The Southampton Diary

The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton - www.the-mayflower.com

Monday 9th December

First day of rehearsals in London. Like first day at school we make sure we have a pencil (sharpened) and warm clothes, and the mobile ‘phone switched off! Peter and I met up with some of the company in the café before rehearsals began- some, like Dawson Chance (Baron Hardup) and our director, Jonathan Kiley we’ve worked with before, and some we are working with for the first time.

Jonathan Kiley, Kirsty Nixon and a very blurry Peter (probably for the best!)

In rehearsals, armed with scripts and coffee we sat down, and everyone introduced themselves. A nightmare of name learning that will, I’m sure get easier as the day wears on. We were introduced to the production team- James Ingram, our CSM (Company Stage Manager) and Kirsty Nixon DSM (Deputy Stage Manager) and assistant stage managers Becca Gibbs and Linda Louise Derby. They will be looking after the production as a whole- from script copying, props, organising the business side of the production. We met the choreographer, Paul Robinson and his eight dancers briefly- Rossana Stocchino, Zara Vance, Lucy Miller, Alice Chilver along with the boys, Philip Dzwonkiewich (I said a nightmare of names!) Lee Honey-Jones, Adam Murry and Michael Laidler. We meet briefly as, from now on the dancers will work in the large studio with Paul, while we retired to a smaller room to start “blocking” the show.

A very relaxed Mark Crossland and a pensive James Ingram

The musical director, Mark Crossland had set up his corner in the rehearsal room- piano, cd player and sound systems. During the day he notes all the comedy and other effects that will be required from his six piece orchestra. These comic effects highlight or point bits of magical action, or comedy business. Without live music, a pantomime just wouldn’t be the same.

Paul Robinson with the Dancers

Jonathan began blocking with the prologue- this involves our Fairy Godmother Rachel Spry flying above the stage whilst delivering dialogue AND singing at the same time! Fortunately Rachel is an old hand at this flying lark (aided by “Foy”, the original company that first flew Peter Pan at the turn of the century) having flown last year with Brian Conley in Birmingham. Obviously in rehearsal Rachel kept her feet firmly on the ground!

Mark Crossland and Brian Conley

Brian Conley plays “Buttons”. Peter & I have not played pantomime with him before, but we’ve appeared in several “gigs” over the years with him. We’ve watched him weave his special magic as Buttons and as Dick Whittington before.- most recently at the Hippodrome, Birmingham last season. The star of “Jolson”, he has some incredible comedy business that he will incorporate into this pantomime, including his appearance as “Dangerous Brian”- one of pantomime’s funniest routines.

The opening scene is very new to all of us- especially created for the “Mayflower” it is a highly complex and visually stunning departure from the usual panto chorus opening. It’s fast, funky and very slick- well, it WILL be by Friday! We all make brief appearances in a non-stop piece of exciting choreography devised by Paul. First on is Cinderella, played by the petit Lynsey Britton. Lynsey takes in the complicated choreography with ease (we then find out she was in “Cats”, which explains a lot.!) Peter, Dawson and I hover nervously trying to count bars and listen for a musical cue- not our forte! However, pretty soon we manage to enter through eight whirling dancers without knocking any of them over. We retire smugly for more coffee!

Lynsey, Brian, Dawson and Sean

Sean Needham and Jody Crosier as Prince and Dandini respectively are blocked into the opening number, and to my disgust manage it effortlessly. I am now convinced only Peter and I can’t count bars. Peter says he’s been in many, but lost count!

Jody and Rachel

We block most of act one by 6pm, and thanks to the delights of the London Underground I get home at 7.45pm.

Tuesday, 10th December

A very pleasant surprise this morning, we were greeted by Paul Elliott, co-producer of the show. Paul has just finished directing “Snow White” at the King’s Theatre Edinburgh, which has now opened, and has  managed to go to Edinburgh, New York, Newcastle and Nottingham in the space of a week. My tube journey suddenly seems to pale in significance! It was lovely to see Paul again. He will be returning once we rehearse in Southampton.

 

Wednesday 11th December

Betty with just some of the costumes!

It is now VERY cold- colder here than in Iceland I believe. Added to this we are experiencing power cuts in the Fulham area, so some rehearsals are carried out in the dim glow of emergency lighting. Par for the course! Today Betty Burrow our Wardrobe supervisor has installed herself in the corner of the large dance studio. A very large truck unloaded six big wardrobe boxes (imagine a giant wardrobe on casters) and Betty has begun to fit the cast into their costumes. This she does throughout the day. As dusk falls you can clearly hear the whirr of a sewing machine over the sounds of Paul shouting “and five, six, seven, eight…”.) Sean and I debate why dance steps never seem to go beyond eight, then give up and have more coffee. It gets colder….

How does this bit go again?! Is it 5,6,7 and then step on 8!?

We’ve now blocked the entire show. Brian Conley has his own set routines and bits of business that are sheer brilliance to watch. You have the feeling that this show is going to something very special. Jonathan goes back on each scene, and starts to “fine tune” the action, he has a keen eye for detail….Dawson, Brian, Peter and I finish the day off by retiring to a pub. No- not what you think! We all sit around and rejig a comedy scene until it works for us..old gags and new gags are tossed about until we’re satisfied with the result.

Jody and Sean

Thursday 12th December

I read “The Stage” newspaper on the tube. I’m amazed at how early some pantomimes open this year. Revues already, and here we are rehearsing! The dancers continue to work from 10am to past 6pm in the large studio. We go back over the opening sequence, and both Peter & I sigh with relief.. these old dogs CAN learn new tricks! We can now count the bars!

