gunn (Co Stage Manager) and Kirsty our DSM had to make a decision, and by 3.30pm decided that those white mice would be transformed into four dashing gentlemen of the ensemble!
And so it was that in a flash the coach appeared, pulled by Michael, Dean, Lee and Phillip, dressed in their white transformation costumes to take Cinders off to the ball! The boys did a sterling job, with a theatrical hint of pony role playing. The odd impatient pawing of a 'hoof', just like Tonka the lead Pony always displays..the subtle tossing of a mane in the same way that Tinker does it..they even got a slice of apple each before the entrance to help with their characterisation..
Well done guys! You saved the day, saved the plot, and gave us all something new to look at from the wings!
As if by magic the real ponies arrived five minutes later (probably worried that their understudies might be offered the role permanently) and went on stage that evening with aplomb!
Tuesday, 23rd December 2003
Our last two shows before a welcomed two day break for Christmas. The Theatre is packed out as usual, and a great atmosphere both backstage and Front Of House. The company have all got their plans together- some are travelling home for Christmas- journeys to London, the South Coast, some to the Midlands, and some of us, like Peter and myself will be spending the break here in Manchester.
The Opera House, Manchester
The two shows sped by- The Sisters are now Fan Assisted by the way..The Stage Left Quick change area where we spend a great deal of time semi clothed has become extremely chilly, a definite cold snap around the holidays if you know what I mean! Thanks to Anis Khan, the resident Stage Manager we've now got a fan heater to take the chill off the frozen gusset so to speak, and Heather & Angela, the dressers and Britney & Whitney no longer have to suck polo mints and breathe on each other to keep warm!
Behind the Magic - the girls that make it happen!! Heather and Angela our dressers!
Everyone said their quick goodbyes onstage, and the theatre was virtually deserted fifteen minutes after curtain down. To everyone out there in Pantoland a Very Merry Christmas!! Enjoy a well earned break!
Friday, 26th December, 2003
Boxing Day! And two shows'¦That faint feeling of resentment at having to go to work today was swiftly dispelled by the thought that all over the United Kingdom at the very same times actors and musicians and crew everywhere are all doing the same thing! From Inverness to Exeter Fairytales are being brought to life on what must be the most 'traditional' day to be doing Panto.
I suppose that must be a left-over from the days, not so very long ago when Boxing Day was the Opening performance of the pantomime that, in those days often ran until Mid March! I can recall Swansea Pantomime used to rehearse up until Christmas Eve, and then, after a full dress rehearsal would open on Boxing day, and play Past St. David's day on March 1st. Nowadays several Pantomimes have already opened by November 20th, and very few play past the last weeks of January. This year my brother's production of 'Aladdin' at The Kenneth More Theatre will be running up to Valentine's day- February 14th, and Wolverhampton will again be a lengthy run.
We had all brought in food (yes, several people had plenty of Turkey Sandwiches!) and sat around eating it between shows, and then headed off for our various digs to catch the thrilling Boxing Day Television that remained- a very strong case of live theatre this Christmas, huh?
Tuesday, 30th December, 2003
Our longest working week- twelve shows this week, so we were delighted to receive a visit from two new friends from America after the Matinee. Jack Watters and Ian Archer had e mailed us from the site to say that they had been following this diary, and indeed had been avid users of the site, and would be seeing the show this afternoon. From New York, no less! Panto fans from the other side of the pond are always welcomed!
Jack and Ian came backstage afterwards for tea, and brought us a wonderful gift from Radio City Music Hall- a superb 'snow Globe' of the Rockettes- now on display in our green room!. Astonished at Jack's encyclopaedic knowledge of Pantomime, Theatre, and in particular the architecture of Frank Matcham, creator of many fine theatres in the UK, as well as the sumptuous Tower Circus in Blackpool. Brian joined us, as they told us about the recent Broadway shows they've seen, and the time flew. Indeed, straight afterwards they literally flew back to London to see a ballet, and 'Peter Pan' at the Savoy before returning to the States. It was great to meet new friends through the medium of the website, and once again, thanks guys for coming to see us all at the Opera House!
