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Pantomime dame is more PC than most

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On Monday the curtains will open and the 43rd Apollo Players pantomime will begin.

The production of Aladdin will feature outrageous costumes, ludicrous jokes, fireworks, music, love and laughter.

But for now a lot of hard work is needed and just a few days before the show kicks off, rehearsals are surprisingly laid back.

The choreographer is running through a dance routine with the cast, while in the wings the stage crew are putting the finishing touches to the set.

The Apollo Players have produced a pantomime at Whitby Pavilion every year since 1971 - with the exception of 1976.

Chris Wales is musical director and chairman of the society and he explained how the show has evolved over that time.

He said: “It’s one of those things which is always changing with the times. You have got to play to the current audience, which is kids, so now we play to the iPad generation.”

Pantomimes are a uniquely British form of entertainment, dating back hundreds of years, and so there are set conventions that must be adhered to for each show.

Some of these are obvious, such as the dame being played by a man and the principle boy being a girl. Others may not be immediately apparent - villains always enter from stage left and heroes from stage right as these two sides represent Heaven and Hell.

However the important thing with pantomime is not to try and be too clever, and Chris said it is important to give the audience exactly what they expect.

Pantomimes are largely based upon old folk tales, although they are often only loosely based on the original source. As it’s panto, many of the plot changes don’t appear to make a lot of sense.

“That’s the whole point,” said Chris. “It’s not supposed to make sense.”

In the dressing rooms behind the stage, there’s a policeman snooping around.

But he’s not up to mischief, Whitby police sergeant Martin McLachlan has an alter-ego - one that requires a huge frilly dress, a lot of make-up, and the wig which he’s momentarily misplaced.

For 11 years Sgt McLachlan has been the Apollo Players’ pantomime dame. “Everyone knows I’m a police officer,” he said. “So I usually manage to slip in some thinly-veiled reference in the show.”

It’s an unusual hobby for a police officer, but one that Martin said he enjoys fulfilling, with the backing of his colleagues who often come along to cheer him on.

“The dame is one of the big comedy parts,” he said. “The children are laughing at a face you are pulling and adults are laughing at something completely different.

“It’s not a camp role. It’s a man pretending to be a woman and doing it extremely badly.”

The costumes are typically audacious, with padding in all the right places to transform Martin into a dame.

He keeps his make up in a black toolbox, taking around 15 minutes each night to apply the whole face, and he still has difficulty applying eye-liner.

Yet even after over a decade of donning the costume, come opening night Martin will be one of the most nervous people in the building.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “I just always get very nervous, I always have done. It’s part of the process I go through, but I think it helps me because it sharpens my concentration.”

From the audience’s point of view a panto appears relaxed, almost casual. The theatrical form requires this to be the case, but in fact things backstage are serious and concentration is vital.

The show has a £10,000 budget, but the cast and crew don’t get paid. It’s a not-for-profit organisation and these funds are gathered through ticket sales and sponsorship. So one bad show can throw all this into doubt.

To ensure this isn’t the case, there are superstitions that can not be ignored, and the final line of the performance must never, ever be uttered until it is delivered during the production on the opening night.

There’s also real theatrical pedigree behind these productions.

While the scripts are produced by a professional, with gaps for the troupe to add their own local twist, the show is directed by Dave Masters, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

For the first time, this year choreography is by Suzy Corrigan, who has been involved with pantomime since the age of eight.

At 42 years of age, she plays the pantomime’s title role. “Panto is tradition and although I have got high heels, make up, and I have got my legs out, I am playing a boy. As the principle boy you have got to look sexy for the dads.”

So the show has been a year in the planning, with rehearsals running from October.

But come Monday night the cast will be raring to go and Chris added: “Over the Christmas period we are living and breathing this so there’s got to be enjoyment. But I laugh from the start of the week to the end.

“And that’s why pantomime will never go out of fashion. For the kids it’s two hours where they are going to scream and shout and no one is going to tell them off.”

 

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