Betty finishes off the fittings. I’m delighted to see we have my favourite ballroom costumes for the chorus- created for “Sun City” in South Africa, these represent different countries. The "Guests" at the ball are “The Prince and Princess of China”, “The Prince and Princess of India”, and so on. They look as though they belong to the “Folies Bergere”, with acres of feather and material. However, they also weigh a ton. Now the dancers will get the feel of what it’s like to play Ugly Sister- the bigger the frock, the heavier it is!

Our costumes are being collected on Sunday, to go to Southampton. Once again we travel light (not!). Peter & I have packed three dress rails, two large wicker skips and twenty two tall wigs. Added to that we have our outsize hat & shoe costumes, a fully laid table that I wear, and Peter’s Giant Picnic Basket. Not for eating from, but for wearing in “The Royal Hunt”.

By the end of the day Jonathan had taken us all through the scenes in both acts. Tomorrow we rehearse in the large room, and our blocking, Paul’s choreography and all the music numbers will be spliced together.

Saturday,14th December

First run through of the entire show in the rehearsal room. Joined by our producer, Paul Elliott, we worked through the pantomime trying not to stop, to allow timing. In Cinderella, as a rule, the first half is longer than the second, and we seem to be running to schedule. I’d imagine the director, Jonathan is aiming for one hour fifteen first half, and an hour second half, including Brian’s “songsheet” at the end of the show.

Finished our run at 2pm, and then the company left the rehearsal room. The next time we meet up will be at the Mayflower Theatre on Monday afternoon. I returned to pack, something I’ve neglected to do this week. I always promise myself I’ll travel light, and always fail. This time my suitcase is huge- in fact, I’ve had smaller digs on tour than my case! Setting off tomorrow afternoon for Southampton. Our costumes are travelling down by a Qdos truck tomorrow afternoon.

Sunday 15th December

A few teething problems with our accommodation- the letting agents forgot we were arriving on Sunday night. Peter and I were homeless waifs for three hours while we tried to get in touch. By 8pm we’d abandoned all hope, and fled to the warmth of the theatre. There’s something amazing about a theatre on a “get-in” evening. Enormous trucks were unloading the scenery as we arrived. Our costumes had also been delivered- three costume rails, twenty-four wigs and half a dozen large boxes. These had completely filled the backstage area alone, and were being joined by the wardrobe boxes from Qdos. Pumpkins and coach were being unloaded as we left to finally get into our digs by 10pm.

Monday 16th December

Peter & I spent the morning unpacking and steaming our costumes, and then at 2pm the company met up at a local school hall to “put the babes in” to the show. The Julia Chittenden stage school has two sets of children, so every scene involving them has to be rehearsed twice- one for the “pink” team, then again for the “Blue” team. We also met Rita, the dog handler who brought along our canine star- “Danny” the wheaten terrier. Danny is only 18 months old, but is already a veteran of stage, having just finished touring as “Sandy” in “Annie”. Danny is the most beautiful dog, who took everything in his stride. He has “Scene Stealer” written all over his pedigree, and, of course will get his own dressing room! So- “Never work with children and animals” they say- we have the lot. AND four pure white Shetland ponies!

Tuesday 17th December

Not called until 2pm at the theatre for technical rehearsal, so we spent a few hours sorting out the costumes. Since we have 12 changes each, and four in the first scene alone, most of our changes will be taking place on the side of the stage. The crew have built us a quick change area on stage right, big enough to take two Ugly Sisters and two dressers, twenty wigs on a long table and about fifteen costumes. Our neighbours are the four ponies, who seem to require about the same amount of space! Met our dressers, Diane, Val, Eileen and Brenda who will alternate with each other. Brenda dressed us when we were last here, about fourteen years ago.

The crew spent a while setting up the vast staircase for the finale- sadly, first technical hitch it will not be used. To store it during the show it would take up half the stage- a waste of much needed space since it only appears during the last few minutes of the show. The scenery looks magnificent- the ballroom is a glittering gold and black structure with candelabras and chandeliers and, of course, a large clock that moves around until “the stroke of midnight”. The size of this production means we have a large crew backstage- at a guess I’d say ten crew onstage, plus follow-spot operators, two sound engineers at the back of the auditorium, so when you calculate the entire team that create this show, it must involve sixteen people visible onstage, plus the children, four ponies and one dog, but a further six in the orchestra pit, about sixteen technical staff and at any time five dressers with Betty in the wardrobe department, the children’s chaperones, two pony handlers, Rita the dog handler, and our own stage management team of four- a total compliment of over fifty people. ..and that’s BEFORE you add box office staff, management and ushers front of house!

The technical rehearsal went on until 10pm when we finished, concentrating on act one today. Weary bodies left the theatre at 10.30 heading for our beds. Tomorrow’s call is 10am ready to go in costume but, thankfully not in make-up.

Wednesday 18th December

The technical continued from where we left off- the most complicated section today being the “Transformation scene”, where Rachel as Fairy Godmother creates the magic transformation of Cinderella’s rags into a ballgown, and all the scenery changes in a flash to reveal fairyland. Paul Robinson has created a brilliant dance routine involving sheets of fabric that “become” Cinderella’s dress, and with lasers, moving lights and mirrorballs the auditorium is transformed as the coach enters.

While all this magic went on a mere ten yards from our dressing room, Peter and I stuck Xmas cards up on the wall, bleached our rather grubby collection of mugs, and generally sorted the dressing room out to make it home from home. The old panto gag goes “Do you know, this place reminds me of home.. it’s filthy and full of strangers!” Our home from home is now immaculate, and the doors are open to passing barons, princes and woodland animals who pop in for a mince pie between entrances. Oh, the magic of theatre, lasers zap the auditorium, coaches appear by magic, and we bleach mugs and do light dusting!

