Monday, 2 November 2015

Panto Diary


  I'm in the Cafe de Paris Christmas show this year, so won't be a dame.  My first dame ever was Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington, for Stageworks International.  Written by Dougie Squires, directed by Antony Johns, performances at King George’s Hall, Blackburn.  
  Apart from the tram, the tide organ and the obvious selfies, all photos in this diary are by Antony Johns.  Antony Johns Creative Director
  PS: the fonts and sizes seem to vary of their own accord in this piece.  Perhaps because I mocked psychics in yesterday's piece. 

  Here's my diary from a typical daming day.  

6.15  Already awake, hanging out of the window in my digs, trying ozone on the allergic reaction to whatever has been sprayed on the carpets, curtains and lampshade.  I’ve asked Tim, caretaker of the Pleasure Beach accommodation, to think of inviting the Fairy of Fresh Air to the christening.  I don’t mind that where they’ve billeted us is basic – white walls, flat pack furniture and fluorescent – but do mind the stink of candy floss and ectoplasm. TIm said I didn't seem to mind the stink of the lampshade when I was wore it tied on my head with slipper-socks for photos on the beach, recreating Anne Bronte dying in Scarborough.  
  Fair point.  
  All the houses opposite are B and Bs.  Lights are just coming on in number ten.  In fourteen, the glow-in-the-dark crowns angels's crowns have been on all night.  In sixteen, Santa is lit up in his rocking chair, and someone on the day shift is kneeling beside the chair testing its rock.  People are smoking and coughing outside.
  Queen B, owner of the cafe round the corner, shimmies up in Uggs and body warmer, her hair in fifties retro-burlesque style.  I whistle.  
  ‘What time shall I expect you today, duck?’ she stage-whispers to me.  ‘Got your special all ready in my bag.'
  For two pounds she’s been boxing me up a fresh salad with spiced tomato dressing and a chucky egg.  She doesn’t like doing it, she tells me.  ‘A Dame needs to eat more than that.  How about a nice barm?  I’ll do you one with square sausage, onions, beefburger, whatever you fancy.'
  Each time she tries to sell me the barm option I remind her that I have to be Dirty Dancing lifted in act one of Dick Whittington.
  ‘I know, duck.  But its by that muscle bound Russian playing the cat, isnt it?  So you can safely have some potato salad at least.'


  I go out past Travelodge and the Pleasure Beach lookout tower onto the beach.  A tram is passing, fully lit up, but with clang muted at this time of the morning.  

  The tide's in, and I walk up and down in front of the tide organ, an iron sculpture twenty or so feet high, shaped like a violins neck.  Its pipes are let down into the sea defences and as the tide shifts they sound singly and in cords, sounding like a cross between a banshee and a Wurlitzer.  


  Kirill Boy Band Lee, known as Kizzer, is in the kitchen when I get back. 
  ‘How’s it going?’ he asks, his voice as puffy as his early morning face.  'Been out listening to the tide organ?'
  I nod.  'It was playing "Bali Hai", from South Pacific.'  
  Kizzer’s taking protein shake mix out of his allocated cupboard: the one beneath the cork board stuck with mug shots of Blackpool’s most wanted, who were meant to keep out of the house if at all possible.  Alongside these mug shots are other warnings: a fifteen pound fine for loss of room keys.  Candles, parties and guests after eleven pm strictly prohibited.  Then there are the Kitchen Rules: 






  Kizzer is a panto stage hand, working to pay for a years traveling.  Ive adopted him as my panto-son in the house, which he accepts gracefully.  Since April, often alone in the house, hes taken any work that the Pleasure Beach has put his way; after work he goes to the gym, runs for miles along the prom, overdoses on protein and, before bed, does his accounts in a little red book. 
  He downs his protein shake and reminds me that after the second of the schools’ matinees today he will escort me, Kelda (Fairy of Bow Bells), Jamie Rae (Alderman) and Scott (Queen Rat) to take part in the switching on of the Blackburn Christmas lights.  He puts his empty glass in the sink and looks meaningfully at me.  According to Tim, caretaker, Kizzer has never washed-up since he moved in in April.
  ‘Oh, by the way,’ he says as he leaves.  ‘Stage-Manager Dave was a bit concerned at the dress rehearsal yesterday that you didnt seem to have someone dressing you all the time on your changes.
  ‘I’m having to shift any way I can to make a couple of them.’
  I have a dresser, Sarnai, but shes also attendant on Queen Rat and not always available.  
  Take yesterday:

