One of panto’s best known phrases is ‘he’s behind you!’ And when it comes to the behind-the-scenes efforts that go into staging a festive show, that well-worn saying is probably very apt.
I dropped into Northampton’s Royal & Derngate recently to meet some of the ‘unsung heroes’ whose work – either backstage or in the background on stage – help draw all of the panto fun together.
This year, the theatre is staging Sleeping Beauty, which is being sponsored by the Chronicle & Echo and stars actress Linda Lusardi and her husband, former Brookside star, Sam Kane. With a large cast, plenty of special effects, glittering costumes and dance sequences to take care of, as well as the acting itself, the show demands loyal backstage support to help the show run with military precision.
Among the often-forgotten backstage heroes is the team supervising the Royal & Derngate’s stage door.
Supervisor Sally Hollowell not only takes care of important health and safety elements, such as signing cast, crew and visitors in and out of theatre, but she also ensures stage door ’groupies’ are kept in check. This latter job has been particularly relevant with certain past panto stars - such as David Essex and Jimmy Osmond, who come with a huge following of fans.
Sally said: “You can get fanatical people turning up, people who will follow these stars from theatre to theatre. A lot of people will follow them for years. Others are chancers as, nowadays with phone cameras, people never miss an opportunity to photograph someone famous. We also field enquiries. This is an important job as you do get chancers and we have to establish what is a genuine enquiry.”
This year, the children taking part in the panto come from the Mayhew School of Dancing in Northampton.
With 16 children devoting weeks of their time to rehearsing for, and starring in, the show, experts need to be on hand to make sure their needs are cared for.
One of the chaperones is Fiona Sheehan, a teacher with the dance school, whose job it is to attend to the children during panto season.
She said: “There is a team of five of us and all of us are either ex-pupils’ parents or teachers. It is a sacrifice, but the kids love it.
“They are in a professional setting and they have to realise they are in a professional setting, but they aren’t any trouble. They are really good kids.
“I think the parents have to sacrifice a little bit, but I think it is wonderful and it is something the children will remember forever.”
I continued my visit backstage and met dance captain Sammy Peel. In several scenes within the Sleeping Beauty show, the dancers play different backing characters, even donning wolf-like faces to act as the wicked fairy’s creepy sidekicks.
Sammy said: “I did one week’s rehearsal in a rehearsal studio and then we did the tech and dress rehearsals. They are long days as we have to make sure everything is right, with the lights, sound and everything.”
Sammy also takes on a responsible role if one of the other dancers is unable to perform. She said: “We have our set parts that we do and if anyone is ill it is my job to rearrange everything to fill the gap where that person would normally be. Also a couple of dancers understudy a couple of the lead roles so if they are off, we have to reorganise things. We have to know the show inside out.”
One woman with an extremely tough job in what is undeniably a very messy panto – full of foam exploding eggs, Sugar Puffs and squirty chocolate sauce – is wardrobe supervisor, Lisa Hickey.
Lisa and her team have the task of looking after all the costumes and making sure each outfit looks as sparkling at the end of a panto run as it does at the beginning.
Lisa said: “Qdos [the company behind the pantomime] send the costumes in rehearsal week and we are then busy doing fittings and alterations. As the show goes on, there are certain things we do for certain gags. For example, the dame has a pair of bloomers and for a joke we had to make eyes for the back of them.
“We have to make sure everything fits the performers. Something might fit when people are standing still, but when they are dancing or moving it might be different.”
Washing and keeping the costumes neat is a constant challenge. Lisa said: “The sploshing gives us a headache. There is a scene where chocolate sauce is squirted everywhere, but that costume has to be pristine for the next show. Luckily the clothes are all made out of hard-wearing materials.”
The calm presence behind all of this action is company manager, Leighton Vickers, for whom the smooth running of each show is the order of the day.
In essence, his job is to make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing... and to make sure they are doing it at the right time.
He said: “It is really about making sure everything runs smoothly. In the past I have accompanied my cast to hospital when an actor has hit their head. I will sit in A&E with someone. And the other side of it is simply making lists of who wants to go for a meal.
“Probably the worst case for me is someone hurting themselves or becoming ill during a performance and having to go home.
“But I have never thought of theatre as being dangerous as I have spent a lot of my life risk assessing and we are very aware it could be a dangerous environment with scenery flying around; a lot of the time with health and safety it is about being aware.”
Sleeping Beauty will run until Sunday, January 5.