By 10.30pm we’d nearly got to the end of act two- we finished at the point where we do our “strip” in the Sister’s boudoir. Thankfully we only had to “tech” this once, on account of us getting it right first time! To have to tech it again would have involved wrapping ourselves up in about eight layers of clothing, and holding everyone up in the process.

Tomorrow we tech the final “Slipper Fitting “ scene, the songsheet which Brian does, and the Grand Finale.

Thursday 19th December

In the pantomime calendar, this is always the LONGEST day! Finished the technical rehearsal by 1pm, and then, after a swift sandwich got into full make-up for the dress rehearsal. The object of this run is not to stop, so that a proper timing can be taken, and to make certain every scenic and costume change can be done in time.

I think, due to the meticulous rehearsal, we had more than luck on our side, and the entire run went without stopping. It looks as if we have a first half of about one hour ten minutes, and a second half of fifty minutes. Although this is ideal in terms of length, there was of course no audience reaction. With a star comic like Brian in the show you know that we can add at least ten minutes plus for laughs, plus the two second laugh that the Ugly sisters get (I jest. Lord, I HOPE I jest!) and consequently we may be running too long. Tonight will tell!

Peter and I stayed in make-up between the dress and the half hour call, and played host to the company who popped in for tea before the evening show. The tradition of first night cards and gifts meant everyone was dashing from dressing room to dressing room just before the show. Then a deathly calm, like the lull before the storm occurs, as everyone sits in the room, stares in the mirror and realises in ten minutes 2,3000 paying customers will see what no-one has seen before. Every opening night is a first!

The show flew past. The opening scene involves four changes for us, which involves underdressing four costumes. We both weighed a ton as we stood in the wings, and got lighter with each entrance! The brain is working out the reaction of the audience to costumes and gags, whilst mentally making notes of what can be altered- a word here, a pause there, and of course the “What happens next?” thoughts as you rush to the quick change room.. have we just done the hunt scene, or is this the kitchen scene now?

The show ended with a great reaction from the audience, and a huge collective sigh of relief from the cast. As we stood in the wings just as the overture struck up Dawson turned to us and said “well, it’s too late now. There’s no going back”..well, actually Willie the turtle said it- you always have that problem with ventriloquists, but who ever it was was right…

We had a cast and crew and theatre staff party in the circle bar after the show, attended by the co-producers Nick Thomas and Jon Conway. Called for notes tomorrow at 2pm, and looking at the running times of tonight's show, there will be a few cuts to be made. I think we over-ran by about ten minutes in all. Less is more, as they say. We also experienced some technical problems with sound. The Mayflower is a vast auditorium, one of the largest in the country, and the circle were not getting the quality of sound that the stalls were experiencing. We had a similar problem backstage, not being able to hear cues as well as we would have liked.

Despite these hitches, to put a huge show of this standard on in a mere ten days is astonishing. I think the only way it can be possible is, like all pantomimes, you employ the people who know their craft, and who individually work to create the pieces that make the jig saw that is Pantomime in this country.

Very weary, we fell into bed at 2am. Call for tomorrow is 2pm. Bliss!

Friday 21st December - A note from the Webmaster.........

Had a trip down to see Nigel and Peter in Southampton yesterday and caught the matinee performance - sat in the front row of the circle and probably had the noisiest group of children and parents around me which really proved, as if I needed convincing, that pantomime is really alive and well! Having met Nigel and Peter before the show I got a few stories from the opening night which, in keeping with the true mystery of theatre, I shall keep to myself! Onto the show - really enjoyed it, very funky opening with great dances and great effects. Brian Conley has the audience shouting and screaming within seconds of arriving on the stage, Nigel and Peter have 4 costume changes in the first scene (thanks to the hardworking Mayflower dressers!), everyone is fantastic! A few technical 'hiccups' but that's live theatre for you - just a bit of heckling from the audience which certainly kept Brian on his toes, some fantastic children during the songsheet in Act 2. Brian summed up the whole evening for me when he was talking to Clive (or was it James!) - he asked him if he'd enjoyed himself and he said yes, Brian then turned to the audience and said 'He will remember this experience for the rest of his life and that is what pantomime is all about' - how true!

Went for a cup of tea and a mince pie in the 'Sisters' boudoir after the show - their dressing room is certainly a meeting place for the cast! Jonathan (the director) and Paul (choreographer) came round with notes and changes for the evening show, cuts and additions trying to fine tune the show and make it run even smoother. Hit the road as the five minute call for the evening show went out over the tannoy and Nigel & Peter geared themselves up for another packed house. 2 days down - another 35 or so to go!

Catch it if you can.............

PANTO RAPPED UP

Review by Sally Churchward. Southern Daily Echo. December 23rd, 2002

The Cinderella story has been given a modern twist in the Mayflower’s Christmas panto.

The familiar elements of the glass slipper and the Fairy Godmother were there, but the story was- unexpectedly- set in the town of Rock and Rap.

The panto also had some rather less traditional elements, thanks to its star, Brian Conley, who wove some of his popular comedy characters into the storyline.

The show was fast paced, with Conley, who played Cinderella’s friend, Buttons, never missing an opportunity for a gag, bouncing off the audience and seeming to love being on stage. He interacted particularly well with the children in the audience, especially when he brought four of them on to the stage to join him in singing Old MacDonald, which had all the audience “ahhing” in unison.

As well as bringing a range of his comedy characters to the stage, Conley also made the most of the opportunity to showcase his singing talents, performing numbers from his hit musical Jolson and other shows.

Conley’s comedy capers were supported by the Ugly Sisters, Whitney and Britney- played by Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins- who almost stole the show with their stunning collection of huge, gaudy outfits and who gave the audience a great opportunity to “hiss” and “Boo” to their hearts’ content.