One sad bit of news, one of our ponies was unwell during the first show- 'Tinker', so after a vet was summoned, it was decided not to put them on today, and our four human ponies once again stepped in to bring on the carriage. The vet declared 'Tinker' would be fine, but for a proper recovery period we will not be using Tinker or Po, just Tonker and Buddy to pull the coach while Tinker has a few days rest.
Wednesday 31st December, 2003
Earlier shows today, at 1pm and again at 4.30pm, so that everyone- audience and cast alike can have a chance to celebrate the New Year. Both shows went very well, and after a few hours to make ourselves even more beautiful than we already are, virtually the entire cast and crew met up at a restaurant to bring in the New Year. Brian joined us with his lovely wife Anne-Marie, and a great time was had by all. It was great to see a surprise appearance on stage today by Brian & Anne Marie's children, Amy and Lucy. They both joined their Dad for the songsheet and the finale!
We had a great meal, I think there were about forty of us altogether- on the Panto front we were joined by Andrew Ryan (Dame Durden at the Palace Theatre, Mansfield) and dining nearby were the McCourt brothers, Richard and James- James a veteran of Pantos along with Richard- not doing panto this year due to commitments as 'Dick and Dom In The Bungalow' on Saturday Morning Children's TV.
Can't think of a nicer bunch of people to spend New Year with once again!
Happy New Year Everyone- Have a great 2004!
Have a ball '“ and spread the word
All the staple panto ingredients are present and correct in this hugely enjoyable production (please forgive me) Oh yes they are!
Corny jokes, audience participation, double entendres for the mums and dads and, best of all, lots of laughs.
That it is such fun is largely due to its perfectly cast star turn, Brian Conley. His version of Cinder's pal Buttons reminded me of a chirpy, cockney Norman Wisdom '“ but don't let that put you off.
Conley manages to pull off the difficult trick of appealing to the five year olds and their parents and grandparents, mainly thanks to his charm and natural rapport with the audience.
He's well supported by Peter Robbins and Nigel Ellacott as the Ugly Sisters (Whitney and Britney).
The pair are the crÃ¨me de la crÃ¨me of panto dames '“ they have made the parts their own in the past 20 odd years '“ and it is evident that they both enjoy and are very good at teetering about on ridiculously high platform shoes, spitting out risquÃ© one-liners in some of the most lavish and ingenious costumes you will have seen in a long time.
As ever for this type of show, I relied on my six-year old son's reaction to gauge its success- and it was a pleasure to watch him laugh for as long and as loudly as he did.
As you'd expect, Prince Charming captures Cinder's heart, the nasty Sisters got their comeuppance and the Fairy Godmother gets to say 'you SHALL go to the ball'.
In his final address to the audience (after an hilarious sing-along with five brave young children) Conley urged 'If you liked the show tell someone you know. That is better than any poster or advert'
Here it goes then, dear readers, if its good family fun you're after, do yourself a favour and catch this before it ends its run on January 18th.
Ian Savage. Bolton Evening News. 16th December 2003
A Panto to end all Pantos!
Not to mince festive words '“ or pies '“ Cinderella at the Manchester Opera House is the best panto I've EVER seen.
The front cover of the programme boasts 'The greatest pantomime of all time'. And that sums up a show that is lighting up the whole city. Everybody's favourite, Brian Conley, is one of the most talented all-round entertainers in the country '“ and he has the kids and adults eating out of his hand.
He works his audience through a mix of magnificent timing and amazing array of entertaining skills. This funny man can also act, sing, dance and is a dynamo of fantastic energy. His versatility left the audience limp with laughter.
Cinderella- and yes there are two little Shetland ponies '“ has glorious settings, the best snow effect I've ever seen, and some thrilling lasers.
The Ugly Sisters, Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins, are mean, spiteful and utterly magnificent, even stealing a ray or two of Mr Conley's limelight, and Lynsey Britton's Cinderella brought a touch of calm charm.
This is family panto magic at its best, a mesmerising and hilarious mix of magical family entertainment.
All in all, a fantastic fun-filled, festive night out.
Geoffrey Shryhane. Wigan Reporter. 18th December 2003
Tuesday 6th January, 2004
Still into our schedule of Twice Daily shows, but this week we have the luxury of two matinee performances off-Tuesday and Friday, now that the schools have gone back as the spring term has begun.
