Pyrotechnics, pirates and Peter Pan...

Chris Wills who plays Peter Pan
Chris Wills who plays Peter Pan
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There is a distinct buzz of activity in the air as I enter the auditorium at The Lighthouse Theatre in Kettering.

The Northants Telegraph is sponsoring this year’s Lighthouse panto, Peter Pan, so last week I dropped in to meet some of the backstage crew, and cast, to find out just a few of the secrets behind putting together this kind of show.

When I visit, a day time performance has just recently ended, but the panto staff are already busily preparing for the next show, with some performers practising their songs and some crew members making some last- minute adjustments to lights.

The entire show, which stars actor Darren Day as Captain Hook, has been brought in by panto specialist Paul Hammond Productions, which takes these kind of big theatrical spectacles to venues around the country.

But it is still a very busy time for the theatre’s own staff, with 45 performances to deliver to the expectant public.

James Dainty, technical manager for the Lighthouse Theatre, said: “There is a lot of pressure and unsocial hours, you don’t get to see your friends and family at Christmas, but other than that, you do get to enjoy the atmosphere here.

“My role requires me to organise the crew for the show and this year, and for the past three years, we have had a team of volunteers who give up three weeks of their annual leave to help us out.”

Anyone familiar with the story of Peter Pan will remember that one important element of the tale involves flying.

James, and Jenny Hollingworth, have the tough job of overseeing some of the special effects involved in the panto.

For 22-year-old professional actor Chris Wills, who plays Peter Pan, this is his first panto. And flying is a key part of his character’s action on stage. Luckily, he does not have a fear of heights.

He said: “I have never flown before on stage so it is the first time I have worn a harness, and it can rub a bit. I don’t get nervous about doing it but I do get nervous about getting the harness clicked in properly, although there is a good team backstage to make sure everything is fine.”

And flying is just one of an array of special effects included in the show, which also incorporates snowfall, spinning pyramids and pyrotechnic displays.

James said: “We have flying scenes and lots of things happening all over the place. A lot of what we need gets ordered in and there are a lot of man hours involved in getting that up and running.

“There is also the rehearsal time needed to make sure it all works. If something doesn’t work you have to get that right the next day.

“The flying scenes have taken quite a lot of rehearsal time and were a lot of work for the actors and guys backstage to make sure it looks real. The wires have to be hidden... not that there are wires, it is all magic!

“In the transformation scene there are a lot of effects, we have pyrotechnics and fireworks and snow machines, as well as pyramids which light up and spin around.”

For health and safety reasons, it becomes very important that every performer is well rehearsed.

James said: “Theatre is quite dangerous. On a building site you would wear a hard hat whenever you dropped something from a ceiling. We do that with people wearing feathery costumes. We have to rehearse time and time again so everyone knows where they need to be, and if changes are made, everyone needs to know about the changes.”

Sean Rollason (who uses the stage name Rollo) is the company manager and also plays the comedy character Smee. Having started his professional life as a circus clown, Sean has worked for Paul Hammond for 20 years and performed in 15 pantos. He also works as a children’s entertainer.

He said: “Every production is changed for each venue. The script is written by Paul and when we come to rehearse, a lot of extra things are brought in and developed during rehearsal. We have to get local names in.”

Getting the laughs is an important part of the Smee role.

Sean said: “We have to aim at the children but also remember there are adults in the audience as well so there are gags that will go above the children’s heads. And it all comes down to the way it is delivered. At the end of the show we bring some children up for what is called the ‘song sheet’ and that is never the same twice as all the children are different. The thing about working with children is you have to remember they are very honest. If they think it is rubbish they will tell you it is rubbish.”

The company brings in its own sets and costumes which are then tweaked at the theatre as necessary. When it comes to theatrical make-up, the actors have to apply their own – which can come down to practice.

Sean said: “I first started as a circus clown 25 years ago and make-up is something you learn from other performers. I would say Darren Day has the most difficult make-up to do as he plays Mr Darling and later turns into Captain Hook.”

Preparation for the panto itself starts earlier in the year as local children are auditioned to play the younger characters in September. The professionals are not brought in to rehearse with them until November.

Sean said: “The children involved range in age from six to their teens. They do really well and it is all well organised, there are chaperones and there is always a chaperone on each side of the stage, within view. Then we take them back and give them snacks and drinks. There are a lot of quick changes and it is a difficult job to do, I think there are about five costume changes for the little ones.

“Hammond Productions has one brilliant wardrobe mistress called Jean Walker who has been with Paul for years and she really is talented with a needle and thread.

“There are more than 100 children in the show, in different groups.”

Peter Pan will run until December 30. To find out more, log on to lighthousetheatre.co.uk.