After our super relaxed first two days things went a little bit hectic and I've now fully entered the panto bubble which means that I have no idea what day it is anymore.  I'm fairly sure that today is Sunday and we have a day off, but I await a phone call from our Company Manager, Abi, asking where I am!

Between Wednesday and Saturday we managed to fit a ton of stuff in: dance rehearsals (with and without the amazing Seniors, Inters and Juves!), run throughs, two promo events and even seeing the opening night of Sleeping Beauty in Sevenoaks!

Now I'm awake nice and early because I'm having a new washing machine fitted.  Which is really dull and disappointing compared to the rest of the week!

Dance rehearsals are always fun, but they can get a little fraught and stressed.  We didn't escape that this week; but I think the end result will be worth it.  The music we have in the show is fab and the voices are incredible and now we have dances that complement them!

Personally, nothing will ever beat the Blues Brothers medley that we closed act one of last year's Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood with; but I'm biased: I am a MASSIVE Blues Brothers fan!  That said: we are pretty high on the fun stakes this year and we do sing a S Club 7 song which - short of having Tina, Jon, Bradley, Hannah, Paul, Jo and Rachel in the show - makes me immeasurably happy!

This was a busy week for our producers with Sevenoaks opening and both us and Dunstable in rehearsal; so we were joined by the legend that is Leslie Grantham (AKA Dirty Den AKA EastEnders' royalty!) who is our Associate Director.

Leslie and I have worked together a few times before.  He was the Demon King when I played Mother Goose in Sevenoaks and we toured together in a spoof murder mystery called Soap Opera, which coincidentally started in Gravesend!  So it was lovely to see him! I've never been directed by Leslie before; but it was a joy! Yes: he is sarcastic and rude, but he's also great fun to be around and is considerably encouraging.  His eye for detail is incredible and I think he's turning this show into something really special.

With Leslie in the room it has been really nice to watch people grow in confidence: none more so than Jaz, who is playing the King and doing his very first panto.  His voice is like nothing you have ever heard and gradually over the week he has been creating a performance that matches it!  It is going to be so much fun sharing a stage with him!

Aside from seeing us in Gravesend can I also suggest that you head to Sevenoaks on the double!  It was my second Sleeping Beauty in under week and could not have been more different to Hackney's BUT I had just as much fun.  Ricky Norwood (another EastEnders alumni and previous baddy of mine!) played Chester the Jester and brought it!  He was so funny!  There's a scene where he's dressed in a baby grow - I won't give anything away - but I DID NOT want it to end!  And Jasette Amos who has played the fairy a ton of times with me was a stunning baddy!  You really should got...

Well, Abi's still not called!  So I'm going to enjoy the rest of my day off!  Ciao!


Panto Rehearsals DAY TWO!!

Day Two of rehearsals is kind of where the pleasantries end and you get down to business.

We had another short five hour day, but we do already have a fully blocked show and we've sung through most of the songs.  You work really fast in Panto Land! We even had a 40 minute lunch break today: we're basically slackers.

The speed of the day was helped by the sugar rush we got from cupcakes Lucy's mum brought in for us.  These were a great start to the day for two reasons: 1) They're delicious.  2) It lead to Jaz telling us that his wife is an avid baker and therefore any chance of losing weight during panto may as well be forgotten about!  Positive vibes all round and it wasn't even 10am!

Weirdly, that wasn't the first time today that Jaz had to think about baking!  Ant and I also had to teach him the cooking routine, which is a panto gag staple!  A lot of routines and gags are the same every year and if you do enough pantomimes you get to know them and rarely need to refer to the script.  In fact, it is common practice to just write "Cooking scene here," "Ghost Gag," or sometimes just "routine" and leave the performers to sort it out among themselves.

Ant and I have done the kitchen routine lots and lots of times in panto and in our own Payne and Pearce shows.  We have our way of doing it and we know what works.  And can you imagine how difficult it is to teach it to somebody else?  For a start, I can only remember it by performing it, which is a nightmare: it took ages!  And when you're used to doing it as two, it's hard to remember how you did it with three... but we have worked it out and with some daily repetition Jaz will forget that he was ever worried he didn't know what was going on!

Also in the second half is the ghost gag - you know: the "he's behind you" bit.  Ant and I can basically do this in our sleep (and over Christmas I often do!).  We must have performed this gag near on 500 times and I will admit: the joy is wearing a little bit thin for me! BUT children (and an ex's Nan!) absolutely love it!  It's hard to remember at 10.30am in a cold council chamber why you're doing it - but 10.30am in a theatre full of screaming kids and you'll remember!

Whilst I may be getting a little bored of our version, Jamie Wilson, the director, has taught it to us over the years so that it is incredibly precise.  I'm always surprised when I see another pantomime and they have obviously only spent five minutes rehearsing the routine.  The audience may know precisely what is going to happen - but that's no excuse for laziness!  If someone could remind me of that on show 46 I'd be really grateful!. 

As a company it's nice to be getting to know people more as we all relax and start to chat about stuff that isn't just the show.  Hopefully there'll soon be funny stories to share...!

Panto Rehearsals DAY ONE!

It was day one of rehearsals in Gravesend for Jack and the Beanstalk today and I was sooooooo excited!  I love that no matter the up and downs of a year (and 2016 has been full of them - let's face it!), panto is always there to bookend the year with laughter, songs, sparkles, mayhem and fun!

Seeing Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty certainly had me in the mood for today and I don't think I could get to Gravesend fast enough!  The Woodville (where the panto is) is such a friendly venue and this is my third Christmas there (but my eighth show there in total) and it was lovely to see familiar faces (whether they were as pleased to see mine is another story.