On the Pony Front we are back to four again. While Tinker and Po are resting (a term we artistes are used to!) they have been replaced by Micky and Mini, two slightly larger white Shetlands. It is amazing how quickly they have both adapted after a two hour 'rehearsal', and how quickly they have picked up on the apple and polo mint treat. The ponies watch me cross backstage after the Kitchen scene, and start getting agitated in case I have forgotten the aforementioned apple slices and polo's!
The Sisters received the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Manchester in their boudoir this evening. For readers outside of the UK, I must mention that both the Lord Mayor and Mayoress are in fact ladies- Mother and daughter in fact. The title Mayor or Lord Mayor is applied regardless of err..gender..a lot easier than Mayorperson I think!
We first met them both at the Lord Mayor's parade during the Summer when Peter and I were driven in pedal 'rickshaws' across Manchester to publicise the Panto, and again at the 'Switching on ' of the Christmas Lights a month or so ago. Brian joined us, along with our friends Steven Day and Phillip Rowlands, who are appearing in 'Aladdin' at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, and drove up on their day off to see our show.
Had a great chat and the odd bottle of Bolly (well, they are virtually Royalty aren't they?) before leaving the theatre tonight. Tomorrow two shows once again.
Wednesday 7th January 2004
Funny how the time is suddenly flying. Already all over the building plans are afoot for the end of the show. We still have a further 19 shows left before the season ends, but before that happens there is the 'cod' panto and 'awards' ceremony to be arranged.
Readers of the 2002/3 Southampton Diary will know all about the awards- arranged this year by Rachel our Fairy Godmother, and Michael Laidler, the unofficial meals & events wizard. Michael has the unenviable task of trying to arrange forty people to go out for a company meal every week, and will be helping Rachel organise our own version of the 'Oscars'.
This year the ceremony will take place in the Theatre, after the 'cod' Panto. 'Cod' in Theatrical terms means anything that is a 'spoof', a 'Send-up' or in terms of stage routines something like a 'cod' ballet routine or even a 'cod' dry.. I know..confusing isn't it? To dry is to forget your lines, so a 'cod' dry is when you pretend to forget your'¦Ohhh never mind! We Thespians have a strange language amongst ourselves!
Traditionally the 'cod' Panto is put on totally by the crew, and sometimes also by the Stage management, the Front of House staff.. in fact by anyone who does NOT appear on the stage. This year is no exception. In corners all over the building, away from prying eyes and ears there are groups of people hatching Cinderella sub-plots, memorising lines and generally preparing to 'send us all up' in a spoof version of our show.
Anything that went wrong during the run, or any odd quirks or idiosyncrasies are picked up and literally acted upon!. You need a few stiff drinks and a good sense of fun to both participate and to watch! This will all happen on the 15th of this month, and looks set to be a great night's entertainment for all of us 'victims'!
Called in for a chat with our band (or orchestra, if you prefer) between shows. They inhabit the floor below us, where, not surprisingly the orchestra pit is located. They have a Band Room which would normally accommodate about twenty musicians, but in our case it is home to our five superb show musicians headed by Musical Director Mark Crossland.
Carl, Agust and Neil
Our band members are Agust Sveinsson (a good Manchester name that..well, in fact he hails from Iceland. The country, not the frozen food store) who is our drummer/percussionist, along with Neil Crossley who doubles Tenor Sax and Flute, Carl Barnett on Bass Guitar and Malcolm Melling on Trumpet. Mark Crossland leads the band from his keyboards naturally.
Just as I left the theatre tonight I managed to have a brief chat with the members of the Nottingham Theatre Royal's 'Cinderella' on the phone. The guys were all in their Theatre bar, and I managed to chat to Brian Godfrey and David Moreton, who are the veteran Ugly Sisters (our cousins I suppose in Pantoland!) along with Duncan Breeze (Prince Charming) who we worked with in Aberdeen, and to Spencer Gibbons, who was our first ever 'Buttons' for E&B Productions about 21 years ago (!) Their Panto, like ours is doing splendidly, and they sent their best to everyone in our show as we do to theirs. Eeeh, it's a small world this pantoland y'know!
