New Wolsey says: “This panto has to rock every year so we can never be complacent”
- Credit: Archant
The New Wolsey Theatre’s rock ‘n’ roll pantomime may have swiftly become a Christmas tradition but there is still an air of spontaneity about the show.
Each year, the panto is skilfully woven together by New Wolsey artistic director Pete Rowe and musical director Ben Goddard and then is handed over to associate director Rob Salmon, who works with the talented gang of actor/musicians to give the show that all-important anarchic feel.
This year the New Wolsey is offering something different in terms of story. Instead of traditional tales like Cinderella, Aladdin or Jack and the Beanstalk this year’s show is Beauty and the Beast.
Talking to Rob and Ben during a break in rehearsals they say that the key to a great rock ‘n’ roll panto is getting the cast right. Ideally they like a mix of actors who have done the show before, therefore bringing a degree of experience and some new faces who will inject something new and unexpected into the proceedings.
Rob said: “You don’t want things to get predictable. The reason I was brought in as director was that Pete had directed all the shows. He had done the full set and although they get re-worked and re-written each time, he wanted to bring in someone who had a different approach to the material.”
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He said that the songs and the jokes change and the actors cast each year will always bring something new to the show. “I think we are very aware that complacency is a risk and if we make any assumptions about our audience then we won’t deliver the best possible experience. Each year we treat it as if it’s the first time we have done a rock ‘n’ roll panto, that we have to win them over and convince them that there is nowhere else they would rather be.”
He said that the mix of actors is new and exciting each year and they make each show their own. “The phrase that has no place in a New Wolsey rehearsal or performance is ‘That’ll do or that will be OK’. It is never, ever acceptable to settle for something is which merely OK – particularly as they have become an institution because of the extraordinary reputation of those who have performed in these shows before us.”
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Musical director Ben Goddard said that they are very aware that people may be tempted into thinking “oh no, it’s the rock ‘n’ roll panto again”, and therefore they are always striving to make each show better than the last.
The weight of expectation of course lies on the shoulders of the New Wolsey’s extraordinary pool of talented actor-musicians who not only can act, sing and dance but can also play at least three or four instruments each. During the course of the show they may swap instruments multiple times in order to recreate the sound of some of rock and soul’s greatest hits.
“I have certainly done the full set and I wouldn’t keep coming back if I didn’t absolute love doing it and I really do believe that they deliver a really fantastic night at the theatre.”
He said that the rehearsals allow the actors to really own the material, so they can relax and have fun with the material on stage which then allows them to interact with the audience which is what panto is all about. “They are not playing the role as someone else played it the year before. They are putting their own stamp on the part.”
Rob added: “The Dame’s monologue is new each year and is written with the actor who is playing the The Dame. Panto is one of the very few theatrical experiences where you can build your show around the audience. It’s not the case of going out there and saying: ‘We have the perfect version of this panto and we will perform it to you no matter what.’ We say: ‘We know what we want and we will tailor it for you.’ “So if we have a hyper-excited school party then we’ll calm the show down, so they can get more out of it. But, if the audience is quiet and attentive, then we’ll try and get them more excited and noisier. It’s nice that we can do that in a show like this.”
He said that everyone involved in the show is keenly aware that for many people a visit to the pantomime is probably the first theatrical performance they have seen. “If that is someone’s introduction to theatre, we never would want to undersell it.”
He said the reason why so many actors return to do the New Wolsey panto many times was the fact that they were cast for the right reasons rather than they were just fun to work with. “They were cast because they are excellent performers and as such why wouldn’t you want to work with them again?
“But, having said that, it’s good to have new faces, bringing something new and it’s important to get that mix right.”
Ben added: “There’s a moment in rehearsal that I absolutely love when they suddenly realise what an awful lot of fun they are going to have. There was a moment when we first rehearsed Dancing In The Moonlight and Daniel Carter-Hope, who plays Sir Peacock Beauregarde and is a fantastic bass player, and I said ‘put a bass solo in there’ and he just let rip and you saw that look on the faces of the other actors because that was the moment when they realised just what they could all do together.
“I have been doing these for 14 years now and I have never yet done a rock ‘n’ roll panto and not been surprised and overjoyed by a performer producing something that I wasn’t expecting.”
He said that the joy of the short rehearsal period is getting what is essentially a new band to gel and watching new musical relationships get forged. “So even if you have got people who have been in one of our shows before, this particular group of people have never played together as a unit before so it is very exciting seeing something new being born in front of our eyes.”
This year among the new faces are Eamonn Fleming, who plays the Dame Bessie Bigbreaths and Lucy Wells as Beauty. This is Eamonn’s first time as a panto dame but for Lucy, Beauty and the Beast, is her first job after leaving drama school. She carries much of the show on her shoulders and as such it represents a real baptism of fire.
“This is my first panto and it’s mad. I’m loving it,” Lucy laughed. “I don’t have anything to compare it with in the outside world but I did lots of plays at drama school but nothing was quite like this.”
She said that she remains dazzled by the level of talent in the company. “Yesterday they were having a run-through of the Queen song, Someone To Love. I’m not in that number so I just sat and watched it and I was just blown away. These guys are incredible.”
For Eamonn his transformation into a panto dame has also been a revelation. “As well as this being my first time as a panto dame, it’s also my first appearance in a pantomime. I have done plenty of Christmas shows and plays for Christmas but never had the full-blooded hair, boobs and make-up of the panto dame.”
He said that he had always wanted to make an appearance in panto ever since he had been part of the stage crew at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. “I flew the fairy at Cambridge and I thought ‘I have to get into this’.
“And the Wolsey panto is different to other pantos that I have seen and the standard of musicianship is such that I have had to really up my game. There’s a lot to learn but everyone is so supportive.”
He said that writing the dame monologue for act one has allowed him to put his own stamp on the part. “I love being able to interact with the audience. I read a lot of joke books, watched comedians online. I decided that Bessie is obsessed with trying to get a man and she’s also running a farm, so those were the twin themes that informed her chat with the audience. I have done stand-up, so that helps. You know that what works for an audience on one night might not have the same effect the following night and sometimes jokes do fall flat.”
He said that when he first started rehearsals he saw Bessie with a Bristol accent. “It just read it that way but I have a friend from Stowmarket who told me: ‘That’s all very well but all the audience will say is ‘pity he can’t do a Suffolk accent’. So I have gone back to my Mancunian roots and have channelled a little bit of Les Dawson.
“So I see Bessie as a northerner who’s settled in Suffolk. I have to say I am having so much fun with this. My wife and I have hired a cottage by the sea for the run and we are going to have Christmas here. I tell you I’m lovin’ it.”
Beauty and the Beast is at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until January 31.