Pantomime: The Great British Tradition
"Tis the season to be jolly... tra la la la la la la la la!", spending the festive season performing in the great British theatrical tradition of "it's behind you!" - yes, pantomime.
It's New Year's Day and I'm sat in my rented apartment in the historic town of Hereford with immovable traces of make-up and glitter on my face. This is my third year in pantomime here at The Courtyard Theatre. This year's production is Dick Whittington, and I'm playing Dame Abbey Dore to the heart-throb Dick, with my massive eyelashes, big boobies and endless costume changes.
To foreigners, panto is one of the bizarrest of great British theatre traditions, although it has its roots in Commedia del Arte. Based on a fairy tale, panto is the story of good overcoming evil. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy; a hissable baddie does everything to destroy their dreams and take over the world; a good fairy combats the evil one, helped by a very maternal yet slightly saucy man playing the dame (me). Despite the truly outrageous costumes, everything turns out well. The end.
The schedule is tough. The rehearsal period is just over a week - to learn lines, songs, dance
routines and have costume fittings. Before you know it, you're standing on stage on opening night thinking: 'Don't forget my lines! Can I walk in these shoes? Is my bra too tight? And how many shows exactly are there till the end of the run?'
Written by Lyndsey Maples, Hereford pantomime is a traditional, wonderfully witty, crazy panto, but without big celebs doing a ten-minute turn. Every day we perform two shows a day, 12 shows a week. First, we have three normal performance times to get under our belts (7pm, 2pm and 7pm) then a day off before the morning performances kick in... well, it's these children's/schools performances which are a bit of a killer. I mean, who on earth wants to be strapping tights and bright red lipstick at 9am? But the great and most rewarding feeling you get from these shows is how excited and joyful the kids are. This may be the first time some of these kids have set foot in a theatre, let alone watched panto. So I think it is really important to make it a magical experience for one and all. As a child I remembered how excited I was to go and witness this theatrical event- boo the baddie, try and catch a sweet in the sweetie throw and join in the usual ridiculous song sheet towards the end. The school kids particularly love it when the Dame picks on one of their teachers - hello, Mr Brown!
One bonus at Hereford is that we also perform four adult evening performances where we slightly alter the show and give it a more adult twist, including playing tricks on each other and the traditional double entendre steps up a notch... although one would never swear on stage, of course. We are a lady after all!
I was lucky enough to be asked to do a special radio show for Sunshine Radio called "Tim McArthur's Christmas Ding Dong" which aired on Christmas Eve, featuring me interviewing fellow cast members about Christmas traditions, plus interviewing some of the children who also perform in the panto about how important Christmas is and the show are to them.
You have to look after yourself, as the Dame is a full-on role and very physical. Even if I can't do the splits and never have been able to, the part requires a hell of a lot of energy, both through physical humour, vocal dynamics... and dance in my case - I recall last year transforming on stage from frumpy menopausal Dame to Britney Spears lookalike in seconds!
So here I am now on the eve of our last week of shows. The New Year has just started, but they're already planning for Hereford's 2013 panto! It's a great British tradition, and I look forward to slapping on my make-up and strapping on my fake boobs next Christmas-time!
Tim McArthur's website is www.timmcarthur.com