The sisters show off their bouquet- thanks Jack and Ian!
Sunday 11th January, 2003
Finished a further ten shows this week, with just ten to go before the season ends.A lovely moment in the green room during the show involved Lynsey going up to Peter and prodding him in the stomach with a cheery 'That padding is really good, isn't it?'..reply from Peter: 'It is NOT padding!'..Lynsey..'Of course it is! It IS, isn't it? Ohhhh'¦.' A brief silence followed by muffled snickering ensued!
Sunday shows are very popular, and played to a good few thousand today at 2pm and 6pm. The early time means we finish the show at 8.30pm, so there's a chance to go out as a company and have a meal after the show- those of us staying around Manchester for the day off anyway.
Headed off to have a pizza after the show, I think there were a dozen of us including Brian, Rachel, Lynsey, Sean, Marcus and Hannah, Kirsty, John from the crew and Peter and myself. It ended up like the set of an old Hollywood 'after Show' Soiree- we had the restaurant to ourselves, and in the corner was a beautiful grand piano.
Ended the evening with Brian singing selections from his hit show 'Jolson', accompanied by my good self on the pianoforte, and a good old sing-a-long into the wee small hours. Great fun it was!
Jody, Lynsey and Sean
Monday 12th January, 2003
A day off, and a very wet and windy one. I'd always assumed the old legend about it always raining in Manchester was fictitious..but no! It does seem to rain a lot here! A few of us ventured into the soggy streets to see 'Peter Pan' the movie at the cinema- a beautiful film, then headed off for a bite to eat. Sean and Brian came back to our flat soaked to the skin, to watch the recent television 'documentary' about Pantomime- 'The Panto Set' which we'd videoed. There is a definite gap in the market for a good documentary about pantomime. This wasn't it.
The tongue in cheek approach to Pantomime can be forgiven, but the slightly snide and patronising tone of the hour long program became irritating. As Brian so rightly said, why didn't they ask or interview the people who really count- not the performers, but the audiences who flock to pantomimes in their thousands all over the country. Their opinion would be worth listening to.
This coming week is going to fly past so quickly. Arrangements for the 'cod Panto' and the 'Awards' ceremony, getting everything ready for the 'Get-out', and general packing up of digs and flats before we all head our separate ways a week today!
Tuesday 13th January, 2004
Just the one show today at 7pm. During the afternoon we had an understudy call. During the first few days of the run the company manager sorts out which members of the chorus will 'cover' principals, and then it is a case of learning lines, moves and songs as the show progresses, in the unlikely event that someone might be 'off'.
Today it was the turn of Lee (Honey Jones) to go rehearse the role of Dandini, and very impressive it was too- every line and every move was in place, and he gave a very impressive rendition of 'Be My Guest', the number that opens Act Two. Great job, Lee!
Had a visitor this evening, a former cast member from last year, Adam Murray. Adam was in this show in Southampton last year, and has now been appearing in 'We Will Rock You' at the Dominion Theatre, London for almost a year. Adam knows this show backwards, and watched it from 'out Front' for the first time. We got together in the green room afterwards with the obligatory Bolly for a chat.
Preparations for the cod panto are hotting up, and a technical rehearsal is taking place tomorrow. How they fit this in with a two performance day heaven knows, but somehow they will!
Thursday 15th January, 2003
Two shows today, followed by the 'cod' panto, and our awards ceremony. A very full day- got into the Theatre at 1pm and left it at around 1am!
Both shows went well, with good audiences. Had a visit from Jonathan Kiley, our director, who stayed on to see the 'cod' and the awards. Tomorrow he heads off to the King's Theatre Edinburgh to see their 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. In to see the show also was Andrew Ryan, panto dame extraordinaire. Andrew is part of the Pantomime Roadshow that Peter and I tour around the country.
During the day the cast of the 'cod' were rehearsing in various parts of the building between shows, while Rachel, Peter and Michael put the finishing touches to the award nominations and arranged the 'play-on' music for each recipient.
