For several years I worked on pantomimes in various locations. A couple of years in Edinburgh, then a few Christmas seasons in Cambridge, one very wet winter in Swansea and, finally, three years in Belfast. If things were happening as usual, many friends and former colleagues of mine would be getting ready for their first pantomime performance this weekend. Even though I’m out of the theatre business, I still find myself thinking about the people working on pantomimes at this time of year. Working on a pantomime is all-consuming. It totally takes over your life for six to eight weeks of the year. There will be a lot of theatre folk with a lot less to do than usual right now and I know many of them will really be missing this usually constant chunk of their working year.
This week’s post is a little tribute to the world of pantomime and all those who work so hard to make it sparkle. I wrote this piece a few years ago in the middle of a run of Peter Pan. I hope it’s an interesting and amusing insight into the weird and wonderful world of pantomime. It’s almost certainly not as glamorous as you think!
Fairy Wings and Octopus Legs
It's beginning to look a lot like a bloody weird Christmas featuring two octopuses, two lobsters, two jellyfish, two mermaids, and a certain number of crayfish. The exact number of crayfish is currently up for discussion. But there's a very pressing matter we need to get to before we deal with the crayfish problem.
“Tinkerbell, where are your wings?”
When you have to ask Tinkerbell why she is on stage with no wings, you know it’s going to be a long day.
“Oh, I don't know. Do you know where they are?”
“Last time I saw them was when I put them on your back, my dear. What have you done with them since then?” I honestly tried so hard not to make this sound exceptionally patronising. I'm not entirely convinced I succeeded. Luckily, this particular Tinkerbell is not the brightest of fairies.
Tinkerbell's wings end up occupying a lot more of my thoughts than I anticipated. I try a couple of different tactics to help her remember to put them back on again after taking them off in her dressing room at the interval. I tried simply asking her dressing roommate to remind her about them before returning to the stage. When that didn’t work, I made her a beautiful pink and yellow Post-It note banner spelling out “WINGS” for her to stick on the mirror that is literally right in front of her face in her dressing room. Nothing seemed to work.
For the first two runs of the show, we get to the same point and one of the delightful dancers comes running over to tell me that Tinkerbell is, once again, wingless. It becomes clear to me that she cannot be trusted with this great responsibility. For the next six weeks she is not permitted to remove her wings from the stage and must endure me following her around to either attach wings to her back or check they are still where I left them.
After the best part of a day of technically staggering through the show, we get to the final scene of Act One: The Crocodile Scene. It’s been a relatively straightforward day costume wise. Nothing major to report apart from the absence of Tinkerbell's wings. Everyone except stage management is dismissed from the theatre and instructed to return ready to begin again tomorrow morning in costume from the top of Act Two. After all, a giant crocodile can easily be controlled by one assistant stage manager manipulating the mouth from the inside and another pushing it around from the back. There's no need for the rest of us to stand around like lemons when we could be washing jock straps or performing last minute alterations to Captain Hook's crocodile epaulettes.
Day two brings with it more strain both mentally and physically. Act Two of our show begins with a fabulous rendition of the classic Village People hit In The Navy, during which Smee wears a very large puppet consisting of four men dressed as sailors lashed together by a series of planks covered in black velvet ribbon. Smee stands in the middle of his four puppet colleagues, strapped in with Velcro around his legs and a harness type contraption around his shoulders and chest. My task in this scenario is to strap him in before the number begins then rapidly free his legs from the Velcro strapping midway through the number.
I have sympathy for Smee in this situation. It cannot be a comfortable position to find yourself in and, as we prepare to try the whole number and quick change for the first time, he is justifiably nervous. As he appears in the stage left wing, I stick my arms and head in between the wooden planks and begin to rip the straps open. This is where my sympathy for Smee’s plight runs out as, in his haste to detach himself from his sailor friends, either his shin or one of the wooden planks clocks me firmly and forcefully across the jaw. Smee, of course, is completely oblivious to all of this and triumphantly makes his way back onto the stage to finish off the number.
I find him later and politely request that he waits for a signal from me before vigorously shaking himself free from his nautical buddies. After all, it's a long run and I highly doubt that my jaw can stand up to a violent impact twelve times a week for the next six weeks. Everybody has their limits. As I write, we are now four weeks into the run and my jaw remains intact. However, it is still with great trepidation that I bravely stick my head into this precarious situation. I definitely do not get paid enough for this shit.
