A glimpse behind the curtain at the Theatre Royal pantomime
The country's favourite fox, Basil Brush, is resting at the bottom of his current Plymouth home - a box on wheels in the wings of the Theatre Royal. Close by, on the main stage, three men slowly walk around in the spotlight, sweeping away the last bits of glittery paper from the grand finale of last night's performance.
In the wings, a few of the cast and crew move about with light, easy banter flowing between them while pieces of the set on stage are wheeled out and replaced by some of those needed for the opening act.
By the look of them, their easy, unhurried movements and the resting Basil Brush, you would not have any idea that they are less than an hour away from performing the popular Dick Whittington pantomime in front of a packed Theatre Royal. Before the first of this Wednesday's two performances, they have invited thisisplymouth.co.uk to come behind the scenes and talk to actors and crew about their life behind the curtain and whats draws them to the very English theatre tradition of pantomime.
One of the people moving about in the wings of the stage is Assistant Stage Manager Gary Jerry. He is running through his pre-show list, checking that the various sets and props are placed where they should be – including that a trumpet has been mislaid in just the right place. You would not usually expect it find one under the covers.
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He rarely stops to check the list. After 40 out of a total of 61 shows, that began on December 14th and ends on January 19th he knows it by heart.
Apart from being Assistant Stage Manager, he is the understudy for all the male roles in the show, as well as filling a number of other roles.
“I have been doing pantos since I was 13, and professionally for the last three years since graduating as an actor from a school in London. The two roles is a great combination, and I am on stage most nights” he says, making his way across the stage to the wardrobe of the show's star, Christopher Biggins.
In Biggins's wardrobe you find a series of elaborate and very loud costumes – one of which include a chicken and hen hat. It is visual reminder that, for the actors, pantomimes often involve costume changes at about the same speed that a Formula 1 team changes tires.
“Many people have a misconception about acting and pantomimes. It is not all overacting. I actually think that pantomime is one of the hardest things to get right,” Gary Jerry says.
“As an actor, you really need to enjoy it and like working with the audience. In a pantomime, the audience is not only there to be talked at, to see a story or be taught a lesson. It requires a lot more interaction. Not all actors that can do that.”
Gary Jerry describes Dick Whittington as a traditional pantomime. Parts of that tradition is probably well-known to most: a pantomime runs from before Christmas and through to the next year, it involves music, dance and comedy – both jokes and slapstick – and a lot of participation by the audience who are expected to both sing along and be an integral part of some of the show's gags. Being a traditional pantomime does, however, also involve traditions that the audience might not be aware of.
“For example, in a traditional pantomime, the bad guy or villain always enters from the left, whereas the hero will always come on to the stage from the right. A traditional pantomime will also always include call and response jokes. One of ours involves a plate of varnished doughnuts. That is all I can reveal, I am afraid,” Gary Jerry says with a smile, before walking down a set of winding stairs that lead to the orchestra pit.
He gets behind the keyboard and gets ready for a crucial part of the preparation to a show which is the actors' vocal warm-ups – which is another of his responsibilities.
Like most of the cast and crew, Gary Jerry's work day starts around 1pm with getting ready for the afternoon's show that will usually begin at 2.30. The show last till about 5pm. The crew will clear the stage and get it ready for the second show while the cast have a chance to take a little breather for about an hour. Then, at 7pm, it is time for the second show begins and Gary Jerry's work day will usually be finished about 10pm.
While Gary Jerry and the cast warm up their voices, the ushers are getting their last instructions before the doors open. The ushers tale care of various functions that range from being responsible for health and safety to selling ice cream. They are usually employed part-time.
Next to them, Jackie Armstrong is following what is happening on stage. She joined the Theatre Royal as an usher in 1984 and now works as a House Manager at the theatre.
“When I started working here, I would not say I was the greatest theatre fan, but it really grows on you. Some of the best things about working in a theatre would be the camaraderie and the fact that you are working with something that gives people great experiences. And then seeing the different productions, of course,” she says.
In the dressing rooms backstage, the show's stars are getting into costume. Except for Basil Brush, of course, who is already in costume and still sleeping soundly.
One of the stars is Hilary O'Neil, an actor and comedienne who has appeared in plays, on TV and radio. You might also have heard her voice come at you without knowing it was her. She has done the voices of Lorraine Kelly, Sybil Fawlty, Dolly Parton, Denise Royle, Dame Edna, Anne Robinson, Ab Fab, Kylie and Madonna on the Chatterbox greeting cards.
Hilary O'Neil is taking part in her 31st pantomime.
“You should say that that means I started when I was three,” she laughs.
“I know Christopher Biggins as a friend, but we have never worked together, so it did not take me long to say yes to this pantomime.”
For Hilary O'Neil part of the attraction to pantomime is the way that it ties into the history of theatre, right back to the days of Shakespeare where the audience was much more involved in the production.
“Even the bard's plays were originally performed in front of the people, and that is also the case with pantomime, where we see people of all ages. What we do is break down the fourth wall, the one over the orchestra pit, and get people involved. I would say that what we do could be called Shakespeare with glitter,” she says.
“Part of what I love about the pantomime is that it has such an impact on the audience and the way we make people laugh and leave with a smile on their face.”