Finished the panto proper at 9.30pm, had a quick drink in the stalls bar, then entered the auditorium to sit back and enjoy the 'cod'. It is a strange feeling to be sitting out front. We all gazed at the scenery noticing things we'd never seen before. Let's face it..if you are admiring the scenery when you are ON stage you are doing something wrong!
The cod was great fun! It involved virtually all the stage management, crew and dressers, along with some F.O.H (front of house) staff. Thanks to the generosity of Sarah Bleasdale the Opera House Manager the bar stayed open throughout, an added bonus! Almost everyone was sent up in a jovial way, as was the plot of 'Cinderella'. She acquired at one point FOUR Ugly Sisters and a Fairy Godfather who played it in a brando-esque fashion. Dawson's character (played by Dean, stage crew) had Basil Brush as a sidekick, Cinderella (played by Hannah (Bam Bam)) stunned everyone by whipping out a saxophone at one point and playing it with panache- hidden talents all round! The Prince and Dandini were played in a very funny style by Lindy and Darren. Thanks also to our great guys in the band who played throughout the cod- a great addition, as normally you would only expect a solo piano. It was so good of these guys to give up valuable drinking time to join in!
Paul Webb took control of the proceedings- he played 'Buttons'superbly as well as directing and co-writing along with John the Fairy Godfather. The show involved sub plots, escapology, slapstick and some very colourful language not normally heard in a family show- in fact every essential ingredient for the perfect cod panto- well done Paul, John and the entire crew who took part. Like Cinders, we all had a ball!
After a short break we returned to the auditorium for our 'Silver Slipper Awards' ceremony. Hosted by Rachel, Peter and Michael. As Peter pointed out, these are highly prestigious awards, since they are nominated by our peers!. Categories ranged from 'Best in the Wings', 'Joan Collins Award for Glamour' to others not printable on a family website!
Recipients of the 'Silver Slipper Awards' were Paul Webb, Rachel, Dawson (an excellent acceptance speech!) Brian (a very revealing acceptance speech- enough said!!) Dean Ellis, Lindy, Lynsey, Emma the dresser and, a bit of a surprise Peter and myself!
Thanks to everyone concerned for tonight's entertainment. It is never easy entertaining entertainers, but both these events were superb, and all the hard work paid off. We had a great night!
Opera House, Manchester
from 15th January 2004
This lavish production is a glossy blend of musical extravaganza and panto with enough to keep the adults as well as the children entertained. Money has obviously been spent on the fabulous sets and costumes but care has also been taken in writing the book.
The multi-talented Brian Conley, who plays Buttons, has been closely involved from the beginning and this is completely his show from start to finish. It is a joy to watch such a consummate performer still surprise everyone with a stunning entrance and establish such instant rapport with his audience. The fact that he has a great, raunchy rock'n' roll singing voice is an extra bonus.
Jonathon Kiley's slick direction places Lynsey Britton, an enchanting Cinderella, at the centre of the action. There is also a magical, laser-designed transformation scene, complete with four Shetland ponies.
Lots of audience participation means the chance to boo the Ugly Sisters, played by panto veterans Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins with outrageous costume changes at every entrance. Ventriloquist Dawson Chance, along with his puppets, plays Baron Hardup and choreographer Paul Robinson integrates the dance routines neatly into the action. This is simply panto at its best.
By Natalie Anglesey
Saturday 17th January, 2004
Packed houses again today, and very receptive audience - there were two standing ovations all round! We had the 'Babes' party between shows, held in the band room below the stage. There are two sets of the Loretta Legg juveniles, and tonight was the last performance for the 'Buttons' troupe. These 'babes' have performed the roles of villagers, animals and courtiers throughout the fifty-odd performances since we started the run. The second set of juveniles watched tonight's show from the auditorium, as will this set tomorrow. Great work girls - stars of the future maybe one day!
Brian received a visit today from Kenny Baker, the star performer of the 'Star Wars' films, famous throughout the known universe as R2D2. Kenny was here in pantomime last year with Lily Savage (Paul O'Grady) in 'Snow White'. Yesterdays visitor was Noddy Holder, so we're doing well on the luminary frontage!