The show had fantastic sets and plenty of visual treats, including a stunning light display to keep the audience’s attention.

Cinderella is a great show for all the family that Mums and Dads will love as much as their kids.

Friday 27th December

Thirteen shows down! Starting to fall into a routine now, the sort of routine where you find your “usual” place to stand in the wings to avoid the traffic as a dozen woodland creatures race past you as they head for a quick change, you get to know what time “rush hour” is when the entire chorus quick change in the corridor, and you don’t want to get in the way! It’s a truly “fab” company- everyone prepared to lend a hand in frantic moments of quick-change in such a fast moving show. It really does move swiftly, fast paced and the funky choreography of Paul Robinson speeds it all along. We tend to stick to the same running times- about one hour six to eight minutes first half, and about 55minutes second half, with hardly any deviation.

Our dressing room is, as ever a good meeting place for the company- the lack of a “green Room” has been made up, and the table is now starting to groan under the weight of mince pies, biscuits and cake that people are bringing in. The very cheery Theatre Chaplain, Jeff calls in several times a week to say “hello”, and is joining us all for a cast/crew meal tomorrow evening after the show. The crew here are, as they always were, delightful, and incredibly fast in scene changes. Once we had corrected our earlier sound problems, I realised that at no time was there ever a hold up in the scene changes or flying moments, even in the first dress rehearsal. Rachel (Fairy Godmother) is still sailing gracefully above the stage, belting out a song, and Sean and Jody (Prince/Dandini respectively, together with Lynsey make it the strongest vocal company we’ve ever worked with- all those West End shows like “Les Miserable” and “Cats” and “Beauty and the Beast” have provided us with  these artistes who all possess stunning voices!

Brian is continually bringing the house down with his routines as Buttons – he is a joy to watch. The precision and timing is staggering to observe, and Dawson has introduced several new routines to delight the kids in the audience, Willy the Turtle now sings a “Cheeky Girl” number from the charts. There’s life in that Old Dog, err Turtle yet! In short, despite some lightening quick costume changes (the fastest being 40 seconds) Peter and I are having a ball! We’ve been told off for feeding the four Shetland ponies carrots before they go onstage, as it seems to make them , how can I put this delicately?…need to use the facilities (i.e the stage floor) as they enter. It was the extremely hard working and practical wardrobe mistress, Betty who suggested putting newspaper down on the floor just before they are revealed, to catch their, err..deposits.. and it has worked a treat! They virtually go on command! A lot of spade work has been saved! If anyone grows roses in the Southampton area, they should call into the theatre car park!

And who said Peter and Nigel NEVER reveal backstage business??

The CrewAnother two shows tomorrow, and the chance to attempt to hit the sales in the morning- Neither Peter or I have ventured out between shows yet, we tend to stay in the dressing room (a VERY comfortable dressing room) and chat to passing cast and crew. It also saves taking the make up off and putting it back on again. Still, at the end of the evening we can still get out of the theatre in seven minutes. Tonight we even beat Adam and Lee, the dancers, to the pub! Michael (Laidler) has become our unofficial Social secretary for the company, organising meals for everyone at restaurants, Sean is contemplating a five aside football match (we’ll not be participating in THAT event!) and many other diversions that happen when a panto company gets on as well as this one does!

Monday 30th December, 2002

Approaching New year- we have two early shows tomorrow (New Year’s Eve) at 1pm and 4.30pm, so everyone will get a chance to either get trains home, or get ready to celebrate, as we get the following day off! On return we’ll have the “grab-bag” or “Secret Santa” gathering. It sounds very mysterious, but it’s a tradition going back a long time in panto companies around the UK.

In a nutshell, you put everyone’s name in a bag (or in our case, in Rachel (Fairy Godmother’s) hat, and draw out a a name. You then buy a present for the person you’ve picked, and do not reveal who sent it. The ceremony gives everyone a chance to get together, have a glass of wine, a pizza, and a few laughs over some of the unlikely or just plain rude gifts that are unwrapped. We panto folk lead simple lives! Rachel organised it all, as our unofficial secretary to Michael Laidler, our unofficial social secretary!

It’s been a busy week- twice daily throughout, and the theatre packed to the rafters every show. We’ve had a visit from producer Paul Elliott who brought with him his Mum, and Patricia Routledge, apparently a fan of pantomime of longstanding! We also had a visit from a few of the company from the Poole pantomime, appearing in “Aladdin”at the newly named “Lighthouse”, Poole, including Chris Hayward who is playing Widow Twankey there this year. It was good to see him again. Also Peter & I had a visit from Lee, and his brother Nathan, one of this site’s correspondents, who enjoyed the show so much he’s booked again! That is fair praise!

Our company all got together for an Italian Meal a few days ago, which was fun, and as I said to the Vicar (there’s a panto line!) this evening, it is remarkable that this is such a friendly happy company. We’re working together all day, and socialising each evening- in a sense, panto folk become a sort of “family” for the season, and this one has emerged into a very close knit one, and it is a delight to be part of it.

The shows are running smoothly- we had a “signed” performance tonight for the hearing impaired, with an excellent lady “signer” who imparted not just the dialogue but the sense of fun in the proceedings. We all received a card from Danny La Rue today in our mail boxes, sending new year’s greetings. Danny is currently the Baroness Voluptua in High Wycombe's “Cinderella”, and has a great affection for Southampton and the Mayflower, his local theatre. Danny was last here with Brian Conley and Dawson Chance in “Cinderella” a few years back .

Well, two shows tomorrow, then a whole day off- Happy New Year to all you lot in Pantoland. We’ll be back in 2003 to continue this Saga!