  First costume: Burberry cooks dress with matching pinafore, shawl, bonnet and white gloves.  A flesh colour all-in-one, a crinoline and two pairs of bloomers underneath.  (I wear ballet slippers all the time until the finale, when I change into gold court shoes.)  Coming off after my first scene, I asked the Alderman waiting in the wings to un-velcro me, then ran to my dressing room for the quick change into green and blue dress, with bib and apron and white frilly bonnet.  I climbed out of the Burberry, took off the headdress, swore in panic while I untangled my radio mic from the depths of the wig attached to the burberry bonnet – with the cue for my next entrance rushing to meet me – then staggered out into the corridor.  Relieved to hear Sarnais pointe shoes as she ran offstage, free at last to zip me into this second costume.    
  ‘Stand still,' she shouts, 'you only slow me down if you try and help. I need to be fast.  I have the fairys bow bells to reattach after you.  And the door of the dryer is stuck with Tommy Cats wedding head in it!
  I ran to the props table for my mixing bowl and whisk full of prop cream and was onstage just on cue.  With my left shoe ribbons undone. They trailed behind as Tommy Cat shunted me offstage to leave Alice and Dick to have some quality time; he trod on them, I took a header offstage left.  And kept running till I reached a smirking Kizzer -  Thatd better be an encouraging smirk, Kizzer!- who handed me my prop Spotted Dick.  I bent down to retie the ribbon and was straight back onstage. 
  ‘No, it isnt Spotted Dick-Dick, its Spotted Dick, Dick...
  After the Spotted Dick business, I pulled off the gloves with my teeth as I was meant to be wiping my hands when I next wandered in from Sarah's kitchen.  At the next exit, Sarnai handed me the gloves to put back on and we ran in tandem along the back corridor, she unzipping me, me losing the bonnet, then the green and blue dress, the crinoline and the top pair of bloomers.  In the dressing room Sarnai dropped costume number three over my head, an emerald and navy polka dot dress, then fastened the hooks and eyes. 
   Yes, you did read that right.  Hooks and eyes.  Normally, out of the question for a panto dame costume, where quick changes are de rigeur, but Antony Johns, co-director, choreographer and costume designer, had seen the light of love in my eyes when I saw the dress on the spare rail over in wardrobe and agreed to let me wear it.  Last hook and eye together, I dumped the, candy-floss fright-wig on my head and fastened the Christmas bauble necklace. 
  Yes, I thought so too.  How could a poor widow woman working as a cook general have such an expensive, though admittedly trashy, piece of jewellery?
  Ah, but you see, as author Dougie Squires pointed out to me.  I wasnt a poor widow woman working as a cook general, I was Prima Ballerina Madame Galina playing a poor widow woman working as a cook general.  See?  Whatever, once I was dressed and accessorised I dashed Kizzer-ward again.  He was holding the blacks shut until my cue to appear during the classic Wall Scene, where Tommy Cat doesnt take kindly to being asked to hop it and leave the lovers alone to duet in “Close to You” and shoves both of them in turn backwards off the wall onto the concealed mattress, is shoved off himself by first Dick then Alice, before regaining his seat having dispatched Alice, to duet with Dick, who is then knocked off the wall Sarah, who then gets in the way of the lovers first kiss. 
  ‘Oh, Sarah!
  Now back through the blacks to Kizzer, who once again brought his experience of surfing holidays in Swansea and Newquay to bear and deftly unhooked all the eyes from my polka dot with one hand while still holding the blacks closed with the other, in pitch darkness.  On first performing this feat for a panicking – and then very grateful - me at the first technical rehearsal, he had explained:
  ‘Posh girls bras behind dunes at beach parties, bach.’
  The polka dot now undone, I ran back to the dressing room to be dressed in the pink tutu, blonde pigtailed wig with pink bows.  Heres what happened to Baby Jane,’ I muttered to myself as I dashed right round the stage to waft onstage in the Vision of Dick as Lord Mayor ballet. 

