|Posted by [email protected] on April 27, 2012 at 5:35 AM|
I've just played my first Panto Dame. Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington, produced by Stageworks International in Blackpool. Performances at King George’s Hall, Blackburn.
6.15 Already awake, hanging out of the window to try and dilute with ozone the allergic effect of whatever has been sprayed on the carpets, curtain and lampshade in this room. I’ve asked Tim, caretaker of the Pleasure Beach accommodation, to think of inviting the Fairy of Fresh Air to the party. I don’t mind that where they’ve billeted us is basic – white walls, flat pack furniture and strip lighting – but my sinuses mind the Jasmine and Jeyes Fluid stench.
All the houses opposite are B and Bs. Lights are just coming on in number ten. In fourteen, the day glow crowns of the angels have been on all night. In sixteen, Santa is lit up in his rocking chair and the chair is being tested for degree of rock. People are smoking and coughing outside.
Queen B, owner of the cafe round the corner, shimmies past in her Uggs and body warmer, her hair in fifties retro-burlesque style. I whistle and she looks up. ‘I’ve got your special all ready for you, duck,’ she says. ‘What time can I expect you?’
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 the panto.
‘I know, duck. But it’s by that muscle bound Russian, isn’t it? So at least have some potato salad.
The muscle bound Russian is Alexey Kofanov, ex-Soviet trampoline champion, who forewent a place on the Olympic team to run away to the circus. When his arms are at full extension under me during the Dirty Dancing lift, he miaows plaintively. Him being Tommy the Cat and all.
I go out past Travelodge and the Pleasure Beach lookout tower to check if the tide’s in. It is and I walk up and down in front of the tide organ, an iron sculpture twenty or so feet high, shaped like a violin’s 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. He’s taking protein shake mix out of his allotted cupboard: the one beneath the cork board stuck with mug shots of Blackpool’s most wanted, who we’re 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:
IF IT’S DIRTY WASH IT UP.
IF IT’S ON, TURN IT OFF.
IF YOU TAKE IT OUT, PUT IT AWAY.
IF IT’S A MESS, TIDY IT UP.
IF IT SMELLS, THROW IT OUT.
Kizzer is a panto DSM, working to pay for a year’s traveling. I’ve adopted him as my panto-son in the house, which he accepts gracefully. Russian by birth, brought up in Swansea, he’s frighteningly together for someone of twenty. Since April, often alone in the house, he’s 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.
‘Well, what were you doing at twenty, then?’ he asked me on about my second day in the house.
Being asked to leave Guildhall for having a non-blooming voice; and, in any case, far more interest in performing ballet’s most frigid heroines than operas most rampant tenors.
Kizzer 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 didn’t 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 the changes, K.’
I have a dresser, Sarnai, but she’s also attendant on Queen Rat and not always available. Take yesterday:
First costume is a Burberry cook’s dress with matching pinafore, shawl, bonnet and white gloves. A flesh colour all-in-one, a crinoline and two pairs of bloomers junderneath. (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. Quick change! 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 Sarnai’s pointe shoes as she ran offstage, free at last to zip me into this second costume.
‘Stand still, you only slow me down if you try and help. And I need to be fast. I have the fairy’s bow bells to reattach after you. And the door of the dryer is stuck with Tommy Cat’s 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 - ‘That’d 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 isn’t Spotted Dick-Dick, it’s Spotted Dick, Dick...’
After the Spotted Dick business, I lost the gloves 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 look 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 wasn’t 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 doesn’t 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.
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 girl’s 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. ‘Here’s 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 sailor’s 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 Rat’s 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 havent 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. They’re Kev, Judi and Claire.
Judi’s driving. She’s 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 they’re at it. She also works at a distillery, and has come to appreciate Whiskey, she says.
Kev is just back from a year on a cruise liner. ‘Thank God we didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 park’s shut. Total bargain, even though at first we were all having to reassure him that no there wouldn’t be wolves necessarily living in the park.’
Claire beside him points out cloud formations.
Judi gleefully notes that the nearest services are twenty-three miles away and we’re only traveling twenty-two miles.
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.
There’s a note pinned to my dressing-room door. It’s from Front of House manager Alanna.
Iestyn, when you get to the throwing of the sweets bit in future, please don’t. You had one in a little girl’s eye yesterday. Please just give them out to the front two rows.
Kizzer, when he wakes from his power nap on the Alderman’s shop counter, agrees with me that this is going to look pathetic. ‘You can’t not bat them up into the balcony like you’ve 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 day’s 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 you’ve always disappointed us with your positive handfuls of the things. We’ve 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 I’m miked and waltz upstage to complain to Kev that I buggered up the Pacquita step. I’ll 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!’ Position, of 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.’
12.36 I forget that I have dialogue after the chase across the desert island after the shipwreck scene and am running back to my dressing room for my next change, out of the galleon dress and into the Black Swan tutu. Hearing the opening of the 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. Antony Johns has given me an extra costume for this: a Teletubbies’ coatdress, furry orange top hat and pink wellies. I go to the toilet when I get to the Town Hall and 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. Actually, she can’t have meant here. I’ve walked into the middle of the Mayor’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’ offer of Mulled Wine and a Mince Pie, and engage somebody in conversation. 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 an anally retentive person. 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, you never know. Try it.’
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.
Catching sight of myself in the glass doors out of reception I stop dead.
‘What?’ Kizzer asks.
‘Oh, just the stuff I was saying to that poor woman, and I’m wearing a Teletubbies’ dress. 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 looking at me. ‘Your fake eyelashes will get washed off,’ he warns.
'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.'
Ned, volunteer, is at the side of the stage for the lighting up show. 'You got another direct hit this aft with a sweet, in spite of you doing the plane crash business. A producer this time. Up in the balcony, too. His right temple's come up like a simmer bubble in red porridge. Threatening to sue, he was. You got him with a Licqourice Toffee. So it's an ill-wind. Cos kids never seem to like the Licquorice Toffees.'