A Review from one of our Correspondents - Lee Redwood

As my dad drove my mum, my brother, my nanny and I in the car on a wet, drizzly day, I sat there, looking out of the window. I was thinking about this Pantomime that we were going to see. I had seen Cinderella a year before at the Poole Arts Centre and to be honest with you, if this one was anything like that, I would have fallen asleep!! (No offence Michael Rose!!).

So anyway, we arrived in Southampton at about 15:50 and parked in the multi-storey car park. As we approached the theatre, the wet and miserable weather didn’t spoil anyone’s day as they waited for the doors to be opened. Bang on time, the doors to the theatre opened and over 2000 people crammed into the foyer. Some were buying programmes, some were buying sweets and others wands or toy theatres, but you could feel the magic in the air as the low, but loud, buzz of voices piled into the theatre.

As I stepped into the auditorium, an instant feeling of excitement shot through me as I remembered the fun of Panto.

It is one of the instincts that I have that if the front cloth is good, the show will be; after all, first impressions stick the most in your head. And, boy was this a cloth. Not any old cloth but a pink gauze with glitter, mice, coaches, Cinderella and lights flashing all over it. It was magical. When the lights went down, I suddenly became all shaky and excited. Suddenly, BANG! And in comes the Fairy Godmother (Rachel Spry)…8 foot off of the stage!!! She flies in and sings a song. Out goes the gauze and there we were in the village. The rock and roll music started playing and kept on playing whilst many characters came on, dancing and singing. Cinderella (Lynsey Britton), first, then buttons (Brian Conley) and did he get the audience laughing!! After that came Baron Hardup (Dawson Chance) with his adorable kangaroo puppet. Then the ugly sisters – Whitney and Britney (Nigel Ellacott & Peter Robbins). They were so horrible to poor old cinders, that I felt like going up to them and giving them a great big kick! Throughout all of this, the band was still playing the opening number. Whitney and Britney had 12 different costumes each – 5 of them being on in the first scene!!!

The Panto went on with Brian Conley’s comedy and falling into the ‘pit’, the ugly sisters rude remarks and Dawson Chance with his with his puppet - Willy (you can imagine the fun that Brian Conley got out of that puppet – “WAKE UP WILLY!!!!!) The coach scene was beautiful. Laser lights and mirror balls filled the auditorium as the coach entered. Four Shetland ponies were pulling it and they were adorable!!

When the interval began and the safety curtain went down, I sank down in my seat, thinking that it was all over, then I remembered that it was only the end of the first half and jumped up to get an Ice Cream. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls…” there was a mad rush to get back to our seats. The second half was shorter than the first, but was action packed. The ball scene was wonderful with the song “Be Our Guest”. Then the sisters did a strip tease and when it came to trying the slipper on, they locked Cinderella behind the fireplace. What came next was hilarious. First, Britney sat on the stool and tried the slipper on – it fitted. Then she stood up and the slipper was on a fake leg. Then it was Whitney’s turn. Her bosoms had grown to at least two times the size of her head and as she tried the slipper on, it wouldn’t fit, must be her stocking – very thick. So off came the stocking – this is where it all went really funny. The stocking was about the length of the stage and eventually pulled Whitney off of the stool - onto the floor.. The uproar from the audience was enormous!

Then it was Button’s turn to have the kids up on the stage singing “Old MacDonald” Then to the finale. It was beautiful.

I have never been to a Panto as good as this before and if you don’t get to see it, you are missing a real treat.

A Review from 3rd January 2003 - John Hannam

For the first time in many years, the Mayflower pantomime has only one household name. When that star is Brian Conley there is just as much excitement and expectation as ever. One of the few genuine all-rounders left in today's light entertainment field, he is proving as funny as ever, within the script or not. He can instantly switch from a serious song to Nick Frisby, almost before you can say 'it's a puppet'.

Conley's performance as Buttons is remarkable. There are many moments of great fun, like his moving tree routine, real pathos in his scenes with Cinderella, powerful interpretations of songs like Let the Good Times Roll and Over the Rainbow and memorable conversations with the youngsters. Thankfully, you still never quite know what to expect from Conley.

There is no way this is a one-man show. Seldom have I seen a pantomime with such strong singing from the principals, notably Rachel Spry as a wonderful Fairy Godmother, who takes flight in her first entrance. Lynsey Britton, perfect as Cinderella, is another with a quite superb voice. Sean Needham (Prince) and Jody Crosier (Dandini) prove that a break from tradition works so much better in the 21st century. No more sneers or snide remarks from the kids.

Nigel Ellacott (Britney) and Peter Robbins (Whitney) lead the rest in the Ugly Sister field and their costumes are stunning, Dawson Chance is a refreshing Baron Hardup and there is splendid dancing from the eight-strong troupe and the Julia Chittenden babes.

Tuesday 7th January 2003

Nigh on fourteen performances since my last entry! Time is flying. It is strange to think that there are several pantomimes around the country that finished on Saturday, and here we are half-way through our run. It is a great credit to the good folk of Southampton, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the rest that we can continue until the end of January, and some to the early part of February. They love their panto!

When our one is done and dusted I’ll still be able to go and see “The Panto wot I wrote” at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, and pay a visit to see Birmingham Hippodrome’s panto. Looking forward to both these shows. Had a ‘phone call from Ray Meagher (Home & Away’s Alf) who finished his Llandudno run on Saturday. He flies back to Sydney today, and will be basking on the beach set for his show in a matter of days! Ray played our “Daddy”, Baron Hardup, and is a real panto fan- he loves every minute of it!

