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Everyone’s a critic

November 12, 2019

Well, folks, it’s that time: the dark days of early November which I recognise from the first panto I directed five years ago. It’s not that the clocks have changed and it’s dark before I leave the house for evening rehearsals (as annoying as that is). No, these are the dark days  when the actors have gone off book and are still (some of them anyway) struggling with their lines. The days when it seems impossible that they will ever pick up speed or call for a line when needed. (Yes, we do have a prompter.) The days when it feels as if the bloody show is going to be four hours long and will never come completely together. The days when the director just wants to bang her head against the wall after every rehearsal.

As I said, I’ve been here before. First with Will Shakespeare the Panto, then with Robin Hood and His Merry Men, then with The Return of Robin Hood. The point when the backers (if there were any) would be freaking out.

It really is a mystery how it all comes together in the end, but somehow it does.

So I know I don’t have to bang my head against the wall. It’ll be all right on the night.

No, the thing that’s really winding me up at the moment is all the new people who perform some sort of backstage role who’ve recently started attending rehearsals and have “helpful suggestions” for me. Wouldn’t it be better if I changed this line or altered this set or got the singer to walk around more during her song?

Do you have any idea how hard it is to smile and say “Thank you. That’s an interesting idea” rather than “No, I don’t fucking think so, you annoying bloody Johnny Come Lately. Keep your fucking ideas to yourself, please.” Trust me, it’s hard. But this is community theatre. Everyone is volunteering their time, so you can’t act or speak the way a professional director probably would.

Well, never mind all that. It may have taken three and a half hours for our first full run through on Sunday, but I know it will all somehow magically come together and the show is making me happy. Especially the opening number.

When I was going through the script for Robin Hood in the summer of 2015, one of the things I had to decide was which songs we should include. Robin Bailes, author of all the pantos I’ve directed, includes musical numbers in his scripts, but it is made clear that these are suggestions. Directors are free to choose whatever songs they want. Sometimes I keep the songs he’s suggested, sometimes I change them.

I can’t remember what he’d chosen for the act one finale song, but I didn’t particularly want to use it. For some reason the Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now” sprang into my head. I quickly went on to YouTube for a reminder (back in the days when my laptop still had speakers, so I could listen). Yes, I thought, that would be perfect! But there was a big but. I already knew who would be playing Robin and, whilst I knew he could sing, I knew he really wasn’t up to pulling off that particular song. If I was going to use it, I wanted the full Freddy. So I introduced lip syncing to the panto, with Friar Tuck handing Robin a mic. My leading lady for those first three pantos (who’s rather selfishly moved off the island) had a background in musical theatre and took on choreographing the song. My sole contribution was insisting that Will Scarlett do an air guitar to the Brian May guitar solo in the song.

Will air guitar

When the song was performed on opening night I slid so far down in my back row seat that I nearly fell off my chair. The number was absolute heaven, bliss. It made me so happy.

Robin Bailes usually includes a big opening number in his scripts and it’s always the first thing I chuck. His scripts are written to be performed in proper theatres with large stages that can accommodate dozens of performers. We do not have that luxury at the Community Hall where we perform. There is a small stage with curtains, in front of which we build a set of risers to give us more performance space.

The opening scene of Ali Baba is supposed to be the marketplace in Baghdad with multiple vendors and multiple shoppers milling about. As written, the show opens with a big number (“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town” with lyrics rewritten by Robin to be “Baghdad, Baghdad, it’s a wonderful town”). I took one look at that and thought, “Nope, it ain’t gonna happen.” Our stage is so small there is barely room for the one stall (Kasim Baba’s Emporium of Tat) that absolutely had to be on it.

After casting Robin’s opening number aside, I paused. We never have an opening number in our pantos due to space limitations. I found myself wondering, is there something, anything, we could do that would be considerably more contained, but would kick the show off with a nice bang?

I have absolutely no idea why the theme song from The Muppets Show suddenly sprang into my brain. Sometimes, it seems (as with “Don’t Stop Me Now”), the inspiration gods smile on directors. Quick look on YouTube. Quick check of the lyrics. Ali Baba has the same number of syllables as The Muppet Show! Yes! Everyone – young and old – will recognise the music. Yes!

It’s not just the inspirations gods who’ve been kind to me with this number. So have the luck gods. There are ten people involved in singing this song. Some of them are singers, some of them would freely admit they are not. And yet somehow this particular combination of these particular voices works perfectly. The song fucking rocks. And it really will kick the show off with a bang.

Nothing in a panto has made me this happy since “Don’t Stop Me Now”.

The actors are going to pick up their pace. The show is going to be great. And anyone who has a “helpful suggestion” at this point can keep it to themselves.

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