Tuesday, 8 January 2013


The British phenomenon known as Pantomime has evolved since it took shape in the early eighteenth century.  Remarkably, it has also stayed much the same. 

With seeds in Italian Commedia Dell'Arte and European entertainments known as Harlequinades, Pantomime as we know it developed from a rich reservoir of British Music Hall.  Pantomime typically has musical variety, re-worked song lyrics, rhyming verse, sketches and slapstick comedy.  It is based on traditional fairytales and is renowned for stock characters: the good and bad fairy or villain; Principal Boy and the romantic interest (usually a prince and princess); classic comic characters; and the dearly-loved, elaborately costumed, cross-dressing Pantomime Dame. 

Famous people have always been hired to perform in Pantomime, though it’s a modern development to hire reality-television stars and people who’ve never been near a stage before such as Gladiators and sporting celebrities.  The ‘novelty factor’, however, is not new.  I remember being shocked when told I was sharing billing at the Theatre Royal in Bath (for Sleeping Beauty) with Sooty…  but since learning of the affection in which the little puppet is held, and the Victorian habit of including novelty artists from "jugglers and clowns to conjurers, giants and dwarfs", I feel privileged to have had the experience.

For generations Pantomime has been a terrific training ground for children and young talent; the juveniles or babes as they are known.  In most venues today you simply couldn’t have the large choruses if the local dance school (and loads of parents) didn’t enthusiastically co-operate.  Moreover as Pantomime is frequently the first theatre experience for UK children, it is an important vehicle for audience development and the fostering of fascination with live performance.

One of the earliest homes for Pantomime in London was Sadler’s Wells. The famous actor, comedian and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, made an art form of Variety and Pantomime in the early nineteenth century, but there was a long break before the Christmas of 1994 when Pantomime returned to Sadler’s Wells with a traditional (aka pure) Victorian production of Babes in the Wood written and directed by an expert in the field, Roy Hudd. I was thrilled to be cast as Maid Marion in his production (having actually auditioned, as opposed to receiving an offer due exclusively to TV fame), and to work alongside Roy and the peerless Jack Tripp as Dame. Show after show I watched the charming and talented Mr Tripp from the wings, never ceasing to be amazed at the incisiveness of his wit and the immaculate perfection of his comic timing. He was a consummate professional and a delight on stage and off. And he did me the great honour of regularly complimenting me on my singing and stagecraft, at a time when British actors, understandably, were critical of the use of Australian soap stars in cases where individuals lacked stage skills. Other principals included: the brilliant Keith Barron (as Sheriff of Nottingham); a cheeky Geoffrey Hughes (as ‘Orful Onslow) providing light relief in rapid banter with the inimitable Roy Hudd (as ‘Orrible ‘Uddy); the angel-voiced Lisa Hull (as Robin Hood); Howard Leader (as Friar Tuck); Roy Hilton as MD; some novelty from the violinist, Gary Lovini; and the nicest choreographer in the world, Stee Billingsley. I’m sad we’ve lost Jack and Geoffrey to the great theatre in the sky, but such was the positive spirit of this excellent production that, despite time and geography, I am still friends with several members of the ensemble and crew; especially Tim Reed and Sarah Jayne Russell. There’s no doubt in my mind that, as a first experience of London theatre – on the same stage, I might add, as my father had sung in a 1960s production of Arthur Benjamin's Tale of Two Cities - I was incredibly fortunate.

I remember, too, riding in the back of an open-topped sports car, meandering through the streets of Mayfair and Piccadilly on route to turn on the Oxford St Christmas lights. Sitting beside me in the car were the gorgeous babes - beautiful boys and girls who clung to me with love and followed me backstage with utter fascination. I would really like to know what happened to little Adam Coleman, as he and I were especially close, but I adored them all, roughly aged between five and ten, and hated saying goodbye when the show closed.

