Standing in Kettering’s Lighthouse Theatre last week during a visit to see the cast and backstage crew at this year’s big festive panto, I was amazed at just how much activity was going on so early in the day.
There was no show running at the time of my visit, but the stage was still packed with dancers frenetically squeezing in that bit of extra rehearsal time before the panto crowds arrived.
There were also technical crews buzzing around and putting everything in place ahead of the show and everything combined to produce a sense of preparation and hard work; a lot of which is never sensed when audiences arrive to witness on-stage frivolity.
This season, the theatre’s panto is Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, starring dancer extraordinaire Russell Grant. But the reason for my visit was to get an idea of how some of the behind-the-scenes magic is put together.
I was met by the well-known children’s entertainer Sean Rollason, who is playing Muddles.
As a comic “jester” character in the show, he is very aware that planned jokes have to be up-to-date and relevant to the audience.
He explained: “The script is written with room in it to put in topical jokes and jokes that contain local areas. We always make sure there are topical gags and when we get to rehearsals, things are added.”
The cast itself includes about 100 people, who all have to be rehearsed, fitted with appropriate costumes and who have to understand exactly what they are supposed to be doing on stage.
Sean explained: “There were open auditions for the kids and they have been rehearsing every Sunday at the Masque Theatre. There are seven teams of eight children and we need to rehearse a number four times.
“As far as the children are concerned, we have licensed chaperones and the kids are never unattended.”
I managed to snatch a quick interview with dance captain Layla Dawn during one of the show rehearsals. This panto, unsurprisingly, has a dance focus due to the presence of former Strictly Come Dancing contestant Russell Grant, who takes parts in choreographed routines, accompanied by backing dancers. His former dance partner, Strictly’s Flavia Cacace, is also rumoured to be intending to visit one of the performances.
Layla said: “This is my second panto. I just graduated from college last year and have been working on a cruise ship for nine months. The dancing we do in the panto is similar, although with the cruise ship you do lots of different shows, not just one.
“I would say we start at about 9.30am, but get here early to warm up so we don’t get injured. We rehearse all day and sometimes don’t finish until 9pm. We have to make sure we warm up and stretch as our bodies are our lives. If we get injured we can’t do our jobs.
“We do get Christmas Day off and some of the girls will go home or see friends and family. Usually everyone’s family comes to enjoy the show.”
Kevin Tillett, who plays the panto Dame, Moppy, said: “People often overlook how hard the dancers work on stage but very often they will have more costume changes to fit in than the rest of us have.”
Darren Russell is the production manager, who oversees everything that goes on stage, from the set to the theatre cloths.
He said: “It is long hours and this is a very technical panto. There is projection, there are confetti canons, pyrotechnics and lots of glitz and glamour as we have Russell as well. The mirror is traditionally on a platform, but we are going to use projections so it is a moving ‘man in a mirror’ appearance. It is a lot better for the audience’s point of view as it is a lot bigger.”
He said: “The set itself was used in Epsom a couple of years ago where the theatre has about the same dimensions and it is not complicated in itself as a lot of it is done with lights.
“You wouldn’t believe something as big as this is here in Kettering, this is something that London might offer.”
Kevin said: “This is a very special time of year and without wanting to sound too grand, we are very conscious that panto is part of the Christmas experience for hundreds or thousands of people, particularly children. In this day and age it might be the only time they go to the theatre and for some children it will be their first experience.”
More about the dame
Many panto casts have at least one veteran of the stage who has been playing a certain role for decades.
In the Kettering’s Lighthouse Theatre’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, this veteran is Kevin Tillett, who has been playing the panto dame for 15 years.
Kevin said: “I set myself a target that by the time I was 40 I wanted to be playing the dame. I set myself the target of 40 and actually did it a bit before that. I think the first panto I did was in 1990, so 23 years ago.”
But what is it like to have a working Christmas while others are enjoying time off? Kevin said: “It is a physical challenge, you have to be larger than life. The added challenge is what audiences don’t see; when you come off stage you are tearing back to the dressing room, changing costumes, wigs, everything, and straight back again. I would certainly expect to see six to eight, maybe 10 costume changes and each one of those is not necessarily straight off and straight on. If you have get a 25-second change to do in the wings that has to be rehearsed as much as what you do on stage.”
He continued: “The make-up I wear is reasonably elaborate. My dame is a man in a dress, not a drag queen, so elaborate is not the right word, but not subtle. It takes me about half an hour to get ready.
“A lot of people think there is a lot of ad libbing in pantos but actually there is not as the whole thing could become unmanageable.”
Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs will run at Kettering’s Lighthouse Theatre until Sunday, January 5.
The show is this year being supported by the Northamptonshire Telegraph.
Tickets cost £17 or £14. Family and group ticket prices are also available.
For booking details or more information about the pantomime, see www.lighthousetheatre.co.uk or ring the box office on 01536 414141.
The show is being brought to the stage by Hammond Family Pantomimes.
The cast includes Russell Grant as The Astrologer Royal, Kevin Tillett as Dame Moppy and Sean Rollason as the jester, Muddles.