“But what about the crayfish?!” I hear you cry in true pantomime style. Don't worry I've not forgotten about our little fishy friends.
“What side do the crayfish need to enter from?” I ask the director, fully aware that the answer he is about to give is not the one I want to hear.
“Stage left.” he answers, incorrectly as far as I'm concerned.
“In that case they need to exit stage left as well or they won't have time to do the quick change. Is it possible a couple of them could exit earlier so we don't have to change all four of them at once?” I politely enquire.
“No, they have to exit stage right or it will look ridiculous and we can't have two random lost boys running off the stage for no good reason. Let's just try it this way and see.”
The bizarre negotiation over locations and numbers of crayfish continues through several failed attempts to get four children from stage right to stage left, while dodging large moving items of set and scenery, and changed from lost boys into their crustacean shaped alter-egos. This all needs to be successfully completed before Ozzy the Giant Octopus makes his grand entrance with each of the four children controlling one of his large purple legs.
By mid-morning tea break we are all in agreement that we have spent far too much time discussing the fate of these crayfish. The principal actors are bored shitless. They've had nothing to do while the rest of us have been sorting out the now infamous “Splish Splash scene”. The members of the ensemble are all slowly cooking inside their respective lobster, jellyfish, and octopus costumes, which are all made of fleece. Roast lobster anyone?
“Fine, fine, they can exit stage left and two of the children can start the act as crayfish rather than lost boys so you only have to change two of them. Let's just hope nobody in the audience is counting how many lost boys there should be in each scene.” the director finally concedes. Let's face it, if people realise we're two lost boys down in one short scene then it speaks wonders about the quality of the entertainment we're putting on!
Technical rehearsals of pantomimes always produce some of the more unusual conversations I have the pleasure of experiencing in my backstage career. This could be negotiating where I can store three large boxes of underwater creatures with the Stage Manager. Or explaining to the ensemble that they have to get changed from their pirate costumes into their lobster and octopus costumes upstage not in the stage left wing because the giant octopus and the rock on wheels are taking up all the room.
With all the logistics figured out we decide to go for a run through of the first two numbers of Act Two and into the Dame's entrance complete with mermaid tail and talking tits. Its slightly chaotic, what with Ozzy the giant octopus, the ensemble mermaids, jellyfish, lobsters and smaller octopuses, and the four little crayfish all vying for space in the stage left wing. As stage management try to wrangle Ozzy into position, the crayfish perform some rapid quick changes and everyone else tries to keep out of the way.
Suddenly we hear a loud clunking noise from the corner by the props table and all eyes simultaneously turn in its general direction.
In his haste to make his grand entrance onto the stage, the Dame has attempted to climb onto the rock that will carry him there without assistance. This would have been perfectly achievable had it not been for the very restrictive nature of his costume and the fact that the rock is on wheels. With nobody to steady it, the rock simply rolls out from underneath him. Additionally, the mermaid tail and talking tits top he is wearing have completely restricted all four of his limbs. In truly ridiculous pantomime fashion, this results in him rolling unceremoniously off his rock and under the props table hitting his head on the metal prop buckets on the way.
Luckily the Dance Captain is on hand to rescue the Dame from this unfortunate position. He marches confidently through the stage left wing dressed in a red and orange fleece onesie and bright blue octopus feet, scoops the fallen Dame up in his soft yet muscular arms and hoists him back to his feet. By this point it is lunch time and we're only about eight minutes into Act Two.
The pile-up of aquatic creatures is thankfully brought to a largely satisfactory conclusion before the pangs of hunger weigh too heavily upon the entire company and we return after lunch for a real treat. It’s time for the first viewing of the spectacular underwater 3D scene. Glasses are distributed and we settle into the red velvet seats as the anticipation rises. Ghosts, piranhas, and unfriendly looking octopuses and sharks all fly from the massive screen that has filled the stage. Screams, squeals, and gasps of the captivated company fill the auditorium. As the terrifyingly realistic and very angry giant crab leaps out at me I can't help but think what a fabulous production we will eventually have once we've worked out all the kinks. Stunning spectacles like this make all the insanity of working on a pantomime truly worthwhile. Occasionally we pull something off that is just bloody awesome.
