PANTO SEASON: Writing CINDERELLA For The Lyric Hammersmith
I had written three pantos for the Lyric by the time they commissioned Cinderella and every time I had worked with Morgan Lloyd Malcolm (Mog) and Tom Scutt (Scutt). This time, however, we were without Steve Marmion (Marmo). Marmo had directed a lot of panto and was effectively raised by elves,eating tinsel for din dins, and wearing garish colours (hence his slightly gothic appearance these days). Marmo taught me the traditions of the form and that ‘if it isn’t funny or plot advancing, cut it’: a rule to live by. I don’t cut people. (I do.)
At the first meeting about Cinderella, I had just got off an all-night flight and was facing a series of epic meetings and further train rides to get back to Suffolk. So I decided to take a twelve-hour, slow-release Ritalin. I was so high that I was changing the subject every three sentences. Sometimes I thought bats were attacking me. I also talked utter nonsense. When I later checked my notes from the meeting I had drawn a really detailed picture of a horse. The only fact that I think I can remember was that Sean Holmes said he was going to direct it and that we should not shy away from ‘a bit of blue’. I took this to mean ‘fill it with perverse and dirty jokes that will upset most people’.
Scutt and I joined Mog at her house in March and, whilst her beautiful, giant, four-month old baby was busy growing his molars and applying for jobs, we thrashed out a scene structure. Having Scutt involved this early on was reckless; he’s a maverick, I once saw him wearing a deer-stalker ironically. But it was also brilliant. A successful Cinderella relies on that big transformation and panto, more than most other forms, requires the designer to contribute as if he were one of the writers, so it was essential and brilliant that we all started out on this
one in the same room. Mog and I divided up who was going to write the first draft of which scene and Scutt left with a clear idea of the major technical set-pieces.
Over the next couple of months Mog and I traded scenes. I was writing I [heart] Peterborough and working on Wild Oats for Bristol Old Vic, so working on the panto felt like taking a holiday. I would try to work on it in blocks of at least one day because it takes my head a little time to process the idea that ‘it’s a panto’ so ‘Yes, you’re allowed to write that’ and to get into the tone of ‘panto’ I would watch Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs or Pixar or Monty Python, Sesame Street or just dogs falling over on YouTube to try to get my head in gear and then go for it. The filthy gags just write themselves.
Once we had a draft of each half, Mog and I would swap and rewrite each other’s. Then each of us would have a ‘pass’ at the full thing. Having worked together for some time, we both do everything but, in broad terms, I tend to work out the structure and Mog tends to write the gags. Scutt was suggesting songs and puns. But we have also both learned a great deal from Steven Webb. He is a natural performer who manages to make every audience, of any age, love him. I don’t know how he does it, I can only assume that he balances out his horrific on-stage charm by murdering children or attacking the poor. So Steven’s part also felt like
it was writing itself, we just basically wrote what we thought Steven might say… if he was a fairy in a fairytale land talking to an ex-con.
The Lyric held a couple of read-throughs of drafts over the course of the year. As you can imagine, when you hear a really bad joke alone and there isn’t anywhere to hide, you pretty quickly know what to cut. Hopefully. I’m deeply aware that I’m writing this as if the end product was/is wildly successful. Who knows, go and see Cinderella at The Lyric and you’ll be able to tweet at me about what a fool I’ve been for not cutting certain things. But these read-throughs helped Mog and I refine characters. They also gave Scutt an opportunity to stay inside the writing process (and suggest songs). Sean could also give swift and direct
feedback and Steven was on hand to steer us tonally.
We always tend to write stupid stage directions as a kind of tonal message to each other and, once Julie Atherton had been cast, they gave me the opportunity to try to get her to snog me; ‘Julie Atherton snogs Joel’ remained a stage direction up until I realized she had received a draft and was engaged to be married to a really big man. When Mel Giedroyc was cast, I watched some Great British Bake-Off and we FINALLY found a through-line for Ms. Hardup. Hammed Animashaun was cast, which drove our decisions about the ugly sisters and when Sophia Nomvete confirmed, we knew we could make the fairy godmum a real Hammersmith local.
Throughout rehearsals Mog and I were on hand to repeatedly say to Sean, ‘This isn’t Edward Bond, you can cut whatever you want in favour of something funnier.’ Tom Scutt’s song choices won over mine and, unfortunately, it turns out he was completely right and no, you shouldn’t end a family panto with a song about loneliness by someone who recently died of a drugs overdose. So Tom was right and his design was integral to the story, Sean allowed us to finally nail a truly chaotic ‘slop sequence’ and our cast are much, much funnier than the
jokes we slaved over writing / stealing for them. Our preview audiences helped us find out what we should cut and what we should ping out more. Hopefully we responded to what they wanted whilst keeping ourselves alive in it. Again, judge for yourselves, but it’s the previews that I feel really make our panto what it is.
What we have ended up with is a truly collaborative effort and that’s what has made the past four years so creatively satisfying for me. Panto is often looked down on, but as a form it is as structured as a sonnet and I have relished the opportunity to play within it. There are age-old rules and everyone has an opinion on what they are and this is what makes it so brilliant to be a part of; it’s Christmassy and it has been around for ages. This is my last panto for the time being and, over the past four years, I feel we’ve established some
traditions that I think make for a peculiarly Hammersmith panto.
On press night, I called Mog (who was wrestling the whiskey away from her one-year-old man-child) and we shouted excitedly at each other about the jokes that worked, the ones that died and the bits that we never thought we would get away with.
About a hundred years ago, I imagine the writers of that famous Covent Garden panto had a similar shouted conversation: ‘We put an elephant in it! AGHaHahahahah! …where’s it going to sleep?’