See Sinbad, the rock’n’roll panto, being created on the New Wolsey Theatre stage in Ipswich
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Panto season is almost upon us and photographer Sarah Lucy Brown and Arts editor Andrew Clarke have been behind the scenes at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich to discover that a lot of planning goes into the creation of so much chaos, music and magic
Pantomime is one of the nation’s oldest theatrical traditions, but all traditions not only have to start somewhere but they also evolve and change over time. Even today’s so-called traditional pantomimes are a world away from the Georgian and early Victorian epics that used to swamp the stage at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, scene of the very earliest pantos. These were more like spectacular parades populated by soldiers drawn from various regiments all decked out in their best dress uniforms, interspersed with dancers and acrobats.
In the later Victorian and early Edwardian eras comedians from the Music Hall got in on the act and changed the nature of panto. Dan Leno, one of the biggest stars of the era, was credited with being the first panto dame. His first appearance was as Dame Durden in Jack and the Beanstalk, which he performed at London’s Surrey Theatre in 1886.
His cross-dressing performance was such a success that he continued to appear in pantomime each year until his death in 1903.
When the New Wolsey Theatre re-opened in 2001, its first pantomime, Cinderella, started a new tradition. Out went the idea that the principal boy was played by a girl and in came rock’n’roll.
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The New Wolsey’s rock’n’roll panto swiftly became one of the cornerstones of Suffolk’s Christmas season. It kept all the best elements of the traditional pantomime – lots of bad jokes, chases and pratfalls but bolstered the action with a dozen or more classic rock’n’roll and soul hits, delivered with skill and panache by a cast of top-notch actor-musicians.
Written by artistic director Peter Rowe, the songs weren’t dropped into the show at random but carefully chosen to develop the story and to reflect the emotional state of the characters. “The songs are always there to help tell the story,” said Peter. “Of course, they are about giving the audience a good time but we think long and hard about which songs to choose and where to put them, so everything holds together as a show.
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“This year I think we have been particularly ambitious with the way we have interwoven songs into the storytelling – that envelope gets pushed a little more each year – although they should never lose their rock gig flavour.”
The fact the cast of actor-musicians are part of an evolving and revolving stock company who also appear in the New Wolsey’s other actor-musician musicals gives the rock’n’roll pantomime a cosy, familiar feel.
Last year, Peter strayed from the traditional fairytale setting when he premiered a new show The Sword in the Stone, which told the story of King Arthur. It kept the rock’n’roll pantomime feel but, in terms of narrative, had much more of a traditional musical structure.
It was such a success that this year he is unveiling another non-traditional fairytale, the story of Sinbad. “I’ve always wanted to do a story about pirates and toyed with the idea of Treasure Island but it is just too structured to work as a pantomime, but Sinbad is perfect.”
Like The Sword in the Stone, Sinbad is looking to tell a dramatic story in a comic way and again is stuffed with musical treats including The Boys Are Back In Town, The Power Of Love, I Want To Break Free, Living On A Prayer and Smoke On The Water.
But to accommodate the demands of a rock’n’roll show, a dramatic musical and a pantomime on a single stage at the same time takes an awful lot of planning and the writing of the show is carried out while Peter is also talking to production designer Barney George.
For Barney, this is a rare treat. He said: “For most shows and certainly most pantos you are handed the script when everything is finished and told we want this. For a show as complicated and demanding as the New Wolsey’s rock’n’roll pantomime it just wouldn’t work if we did it like that.
“I’m sure as most people know, the New Wolsey has a wonderfully unique stage and you have to design carefully to make the most of the space. It offers a lot but it also restricts you. There’s nowhere to hide. The biggest consideration is where you put a full-sized rock band, complete with drum-kit and all the other bits and pieces like amps and instrument stands.”
The conversations and the script writing for Sinbad started just as The Sword in the Stone was finishing last year. What Barney enjoys is the opportunity to combine a variety of different styles and disciplines to come up with something uniquely New Wolsey.
“I love having the challenge and the opportunity to work in a whole variety of different styles. I have learned to love the panto style which has a verve and a vibrancy all of its own. I enjoy the cartoonish quality that panto brings out. I love that sense of heightened reality but it is still a storytelling show and as Pete was saying the songs are part of the storytelling process, they aren’t simply shoehorned in and the same is true for my set. It’s not just glitter and sparkle. It has to reflect the demands of the story.
“I think every conversation Pete and I have about something is whether it helps to tell the story. If it does it’s in, if not then we have to go away and think again.”
This year has been a particular challenge because Peter not only wanted a fully-fledged shipwreck as part of the action, he wanted the second half of the show set in a completely different location.
“It’s definitely a show of two halves which has been a huge challenge but we’ve talked it through and we’re both very happy that we’ve been able to make it happen. Usually in a panto you have two or three locations which you can nip between with a bit of set dressing. This is a complete transformation, so hopefully people will be impressed.”
Peter adds: “A lot of our discussions centre on what can be achieved in the space and how we can trigger the transitions from scene to scene. Last year we had Merlin, as a narrator, turning the pages of a book, that was relatively quite straightforward. There were more locations but the changes were fairly minimal. This year there are fewer locations but everything will be much more elaborate.
“Once we were both happy with the locations and how we were going to move from one to the other then I would go away and map out the story. The great thing with the way we work is that we can work from both ends towards the middle. I’m writing the story, Barney is coming up with the visual world our characters inhabit and we both work on the practicalities of bringing that world to life.”
The story itself is a mix of legend, musical romance and pure panto. Sinbad, determined to win the hand of the beautiful Princess Pearl, sets sail aboard the Saucy Sausage on his most dangerous voyage yet – past the Island of the Sirens, and the Plughole of Poseidon to the paradise of Nirvana. But evil sorcerer, Sinistro has plans of his own for the Princess and his mother, Dame Doner Souvlakia, wants to find true love in this tropical paradise.
This year’s adventure sees a large number of cast members of the highly successful Made in Dagenham washed up on the shores of Sinbad’s island including panto regular Dan de Cruz, who will be playing the role of evil sorcerer Sinistro; Graham Kent, who will return as Dame for the second year; along with Daniel Carter-Hope, Elizabeth Rowe, Lucy Wells, Adam Langstaff, Rob Falconer and James Haggie.
Barney says the New Wolsey’s rock’n’roll panto is a brilliant example of a creative collaboration. “The fact that the story and the visuals are being worked on together has the capacity to really transport the audience to another world. It allows us to talk around ideas and come up with creative solutions before they become problems. So, in the end everything fits like a glove. Once on stage it looks very carefree and funny but there is a hell of a lot of planning and headscratching involved. The critical thing is time and getting in there early enough to think things through.”
Sinbad, the latest rock’n’roll panto, runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, from November 24 to January 28, 2017.