Two of those precious babes happened to be Scarlett and Summer Strallen - carefully chaperoned by their friendly parents Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, and accompanied in chorus numbers by their tiny sister, Zizi. (Or was it Saskia?) 
Now given I’ve been living in Italy and dating younger men - that’s just how it goes over there, so after a while one is left in willing-denial about one’s age - I was both thrilled and horrified to arrive in London in 2012 to find Scarlett starring in Singing In The Rain and Summer in Top Hat.  Can they really have grown up that much?!   At any rate, there’s no doubt they are beautiful, talented and well trained and I felt strangely proud to see their names on the billboard.  

The reason these details have come back to me with such clarity, is because on the weekend I travelled to Weymouth to see Jack and the Beanstalk.  An old mate from drama school was playing the bad fairy, Flesh Creep, in a new production by Magic Beans Productions.  Lynne ate the part up as you’d expect from someone with a solid theatre background and more than a dozen pantomime’s under her belt, proving fame from a soap opera (in Lynne’s case, as Irene in Home and Away) doesn’t necessarily mean a performer isn’t versatile or dynamic.  

I enjoyed, too, the pretty and sweet-voiced Anna Kumble as Fairy Fabulous, Andy Abraham as King Crumble, Paul Laurence Thomas as Simple Simon, and another seasoned cross-dresser, Danny Mills as Dame Trott.  I expected to be dismayed by the inexperience of the romantic leads – Tom Reilly as Jack, and Alexia Collard as Princess Apricott – because media reports declared they’d won a competition to land their first professional gig.  Yet it just goes to show one shouldn’t be snobbish, as they acquitted themselves well in their roles; especially Tom who has a strong voice and maintained a centred presence despite tempting provocation by the comedians.  

The writer, director and producer, Jamie Alexander Wilson, delivered a finely crafted new script with well-placed old gags and resilient new ones.  It cracked along at a good pace, admirably supported by a small but clever band with a talented young musician called Sam Hall at the helm.  The three sets of dancers and babes, choreographed by Kerry Turner and led as dance captain by a busy Sophie Shearer, were also suitably engaging.  The sets and costumes were simple but attractive; there was an impressively large giant; a long-lashed, cute cow; and a colourful and ebullient finale.  All in all, Jack and the Beanstalk was loaded with classic ingredients, shaken and stirred with modern sensibilities and traditional sentimentality.  Jamie and his coproducers Russell Ludwin, Simon Cossons, Jill Wilson and Chris Cantrelle, clearly care enough about pantomime to invest in their productions, artistically and commercially, and for this they deserve to be commended – particularly when consensus is that Weymouth Pavilion has not been well attended in recent years. 

In fact when I heard the local council is considering pulling down the Pavilion, I felt sad not only for the potential loss of a regional venue but because the attitude contrasts so strikingly with evidence around town of support for the Olympic sailing events.  Is it a case of favouring sport over the arts?  Is it a case of irrelevance by neglect?  Is this item of discussion really on the table because of capital costs and government cut-backs… or are the difficulties exacerbated due to a misguided (or non-existent) business plan? 

When it comes to local councils there is certainly pressure from all sorts of lobby groups, but often the problem is a lack of real understanding about the business nature of the arts or a failure to take a long-term view.  By way of example: even on Weymouth’s pretty waterfront, the yellow ‘igloo’ built to display sand sculptures in July and August 2012 has been left abandoned since the athletes and international visitors left town.  The marketing sign left inside the space is so pathetically out of date I couldn’t help but wonder whose job it was to have followed up?    

At any rate, the pressing questions include:

Do the citizens of Weymouth want another car park?  Or, like the citizens of Blackpool, would they prefer to add value rather than smog and congestion to their lives? 

Do the people of Weymouth believe encouragement and experience of the arts is important for a healthy community to flourish? 

Do they want a theatre for home-grown and visiting productions, as well as a space to focus and foster cultural expression and education?  

If the answer to these questions is yes then, as Liz Hill, the Managing Editor of Arts Professional, suggests, they must be sufficiently clear-sighted, committed and organised to craft a campaign which is effective and sustainable on multiple levels.  They must raise their voices above the indifferent fray.   

For one thing is sure, if they do nothing, when it comes next time to hear “he’s behind you”… it won’t be a ghost, it’ll be a bulldozer. 




For more information see savethepavilion.com or the Facebook group Save Weymouth Pavilion