  And so on through two psychedelic body suits with matching puff ball skirts, a sailors dress with matching lighthouse hat and rubber ducks swimming round its hem, a galleon in full sail hung with crabs with picture hat for the shipwreck, then Black Swan tutu for my ballet solo when I weaken Queen Rats power with my pirouettes.  Apparently.  Lastly into my wedding dress, ivory velvet trimmed with gold chintz puffs, with Marie Antoinette wig and veil.  And too many stairs in the walk down for gold Court shoes, frankly.
  And Dave, stage manager, was concerned?  I haven't spent so much time running in panic wearing a dress since the rocket attack on Kandahar Airport when I was touring with Combined Services Entertainment. 

7.15 am.  Leave Blackpool for Blackburn with the dancers.  Theyre Kev, Judi and Claire. 
  Judis driving.  Shes a former Miss Glasgow and now works as a dancer in traditional Scottish shows.  We have audience participation.  I always seem to get the old ones who want to deck themselves during the Gay Gordons.  And want to deck me while theyre at it.' She also works at a distillery, and has come to fully appreciate Whiskey, she says. 
  Kev is just back from a year on a cruise liner.  Thank God we didnt have to talk to the passengers, just perform for them.’ 
  Claire works as a dancer whenever possible and sells Sainsbury Credit Cards.  She has tried to sell one to everyone in the panto company, with the exception of Tommy the Cat.  Russian, you see. 
  On the journey Kev, in the back, is on his laptop researching the Ad Hoc Properities website. 
 ‘Weird places you wouldnt normally think of living in,’ he explains.  ‘Like my mate lives in an old lodge house in a park.  Has a key to the park gates so he can get home after the parks shut.  Total bargain, even though at first we were all having to reassure him that no there wouldnt be wolves necessarily living in the park.

8.30 am.  I set my props before doing anything else.  My toad-in-the-hole with pop-up toad worked by a little lever, my mixing bowl and cream-filled whisk and prop Spotted Dick.

  Theres a note pinned to my dressing-room door.  Its from Front of House manager Alanna.

Iestyn, when you get to the throwing of the sweets bit in future, please dont.  You had one in a little girls eye yesterday.  Please just give them out to the front two rows. 

  Kizzer, when he wakes from his power nap on the Aldermans shop counter, agrees with me that this is going to look pathetic.  
  ‘You cant not bat them up into the balcony like youve been doing with your bonkers run up and everything.
  Or as Dougie Squires put it:  ‘If Margaret Rutherford and Fatima Whitbread had mated...’

9.25. The half.  Ned, King George's Hall volunteer, brings me the sweets for the days first show and says, sadly, 

  ‘We hoped that you were going to be careful with the sweets as you were at your first rehearsal.  Three you threw out then.  Just three.  Since then youve always disappointed us with your positive handfuls of the things.  Weve had some emergencies with these sweets before now, I can tell you.’
  ‘You mean me scoring a direct hit with one? I ask.
  ‘Not exactly,’ he says, and walks dejectedly away without saying any more.

10.15 During my first number – Food, Glorious Food - I again forget that Im miked and waltz upstage to complain to Kev that I buggered up the Pacquita step.  Ill get a note from Dave, stage manager, about this later.  While I bat the sweets at the children, I make them adopt the Brace! Brace!’ Positionof flight safety demonstration fame.  
  ‘And do we have anything to report in the accident book, boys and girls?
  ‘No, Sarah!’ they shout back.  
  Somebody is lying, we will find out later. 

