THEY say you should never meet your heroes, but when you get the opportunity how can you turn it down?
So when the chance came up for a Chronicle & Echo features writer to take a walk-on part in the production of Aladdin at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, I volunteered without hesitation.
My enthusiasm for the idea was much to the surprise of some people I know as I have had no stage experience since my performance in the starring role of the infants’ production of Cinderella at Blessed Margaret Clitherow Primary School in Stevenage in the early ‘70s. I did not cover myself in glory on that occasion having forgotten the line: “I don’t like mice, but you aren’t going to hurt them are you?”
This led to a long and awkward pause which was eventually ended by my best friend, Sharon (in the role of Fairy Godmother) repeatedly saying “mice” while I looked blankly at her.
This mortifying early hitch put an end to my fledgling stage career until Derngate’s offer of a night in panto came along.
Now, I have been a regular Strictly Come Dancing viewer over the years and Brian Fortuna is obviously a fantastic dancer... and Bobby Davro certainly knows how to get an audience laughing... and I always enjoyed watching Jeffrey Holland being offered advice on the first rule of comedy in Hi-de-Hi!
But while these men are all very talented, my real reason for taking part was a chance to meet and work with... Basil Brush.
If I could have gone back in time and told my seven-year-old self I would one day get such an opportunity, she would have been beside herself with excitement.
So it was a Sunday night audience at the start of the panto’s run who were treated to the spectacle of a 45-year-old woman in an unfeasibly short yellow dress and wig, playing the role of a Peking townswoman.
Qdos Entertainment, the production company which is putting on the panto, allowed me to take part in act one, scene two, Basil’s first scene. The role involved me pushing him on stage on his box with one of the dancers, Billie-Kay Payne, and then standing alongside other townsfolk and reacting appropriately to Basil’s banter with Aladdin, played by Brian Fortuna and the pronouncements of the Emperor of China played by Masashi Fujimoto.
To prepare, I needed to visit the theatre in advance of my “performance” where I met Qdos’s wardrobe mistress for the show, Jayne Birch, and her assistant, Sarah Diana Allen, who sorted me out with a costume, shoes and wig.
Company stage manager Melissa Dormer explained to me what the scene was about and what I would have to do. We went on stage during the hour or so between performances and she showed me where I would enter and where I would stand. This preliminary visit was also my first chance to meet Basil, or “Mr Brush” as he is respectfully called in the backstage announcements. He was not a disappointment. From the moment he popped up with his tail wagging, I couldn’t help laughing. “Oooh I say, Miss Yve,” he said, gazing up at me, “I could live in your eyes... there’s a sty in one of them! Boom Boom!” After a few minutes’ banter with the gentleman fox he had to go and get ready for his next show and I went home with a smile on my face.
When show day came I have to admit to being nervous. It is a strange thing, but despite being asked to do little more than walk in a straight line and then stand to the side, the thought of doing it in front of several hundred people in the Derngate auditorium made it seem more daunting. Would I go all rabbit-in-the-headlights and freeze to the spot? Would I panic, take leave of my senses and, as one friend urged me to do, grab Basil and run off into the audience with him?
Once I got to the theatre, Jayne fixed my wig and the show’s dance captain, Jennie Abbotts, helped me out with the make-up. I had been told it needed to be very heavy to show up on stage and the other dancers urged me to “think drag queen” when putting it on. As I waited nervously in the wardrobe room, Brian Fortuna popped in, said hello and wished me luck. Soon the “five minutes to curtain” announcement was made, which I was informed actually means 10 minutes, and it did not seem long before Billie came and fetched me and showed me where to stand just offstage before taking her position ready for the opening dance number.
Backstage is like a dark labyrinth to anyone unfamiliar with it and the massive sets for the show fill the offstage area. Melissa had explained to me what a challenge it is getting them on and off. They all have to be moved in a strict order by the Derngate’s head of stage, Steve Jarvis, and his team, like some kind of elaborate puzzle so that they end up seamlessly in the right place.
Waiting backstage with the dancers, Basil and Brian, I was struck by how relaxed they all seemed just before curtain up, chatting about how the earlier performance had gone and the changes and cuts that had been made to the script to tighten up the show. But once they hear their cue it’s all action as they go onstage.
Soon Billie was back at my side and it was time for us to enter downstage left with Basil.
I did my best to make sure I was doing whatever the other people of Peking were doing, and did the very best acting I could muster. The five-minute scene was soon over and before I knew it I was out of the spotlight and back in wardrobe getting changed out of my costume before heading out front to watch the rest of the show.
It was great fun, but I don’t think a career on the stage beckons.
Although one friend texted me before the show to say: “Ask Basil for Sooty’s number, you might get another gig.”
n Aladdin at the Royal & Derngate is sponsored by the Chronicle & Echo. The show runs until January 8. Book tickets on Northampton 624811 or online at www.royaland derngate.co.uk.
Behind The Scenes
JAYNE Birch is not quite sure why I would want to interview her about her job as she thinks it is just very normal and ordinary... this from a woman who one moment is fitting costumes for Basil Brush, and the next is helping Bobby Davro into false breasts, a gold dress and wig.
Jayne has been in the theatre her whole working life and in wardrobe departments for around 10 years. This Christmas she is in charge of the costumes for the production of Aladdin at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton.
She is working for Qdos Entertainment, the company which is putting on the pantomime. Her role involves looking after more than 100 costumes and making sure before the run started that every performer was happy with the way their costume fitted. She said: “It’s quite hectic really, especially during the technical week because we are trying on costumes and if they don’t fit we have to alter them.”
She is at every show making sure that each performer has the costume they need and that any hitches and problems are quickly dealt with. She said: “You can have a costume malfunction. A zip could bust, a hem could come down, something could come off.”
Her assistant is Sarah Diana Allen, from Marston Trussell, who studied costume design at the University of the Arts London. This is her first job. She said: “It’s really good, I really enjoy it. I know it is something I enjoy and want to do.”
The pair of them have to be ready to deal with any costume-related issue that crops up during a performance and one of their tasks is to help with quick changes. In this show they have to help Charlotte Bull, who plays Scheherazade, out of her costume and into a sparkly pink Strictly Come Dancing-style dress in 40 seconds and then at the end of the dance routine get her back into the original outfit in just 30 seconds. Each change has to be done on stage but out of sight of the audience.
Although working in panto means she is away from her home in Newcastle over Christmas, Jayne enjoys her work. She said: “I like it because it’s challenging and every day, even though you have got the same things going on, it’s different. It’s so nice to hear the audience go out really happy, knowing they enjoyed it and you have done a good job and done your bit to make that performance go.”