As well as the staff at the Woodville, the cast is full of familiar faces: Ant Payne, Lucy Reed, Jo Gallagher; all people I've worked with before. And then there's Leanne Jones, Anthony Costa and Jaz Ellington who are not only recognisable from their stage and screen credits, but have popped up over the years through friends and promo events.  It's a lovely feeling to be going to start a show a know you're not a stranger!

It was a short day - only five hours long, but we had a read through, blocked Act One, found out about this year's chosen charity:  Medical Detection Dogs and even had a half hour lunch break, where I did not partake in one of the Woodville's legendary sausage rolls.  But I will.  I won't even feel bad about it: when we did Aladdin here a few years ago Shane Lynch ate loads of them and he's really buff and cool... so that's why I eat them too - so I can be buff and cool.

Blocking a show, which is working out where people stand and where they move, can be quite a tedious process, but it zipped by today.  There was a nice atmosphere in the room: lots of laughter and silliness.  I've a very silly sense of humour and am more than happy to laugh at innuendo and unexpectedly rude comments and this being panto there was plenty of that on and off stage!

I think we've got a really strong panto on our hands here and I can't wait to get it on its feet!  In the mean time I have to start preparing my opening spot as dame and currently I'm trying to invent jokes about Brexit or Donald Trump.  As you do...

Hackney Panto

I used to write a blog about things panto related - but it felt like a lot of effort and whilst I'm not a lazy person as such: I have to enjoy writing otherwise it is hard work!  So I abandoned it!  

I wasn't going to blog ever again - but I am a religious taker of RuPaul and Michelle Visage's advice, so I got a SquareSpace website and I couldn't work out how to get rid of the blog page.  I couldn't think of anything to write either; and then I saw my second pantomime of the 2016/17 season: Sleeping Beauty at the Hackney Empire and I HAD to write!

Sleeping Beauty is one of my favourite pantomime subjects and I'm really pleased it's coming back into fashion.  Therefore a trip to Hackney was already crossing my mind, but my interest was piqued further when I read an interview, in The Stage, with the designer (Lotte Collett) about her theories behind the creation of the set and costumes.  She talked about how the set can help tell the story or create sensory overload in a child's imagination, right down to the amount of glitter that should be used and how effects should be created.  Basically, Collett was saying that despite pantomime being a genre that is constantly evolving: it works best for Hackney when it's Victorian roots and methods were respected.

I've never heard this argument before, as most modern pantomimes rely on an abundance of advanced technology and sometimes even cinema.  So, I wanted to see a Hackney pantomime with this in mind.

Collett is right: seeing the fairies through a gauze got an appreciative 'oooh' from the audience; seeing the Prince battle with moving UV thorns was genuinely exciting and watching a massive 'real' dragon rear up was much more nerve-wracking than putting on a pair of 3D glasses and watching this all unfold from a screen.

I think that in the theatre children (and a lot of adults) really don't understand how most of the effects are achieved, whereas in the movies there is understood to be generally one method: computers.  Even if SFX are created in a more hands on way for a film there is still the opportunity to re-take until it works; whereas on stage you have one opportunity and that's that.  I feel that audiences inherently understand this and therefore the risks that pantomimes take to make a dragon come to life or a fairy fly are more greatly appreciated by those watching.

I'd also read that Collett looks very closely at current pop culture and tries to reference it where possible.  In the programme, Susie McKenna (the writer and director) says that she was looking for a Game of Thrones Narnia-esque world to be created - both worlds that are a lot harsher than the traditional fairy tale landscape; but the combination really helped to create a magical and foreboding land.

Interestingly, both Narnia and wherever Game of Thrones (not a fan - soz! Although I did recognise a reference to the big throne...) is set are lands where war rages and this is the exact thing about McKenna's Sleeping Beauty that made it so exciting.

The show was about two warring kingdoms: Hackneytonia (where the Magicals (read Liberals)) live and Westminsteria (where everyone else lives).  It was a thinly veiled look at how right-wing politics have shaken up the West's political landscape this year, but was a thrilling example of how panto can be bitingly current and inherently traditional.  The fact that a few weeks ago Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton and this panto opens with Hamilton (surely a coincidence), just goes to show how on point the political satire is.

Something I am currently very troubled by in panto is the gender balance.  I saw Cinderella in Newcastle earlier this week (which I also had a fabulous time at!) but was uncomfortable with the fact that only one out of the nine roles was played by a woman.  In Hackney the split is 50/50 and I think it is the better for that.  

Also, following on from an incident a few weeks ago where a panto producer was criticised for casting too many black actors: Hackney has an uncompromising ethnic mix and  one of the fairies is played by a dwarf.  The most wonderful thing is that none of this is questioned or commented on and I strongly believe that audiences won't even consider this unless they are asked to.  Therefore, seeing such a diverse cast presented without apology can only enhance the experience for the audience. And let's face it: their lives in general!  We're so lucky to live in a country rich with diversity that the fact it even has to be commented on bugs me (so ignore a majority of this paragraph if you will!)

One of the most exciting things was that it was the Princess who saved the day - with a sword and wearing armour!  And it made absolute sense in the story.  What an amazing role model - for both boys and girls.  It sent out such a great message that you can be anything you choose and don't have to fit in a box; but again: what made it so powerful was that it was taken for granted.  There was no comment on this not being the right course of action.

This was such a thrilling and exciting pantomime and to finish me off completely the wrap up song was a Gospel number - which is one of my panto dreams!  I'm desperate to use a Staples Singers song in panto - called Oh La De Da - and when I get to the point of producing my own shows and making all the artistic choices that will be in there like a shot!  Let me tell you!  Hopefully sung by Sharon D. Clarke, who owned the stage as Carabosse in Hackney.  I mean, that woman can do anything!

Over and out!