Throughout the building the signs of packing can be observed. Tomorrow will be a busy day, one that will fly past so quickly, and suddenly the magic will be over before we know it. Peter and I will be packing as we go, assisted by our splendid dressers, Heather and Angela, with the aim that, by the finale only the clothes we finish the show in will remain to be packed. That way at least we get a chance to say goodbye to everyone, instead of dashing around packing.
Tonight virtually all the company went out for a meal, and had a great time. Jerry Gunn our Company Manager put it so accurately when he described how for all the 'new' people joining an already 'established' group, who had all worked together last year, how quickly new bonds were formed, and we've become a close knit group in just two months. That goes for actors, stage technicians and musicians alike.
Let's face it- a company, be it Panto or otherwise will inevitably become a family group, and I can safely say over these past two seasons we have become a very close knit one. Any successes are shared, and any problems, trials or tribulations are shared and solved. It has been a great pleasure to work with such a great bunch of people as this, both here in Manchester and last year in Southampton. Brian sets the stamp, Rachel and Michael organise and galvanise the social side, and the rest of our family all contribute in different ways to make the show and the season the success it has been. Hoorah for us!
Sunday 18th December, 2004
The Last day! A day for clearing out dressing rooms, and wondering how you managed to acquire eight ball point pens when you thought you had none, and, in Sean's case, several green room mugs missing since the dress rehearsal! A day for taking people's mobile numbers and e-mail addresses, and generally preparing for the final show.
We did two shows today, both very full and very responsive. Peter and I had a visit from Jeffrey Longmore and his family during the matinee. Jeff has just finished playing The Marshioness of Mansfield in 'Aladdin' at Nottingham Playhouse, opposite Kenneth Alan Taylor's Widow Twankey! It was great to see them all again, and have a chat between shows.
During the second show, aided by the indefatigable Angela and Heather, we did our get-out. Skips were assembled, along with rails and boxes. We like to pack as we go, so to speak, and indeed by the finale we only had what we were wearing left to pack away. We ended up with three rails, two wicker skips and various boxes stacked in the quick change room. Below, in the sub basement Sue the wardrobe mistress prepared the large wooden wardrobe boxes for her show get-out. Props were packed as soon as they were finished by Lindy, Paul and Jillie, and we still found time to give the ponies their pre entrance treat. I shall miss those 'boys'!
Last shows always have a dual effect on the senses. In one way you are glad that the long haul is over, and dream of watching daytime telly with a mug of cocoa in your own home, but it is always tinged with sadness.. and I don't mean just the last pay cheque either! Our family is splitting up again. We've all enjoyed each others company over the past couple of months, and now the party's over I guess.. Lynsey and Lee will return to touring in UK Productions 'Carousel' in a week, Michael starts work in Norfolk tomorrow, Brian has his meetings ahead of him to map out the rest of his year in shows and on television. Dawson flies home to Spain - presumably he books a second seat for his little Willy?...The parting of the ways.
At curtain call Brian gave a lovely speech, introducing everyone who has made this season such a happy and successful one, and we got yet another standing ovation from our Manchester audience at the end. Bless '˜em all!
After the show finished we gathered in Brian's room for the odd Bolly (my how it's lasted!) and said our goodbyes. Walking onto the stage again was like the reversal of Cinderella's Transformation - the hard hat brigade were in full swing, cloths coming down, flooring coming up..the get-out proper was commencing. Apparently, according to a mail I received from John Wildridge later, the sound get-out finished at about 3am (with Marcus & Bam Bam ) and the main get-out at 5.15am. John described how Jamie, Patrick, Mike and himself carried 90 sheets of flooring measuring 8'x4' into a windswept street to the truck being blown the wrong way down the street!
A small crowd of us joined Brian and Anne-Marie for a meal before heading off our separate ways. Just before we left we toasted the Manchester audiences and the Theatre staff and crew who have all made this a fantastic season. Thanks to all concerned- It's been great!
Since returning home we've received news that Jody and Alice were involved in a car accident on their way back home. Fortunately both Jody and Alice were not seriously hurt, and have had a miraculous escape after the car experienced, I believe, a blow out on the tyre on the motorway. Someone must have been looking out for them. To them both we send our love and best wishes.
THE END until next time!!
This page was last updated 24th January 2004