Our very happy company ( I KNOW I keep saying this, but it’s true!) returned from a day off, and, for the first time we drop a matinee (yes, the schools have gone back). As soon as the curtain fell we were all eating huge burgers, and in some cases- no names! Drinking huge cocktails across the road from the theatre. No matinee tomorrow either, as we are now down to ten shows a week until the end of the season on the 26th January. Panto is tiring. I think if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it properly. To compete with the energy radiated by the (mostly) young audience, you have to give them double energy back. Energy is something you can’t fake either- the kids would spot it a mile off. As that audience gets excited by the twists and turns of the plot, and the high energy from dancers and actors alike, we have to move up a notch in the energy stakes to meet them. Maybe that’s why Panto is so different from a play or a musical..that high energy requirement on everyone’s part?

Funny thing is, it’s infectious too! Our wonderful team of dressers- Val, Eileen, Brenda and Diane (for us Sisters) have all taken turns to see the show from out front on their days off- now THAT is a compliment! There are so many bits of this show I’d love to watch from “out front”, but sadly cannot. We’ve never seen Rachel the Fairy Godmother fly- judging by the “Ohhh’s” and “Ahhh’s” it must be pretty spectacular, but we’re stuck behind a piece of scenery still counting the bars at that point! We’ve never seen the lasers or the entrance of the ponies either, but then there are perks.. I get to feed ‘em polo mints backstage twice a day.. and Betty is still devising methods of following them with newspaper to ensure a clean stage for her fabulous frocks! Ahh, we know how to live it up backstage, we do!

We get complimented frequently on the quality of the singing and dancing in the show (not the Sisters personally- Peter has offered to sing “Over the rainbow” in place of Lynsey our principal girl, but has yet to be taken seriously.. he has an interesting voice. Not so much trained as shunted…but the singing as supplied by Lynsey, Sean, Rachel and Jody is top of the range. Add to this the fact that Brian is a singing “Buttons”, we have a “Quite Superb” bunch of singers, as the press noted. The dancing creates its own source of energy for the audience as well, and the whole show oozes high octane.

On that note- I feel a Horlicks moment coming over me. This Dame of the British Panto Empire (and Palace, and Hippodrome and Lyceum) is heading for bed. Just the one show tomorrow.. Bliss!

(From L to R) Dusty, Brenda, Betty, Eileen, Diane and Val and Sarah - The Dressers!

Thursday 9th January, 2003

Two shows today. For the first show we had a visit from Brian Godfrey, Ugly Sister Extraordinaire. Brian has worked with his stage partner David Morton for nearly fourteen years, and, as a result of us always being in “Cinderella” at the same time, in different venues, this is the first time Brian has ever seen his “alter Egos”! Brian has been unwell recently, and was forced to pull out of the High Wycombe panto, but was able to go to rehearsals and assist with the direction. He’s now looking extremely well, and is able to visit other panto’s before the season ends. He arrived with Tony Priestley, who co-ordinates the wardrobe for various shows and tours around the country, including “Buddy” and “Summer Holiday” tours. It was great to see them- they both have many friends within the company and in the Mayflower Theatre, so the Sister’s boudoir was turned into a between shows tea party. It became a “Guinness Book of Records” at one point- how many theatricals CAN you fit into one dressing room. Answer, over twenty! The “Betty’s of Harrogate” cake was sliced, and the tea party continued until the “beginners” call for the 7pm show.

Friday 10th January, 2003

The Fairy’s flight this afternoon suffered a touch of turbulence! Rachel flew gracefully across the stage, and made her exit with aplomb, only to encounter air traffic control in the wings. Somehow her wires got crossed, and she was left dangling, with her landing gear down!

It is very difficult for the Ugly Sisters to launch into their opening routine whilst a few yards away ladders and technicians were standing by to guide Airforce Spry safely to the tarmac. Rachel made several brief appearances as she swung back and forth in the wings, unseen by most of the audience, but in full view of the orchestra and the sisters. “What a nice day to be hanging about” we commented. We couldn’t help thinking how grateful she must have been that she’d put on her double-fronted gusset that day! Ahhh, the magic of theatre!

Saturday 11th January 2003

Two shows again today, but in between a very theatrical soirée. We were delighted to see Michael Harrison, pantomime dame who came to see the show with David Pugh. Michael has just finished his season in Carlisle, which went extremely well, and joined David on a tour of pantomimes around the country. David is currently producing “The play what I wrote” in London at the moment, and preparing for the Broadway opening shortly. Where he finds time to see so many panto’s is a mystery, as he also produces “Art” which will be coming to the Mayflower with Nigel Havers in the near future. Both Michael and David have an encyclopedic knowledge of Pantomime, and suddenly two hours had passed, and we had to hurl ourselves into the opening costumes for the next show.

Nigel, Rula Lenska and Peter

An excellent show, which had the added kudos (is that a pun?) of having the gorgeous Rula Lenska in to watch, accompanied by Duncan Weldon. We had the great joy of working with Rula as Prince Charming some years ago, and she arrived here hot foot from climbing the beanstalk at Guildford. Rula is, without doubt one of the finest examples of what a true “principal Boy” should be, and at 5’10” has the longest legs, and I’d imagine a very tall beanstalk to climb! Duncan Weldon of course is the West End Producer of hundreds of  top name plays, and was responsible for the hey day of pantomime when his “Triumph” company produced the major panto’s around the country, including the London Palladium. Duncan told me he began as a “call-boy” (the lad who, in those days of variety theatres) ran up to the dressing rooms calling “The Half”, “Beginners” and calling the stars to the stage. Again, an encyclopedia of knowledge, and  spending time with him and Rula plunged us all into a world of panto anecdotes and memories..Alfred Marks as one of the finest villains, the wonderful Birmingham Alexandra pantomimes, and , of course the Palladium.