Unfortunately, as I am marvelling at the magic being conjured up in front of me, a small selection of the pantomime babes are wetting themselves or screaming in sheer terror in the rows behind me.
The babes are a group of roughly twenty children gathered from a local dance school and given suitably adorable parts to play in the show. They usually crop up to shimmy along with the big dance numbers or stand in a neat line looking cute to fill up the stage for the walkdown. However, it appears the children this year have not been selected for their bravery. Several of the criers and screamers have to be lovingly escorted from the auditorium by the chaperones and reassured that the scary shark can't really hurt them. This is surely not going to come back to bite us when hundreds of children from local schools descend on the theatre over the next six weeks with no idea of the three-dimensional horror that awaits them. Ah well, that's a problem for the Company Manager’s future self.
His current problem is the complete absence of pyrotechnic effects, commonly known as pyros. Rather than the ever so exciting bursts of flames, sparks, and cannons of confetti that usually accompany a technical rehearsal, we've been making do with our exceptionally enthusiastic director shouting “PYRO!” at the top of his forceful lungs. Don't get me wrong, he's an excellent substitute for the sound of a pyro but visually something is lacking. It turns out that the considerably large order of pyros is currently missing. Lost somewhere in the slither of water between Northern Ireland and England. Cast adrift. Unable to fulfil its shiny little Christmas destiny. All we can do is hope it manages to make its way here for opening night. Or Tinkerbell won't be making her entrance behind a miraculous puff of smoke but rather sneaking on from the wings and shouting “ta da!” in an attempt to add some pizzazz to the occasion.
The 3D extravaganza wraps up and we all head backstage again. A Mermaid, a Dame, a Sailor and an Impressionist then perform an hilarious rendition of the Twelve Days of Neverland, wielding, amongst other things, three haddock suppers, two super soakers and a floppy woppy tiddler for tea. This leads us nicely onto the walkdown and the four rapid quick changes that must proceed it. Walkdown is panto speak for finale. All the cast members saunter from upstage to downstage in a brand-new set of colour coordinated costumes (this year the theme is blue and silver), soak up the well-deserved applause, and take a bow. A splendid and blindingly sparkly way to round off proceedings.
“Are we going for the quick changes?” I tentatively ask the Deputy Stage Manager, ringmaster of this technical rehearsal. He has all the buttons to push and cues to give and generally ensures the whole thing does not grind to an ever so painful halt.
“Yes, we're moving on. Go for the quick changes.” he confirms.
The two dressers and I stand next to our beautifully prepared piles of costumes, poised and ready to grab our assigned actors, strip them of their first costume, and fling the next one onto them as fast as possible. My two victims are the Mermaid and the Impressionist. The final chords of the Twelve Days of Neverland fade away and the Mermaid waddles into the wings with her arms outstretched ready to receive her sparkly silver cloak. I slide it effortlessly onto her shoulders and grab her belt which I have positioned handily on the mantelpiece above a conveniently located fake fireplace. She holds the belt in position as I secure the Velcro at the back. One Mermaid down, one Impressionist to go. By the time I get to him he was removed his red and white stripy oversized shirt and his battered Doc Martens and is sliding into his more formal silver buckled shoes. I lift his white shirt from the mantelpiece and slide his left arm into the sleeve. But before he can shove his right arm down the other expectant sleeve . . .
“OH, FOR FUCKS SAKE!” the Impressionist cries.
“OH, FOR FUCKS SAKE!” I echo a beat later.
Despite confirming the fact that we were pressing on the Director has decided, for reasons that neither I nor the Impressionist can work out, to halt proceedings. The whole point of a technical rehearsal is to work out how all the technical stuff, like costume changes, are going to work in their specific locations and at the speed they will need to run during the show. This idea is somewhat blown out the window when some bugger yells “STOP!”. The now furious Impressionist huffily gets back into his previous costume at a spitefully slow pace. You can't blame him, it's been a long two days.
We resume the show from the end of the Twelve Days of Neverland and manage to make it, uninterrupted, through the quick changes and to the end of the walkdown with all the cast suitably dressed in blue and silver and waving to the empty auditorium as the final curtain falls. All that remains after two frantic days of technical rehearsals are two dress rehearsals, an open dress rehearsal, opening night, and twelve shows a week for six weeks.
It's going to be a doddle.