Monday, July 15, 2013

Working In Theatre- Part 7

After "A Voyage Round My Father" the next show was a pantomime, just in time for Christmas 1970. There is something about panto which I don't particularly like. It's all corny and rather stupid. I know it's 'traditional' but I much prefer my theatre to be a little more imaginative. Everyone  seems to  not care that they know the story, no more so than the classic pantomime plots of Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and The Bean Stalk etc etc. This one was 'Dick Whittington.' There was one difference with this one, the roles of Jack and Alice  were played more realistically with Dick played by a man and  Alice Fitzwarren played by a girl and not the more traditional roles of  Principal Boy and Girl, although it did have a Dame, the cook, played traditionally by a man, in this case an actor called Bill Stewart. Also, at the end, it didn't have Alice marrying Dick, for some reason, a sort of almost feminist slant, but it didn't really work for some reason. It doesn't make sense if the hero doesn't marry the heroine. It was almost like a musical in that it had a completely original score with some very good lyrics, unlike most pantos that have pop songs sprinked freely amongst the plot, as well as a rather unhealthy mix of soap stars and television 'names.' Also, strange variety acts that are put in, basically just to fill up the running time and having not a great deal to do with the plot of the show.  I suppose the stars draw in the audience and I imagine this will be a lot of children's first experience of live theatre. Maybe it will be their only experience of theatre all year. Possibly most adults, unfortunately. Also, it's the one show that the theatre manager can make a good deal of money from ticket sales and help to prop up ailing productions during the rest of the year. Although I might not be a lover of pantomime, I did love working on them, as the atmosphere backstage was always very good. Hard work, though, as there would be a lot of scene changes, a great deal of hauling on ropes to 'fly' out clothes and generally enormous flats to be moved around the stage.

The first dress rehearsal ran for over three hours, which was thought to be far too long, so, unfortunately, quite a lot of material had to be cut, and some of it was good material. I suppose when you have a children's audience it's not a good idea for a show to run too long, and some days we would do three performances, a morning show, a matinee and then an evening performance. A very long and tiring day. So you can see why the running time was best kept to around two and a half hours at most.

The stage at Greenwich is a thrust, and there is no curtain or 'tabs'. Also, absolutely no sort of grid over the stage, so nothing could be flown', so the designer for this panto had to be ingenious to allow scene changes and to allow a fairly wide range of settings. As there was no sort of arrangement for flying, you couldn't have flown cloths for settings as you would have for a pantomime in a traditional proscenium theatre.  The idea that was used was that it had a sort of children's book feel, and the main up-stage area was a sort of toybox, which, at the beginning of the show was closed. It was broken into two, hinged sections, like large doors. Myself and another A.S.M. were to be responsible for opening and closing these 'doors' and we had to time it such that they opened and closed precisely, and particularly when closed, otherwise it would have looked awful. Behind these doors any sort of scene change could be done, with the downstage area being used for some scenes, and then the doors opened for the next scene.

We were both involved in the 'Storm' scene. This was done in U.V. light (ultra-violet) which means that certain bits of scenery, props etc are painted in a substance which reacts to ultra violet light from tubes or bulbs. The scene was when Dick Whittington and his cat are caught in a storm at sea and then shipwrecked on a desert island (or something. Not sure of the exact plot now.) Myself and the other A.S.M. had to operate puppet versions of Dick and the cat, and they end up on a raft or something and this is all done in complete darkness, so you can imagine how difficult it must have been and to cover a scene change. I think this would have been my first experience of puppetry in some form or another.

 Most pantomimes have a 'song sheet,' the bit in the show where one of the principal characters does a song and this song is brought in from the flies and the audience is involved, there's a lot of participation and children are bought on stage and usually one half of the audience sings one line and the other half alternate lines, or something similar and one side wins. I think you get the idea. Well, the pantomime at Greenwich was no different, except that instead of the songsheet being flown in it was painted on a sort of sign board and myself and the other A.S.M had to bring it on stage from the wings. The participation for this section was done by Derek Griffiths and one other character, don't ask me who it was no, as I've forgotten. All went the same each performance for around four weeks until the last night. Instead of us coming on and merely holding the board for the audience to read and sing to, WE were more or less forced to join in, and couldn't leave the stage until we'd done a song and dance across the stage. Our exits into the wings either side of the stage was blocked so we couldn't get off-stage, so we were more or less expected to do something! Such is the atmosphere of doing pantomime.

The next show to come in after Dick Whittington was not the usual play, musical or whatever. It was a month of music hall. The theatre had been rebuilt from what had been a former music hall, so I suppose it was only right that it should hark back to it's origins. On the bill for one week were two famous stars of the past, Elsie and Doris Waters. This intrigued me as my grandmother had piles of old 78 r.p.m records, and some of these had these two on them, doing sketches from around the time of the Second World War. Another 'act' was a drag act called Mrs Shufflewick, actually an actor called Rex Jameson. And the final star was the best as far as I was concerned, the legendary Max Wall. He did most of his iconic act, including him wearing his famous wig, those strange trousers and short jacket which seemed several sizes too small. My involvement was that I was supposed to go on and place his piano stool in place so that he could come on and sit down and then play the piano, if 'play' is the right word, I don't know. Well, rather in the style of the pantomime and the song sheet, all went the same each night, I'd come on from exactly the same side and put the stool in place, and Max Wall would say, in his inimitable way 'where's me st . . .o . . .  o. . . l?'  (I have since discovered that the on-stage character he played, which involved the amazing walk, poorly-fitting suit along with the 'bald' wig, was called Professor Wallofski. Apparently this was, according to John Cleese, the inspiration for The Ministry  of Silly Walks  sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus.) But one night I decided to be different and came on from the OPPOSITE side from normal, and got a round of applause from the audience. So, I can say I've been on stage and performed with the legendary Max Wall.
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