What a great day we’ve had!

Wednesday 15th January 2003

Just an evening performance tonight, with a very appreciative audience! Had a visit from the Qdos management, headed by Nick Thomas, with our co-producer Paul Elliott. They are delighted with the show, and intend to repeat it in another venue next year (Details to be announced!). We saw them all at the end of the performance, and were joined by Dennis Hall the manager of the Mayflower Theatre for a glass or two of bubbly.

Also had a visit from Jim Davidson, who will be presenting his “Aladdin” at this venue next year, he has just completed his season at the Hippodrome, Bristol which also starred Victor Spinetti, a very splendid King Rat to Jim’s Principal Boy. Jim reminded me that he had worked with Burden & Moran, the Ugly Sisters, who also used to present a magic act as part of their Cinderella Ballroom cabaret. He still remembers being placed in their guillotine each night, and obviously escaped unscathed. We’re expecting a visit from Charles Burden this week. Maurice Moran sadly passed away eight years ago, and since that time Charles has appeared as Dame in pantomimes all over the country.

Nigel, Charles Burden and Peter

Saturday 18th January 2003

Had lunch with Charles Burden today, and then he watched the matinee. It was so good to catch up with him after such along time. Burden & Moran were the premier Ugly Sisters, and were a stage partnership for over 32 years. They presented an act within their role as “sisters” involving magic, turning black poodles into white poodles, and an illusion whereby one “sister” would place the other in a locked trunk, and with the flick of a large piece of cloth, they would be reversed- the other sister emerging from the trunk in a completely different costume! Eehh, they don’t make ‘em like that any more! Spent a long time between shows catching up on years of pantomimes, and memories. Roger has just finished playing Widow Twankey at Mansfield for UK Productions. As our dressing room filled up, as it usually does with members of the cast and crew we were discussing the “open Door” policy of a dressing room. Like us, Roger keeps his door always open, and he too believes that the Dame’s or Uglies room often turns into the company green room, where the kettle is always on! It must be something to do with Dames..maybe it’s the smell of the greasepaint, the dim lighting (always!!) and the ambience of feathers and jewels.. or is it the chocolate biscuits on the table that does it? Either way, it’s a great way to pass two shows a day!

The Walkdown

Tuesday 21st January 2003

LynseyThe last week! The time has flown by, and this last week generally goes even faster. It is traditionally the week when all your mates come to see the show, having finished their panto seasons, and the social events begin to fill up the evenings. Here at Southampton we’re having our “Awards” ceremony on Friday. Panto companies often have these mock award ceremonies, where the company nominate their peers for various awards- categories like “Best performance in the wings” or “most glamorous award” (frequently won by the ponies!) but our awards ceremony seems set to rival the Oscars!

Rachel and Adam have spent a great deal of time organising this event, issuing over sixty nomination forms, raising sums of cash to fund this event (our sponsors for the awards this year being our management, Qdos, The Mayflower management- Dennis Hall and Brian) and have spent hours sorting out music, buffet and even video footage for this star studded evening! It should be a great night, combining an end of run party with the prestigious “Silver Slipper” awards, and the fun starts 'On the stroke of Midnight'!

We were celebrity packed at tonight’s performance, with visits from legendary dame, Danny La Rue (Danny lives locally when not in London) and Peter Tod. Peter ran the Civic Theatre Darlington, Bradford Alhambra and the Hippodrome Theatre Birmingham, and was responsible for some of the most lavish and spectacular pantomimes during his tenure at these venues. He is now freelancing and hopefully will produce a book in the near future. Over the years Peter and I have enjoyed Peter’s company greatly, and enjoyed playing the Hippodrome and touring in our “Roadshow” around Birmingham for Peter.

Danny and Peter joined us backstage for some refreshment (I wonder if we could get Lanson and Moet to sponsor us next year?) along with pantomime Dame Andrew Ryan who has just finished his run as “Sarah the Cook” at the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. Danny has many friends in this company, having worked with Brian, Dawson and Jody in pantomimes in the past. Brian told our audience that when he was seven he saw Danny starring in his show at the Palace Theatre, and announced to his Dad “One day I’m going to marry that lady!” Danny was in fine fettle, having just finished his season as the Baroness Voluptua at High Wycombe on Sunday. Danny was accompanied by his friend Annie this evening.

Friday 24th January 2003

Two shows today, followed by the “Silver Slipper Awards”, so all in all a busy day. Adam, Rachel and Peter spent most of their free time organising the event. The awards (sponsored by Brian) are Swarovski crystal shoes, mounted onto a wooden base with an engraved plaque for each category, “Best Newcomer”, “Best “in the wings” award, “There’s more ham than on a bacon counter” award. Etc... you get the idea?

Adam, Peter, Alice, Dawson

Straight after the 8pm show the company and crew moved en masse to a venue opposite the Mayflower for drinks and nibbles. When you see how many people are involved in putting on a show like ours, and running a theatre as big as the Mayflower, it is amazing. The venue filled up with cast, crew, front of house staff, box office and marketing, ushers and stage door staff..packed to the rafters we were!

Jody, Sean

On the stroke of midnight the ceremony began- Peter and Adam hosting, and Rachel behind a sound desk co-ordinating the musical links. All in all there were ten or so awards-among the recipients were Alice Chilver (“More ham than on…”), Lucy Miller (Elizabeth Taylor Glamour award) Dawson Chance (“Panto Spirit award) Jody Crosier (Comedy) David Beckham (yes, that really IS his name, he had it first!) our Sound Operator, Adam Murray, Rachel Spry, Kirsty Nixon, Lindi Derby and Sean Needham. A special award went to Luke on the crew for his amazing contribution to the evening- our very own film montage! Luke had skilfully edited and cut a five minute montage of life backstage which was shown on the video screens around the room. An excellent way to round off an evening which was enjoyed by the entire company, here in Southampton.