11.03 am.  Interval.  Alexey brings his Blackberry into my dressing-room and we watch Cats do the Funniest Things videos on You Tube.  If my attention wanders – to, say, my first costume for act two – Alexey brings it back by squeezing my funny bone.  
  ‘And now we listen to Jackie Chan sing, Sarah.’

                              Alexey and I in Cinderella, Stage Works, 2013

12.36 In the shipwreck scene I forget that I have dialogue after the chase across the desert island and head off back to my dressing room for my next change: out of the galleon dress and into the Black Swan tutu.  Hearing the familiar dialogue jogs my memory and I run back and onstage, saying, sorry, I was delayed trying to get sand out of you don’t want to know where.
  ‘Bolton?’ Phil Walker as Dick obliquely wonders. 

  4.00 Kizzer escorts Kelda, Jamie, Scott and me round the side of King George’s Hall to the Town Hall for the switching on of the lights.  I'm wearing my embarking on voyage costume. At the Town Hall I manage to lose the others.  Going back to reception, I’m pointed to ‘the back end of the foyer, where you can hear the sounds of voices…’
  She must mean across here - definite sounds of voices.   I open a door and walk in.  'Here I am, boys and girls, Sarah's brought you some...oh...'
  She can’t have meant here.  I’ve walked slap into the middle of the Mayor of Blackburn's official drinks party.  The voices have all but stopped.  For some reason I decide I have to face this one down, accept a waitress’s silent offer of Mulled Wine and a Mince Pie, and engage somebody in conversation.  
  She's Mary, blonde bob coming a bit loose, navy blue trouser suit, stridently sensible shoes.  She’s the chair of the market traders’ association, and would love some of us panto characters to do some publicity for it, except she’s lost her motivation to do anything.  Her husband has been dead just six weeks.  Died in his sleep and she wasn’t expecting it.  She doesn’t want to do anything. 
  ‘Then you mustn’t,’ I tell her.  ‘You can’t do all the pick yourself, brush yourself off nonsense.  It’s grief.  It has to take its course.  One thing, though, try and get out in the middle of the day so you don’t get light-deprivation.  That makes everything worse than it ever has to be.  But don’t sign up for Ten Classic Novels in a village hall or anything like that just because people will tell you to.  Oh, but do timetable yourself a Christmas Day and Boxing Day like you're borderline OCD.  You won’t feel like doing anything, probably, but just drawing up the timetable and then not sticking to it will maybe bring a glimmer of something.’
  When Kizzer finally finds me and says I have to come quickly or I’ll miss our segment in the lights’ ceremony, Mary thanks me and shakes my hand. 
  I catch sight of myself in the glass doors leading out of the reception area and moan. 
  ‘What?’  Kizzer asks.
  ‘The stuff I was saying to poor Mary; and I’m wearing this!'


  'And?' he wonders.

  'And I feel a bit guilty because my mate Neil’s on the National Rural Touring Forum scheme teaching Ten Classic Novels in village halls.  But you couldn’t let someone in Mary’s state loose on Jude the Obscure.  So I’ve done the right thing, really.  Oh, ignore me.  Christmas hysteria.’
  He's watching me carefully.  
  ‘Your fake eyelashes will get washed off,’ he warns. 'Aw, look at you now.'  He pats my shoulder in this way he has, like he's testing if a sponge is cooked.  'Listen, how about we have something from Queen B’s, Cava and back-to-back Big Bang Theory when we get home, how's that?  Bit of mother/son bonding.'


                                     So tired and emotional I put my eyelashes on upside down...

  Ned, volunteer, is at the side of the stage for the lighting up show.  

  'You got another direct hit this aft with a sweet,' he says, stoically.  'In spite of you doing the plane crash business.  A theatrical producer this time.  Up in the balcony, too.  His right temple's come up like a simmer bubble in red porridge.  Threatening to sue.  You got him with a Licquorice Toffee.  So it's an ill-wind.'
  'Why, does he put on rival productions?'
  'No, cos kids never seem to like the Licquorice Toffees.'

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