The Girls!

I think the evening’s celebrations continued into the wee wee hours, but the Sisters retired to their flat by 2am (well, it had been along day!) and we optimistically rummaged in the cupboards for something to eat. Since we’ve virtually packed ready to leave, all we could find was a packet of cornflakes and some dubious milk…I wonder if that’s what happens to Bruce Willis or Catherine Zeta Jones after the “Oscars”? Hmm…..It’s a glamorous life here in Pantoland!

Sunday 26th January 2003

Well, the last day. It seems only yesterday we were in that rehearsal room in Fulham, and here we are 61 performances down the road. It has been an excellent run- the company we suspected would be a good one have exceeded expectations.. they have been a great company!

The two shows flew by – Peter and I had everything ready for our get out, with Ray from the Theatre to help pack as we go. As each entrance was finished, the costumes were packed, along with the wigs, with the result that at the end of the second show we were completely packed, and our costumes loaded onto the Paul Mathews trucks waiting outside.

The crew started the get-out of the scenery and lighting at 9pm.. and it looked likely to continue until about 4am. Tomorrow the theatre has “The Rocky Horror Show” in at 8am, with Christine and Neil Hamilton appearing. I hope Christine finds our dressing room to her liking, we left it as we found it, give or take the odd empty bottle of Moet!

Said our good-byes to everyone at the end of the show- hopefully we’ll be meeting up again next year in Fulham to put on the same pantomime. Dennis Hall the Administrator of the Mayflower seemed delighted with this Qdos production- we’ve played to packed houses for six weeks, and the feedback has been excellent. At the end of the show Brian introduced our audience to the cast, the usherettes, Front of house Staff and the crew- including the excellent dressers Brenda, Eileen, Val and Diane, along with Dusty and Sarah headed by our wardrobe mistress, Betty- the children and chaperones joined them all on stage. It takes all these professionals to make a truly great pantomime, and we’re extremely glad to have sailed with them all on the Mayflower.

Thanks everyone involved - Like Cinderella, we’ve had a ball!

Monday 27th January 2003

COMIC TIMING! - STOP PRESS!

Just received a ‘phone call from Brian- he tells me he’ll be making another appearance in a theatre early this week- only this time, it’s an OPERATING THEATRE!

Brian is now in hospital, awaiting surgery on a gallstone problem. He hopes to be operated on in the next couple of days. Brian tells me he drove home from the Theatre last evening (Sunday) after our two shows, and in the middle of the night took himself to casualty, where he was admitted overnight.

For the past couple of days Brian developed what he thought was a back strain, and had several visits from an osteopath. On top of this he had been experiencing stomach pain. You would never have known, looking at him on stage that there was a hint of a problem- as usual Brian was firing on all cylinders. He agrees that the whole thing was magnificently timed! After completing 61 shows he left the theatre at 9.30pm for the last time, and five hours later is in a hospital bed with a glamorous drip attached…now that truly is a comic’s perfect timing!

Get better soon, Brian!! From all of us in the company and in pantoland…Best of luck, Mate!

Review from Encore Magazine - February 2003

BEST PANTO MIX

This thoroughly professional production was pure family entertainment at its best. Thankfully Qdos appear to be keeping panto alive, mixing the traditional with the modern by introducing funky upbeat music, with well loved songs from “The Lion King”, “The Wizard of Oz” and Nursery rhymes. Slapstick and special laser effects kept the kids enthralled whilst us adults enjoyed topical humour and friendly banter provided by the show’s star, comedian BRIAN CONLEY.

As Buttons, he was the perfect comical friend to LYNSEY BRITTON’S Cinderella, and they performed a well choreographed routine to “You’ve got a friend in me”. Her sweet voice and his comic timing were suited to such a song. He included various sketches that we all love him for, including Nick Frisby and his old friend “Larry the Lofa”, plus Dangerous Brian – who was so dangerous he unexpectedly got stuck going down the trapdoor! His chat with the audience children was far from tedious with his funny “Old MacDonalds Farm” rhyme and quick wit.

NIGEL ELLACOTT and PETER ROBBINS are fantastic, “over the top” Ugly Sisters and a perfect combination where panto dames are concerned. Nigel Ellacott’s many costume designs are fabulous, glitzy, showy and ever so well designed for maximum impact. Complimented by a stunning, fantasy set, the show swiftly and hilariously, sped through.

Ventriloquist DAWSON CHANCE was Baron Hardup with sidekick “Willy”, the dopey turtle. RACHEL SPRY portrayed a pretty flying fairy godmother who had a lovely singing voice. SEAN NEEDHAM and JODY CROSIER were Prince Charming and Dandini – both charming guys with great projective voices. It’s just a shame that all performers were overpowered by the volume of the music.

“Circle of Life” provided a cute interlude to the laughter, when we were treated to a sweet array of dancers as woodland animals, later the real thing with four well behaved white miniature ponies ahead of a sparkling carriage.

Well written by PAUL ELLIOTT and KEITH SIMMONS, this was the perfect platform from which all the performers shone. This production was perfectly cast, an enchanting show to watch and on par with any West End production. With the emphasis on comedy and slapstick humour, this was the best panto I have ever seen.

JENNY PEARCE

BRIAN CONLEY UPDATE - 10th February 2003

Brian just rang and is through his surgery. The removed (amongst other things!) a stone the size of a champagne cork! He's recovering well.

This page was last updated 17th February 2003

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