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Always look on the bright side

May 21, 2020

In the early summer of 2014, I was sitting on the deck at the pub, minding my own business, sipping a pint when the friend who was there with me enjoying the view suddenly said, “You do realise you’re going to have to direct the panto this year, don’t you?” I looked around, in the manner of Travis Bickle, but there was no one else there. Apparently she was talkin’ to me. “Huh?” I said. After all, earlier in the year I had undertaken the seemingly impossible task of directing a production of Inherit the Wind. And, despite being absolutely bloody drained afterwards, when it turned out we were short a one-act play for the festival, got back into the director’s chair with Theatrical Digs. Surely I’d done my bit that year? “Well, who else is there?” my friend asked. I thought. And thought. Bollocks. There really wasn’t anyone else who could do it.

Okay, I decided when I got home that evening: If I was going to direct the panto, I needed to find a script I liked. If I was directing, it wasn’t going to be Puss in Bloody Boots. I switched the computer on.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that there are many UK websites that specialise in nothing but pantomime scripts. I started trawling through them. There they all were: Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Bloody Boots. Sigh. Then I landed on the Spotlight site. All the pantos were listed alphabetically. Same old same old. Sigh. But wait! What was this right at the bottom of the list? Will Shakespeare the Panto? I read the first ten pages for free, then ordered a copy. Yes! This script by Robin Bailes was hilarious.

To say it was a tad Pythonesque would be an understatement. (The Act One finale song was Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.) It also had a nod towards Black Adder. It was funny. Very funny. And smart. This was a panto aimed at adults, with enough slapstick humour to keep the kids entertained. Yes! I’d found my script.

What I didn’t realise, until one of the actors pointed it out to me, was that it had only been published that summer. If I’d gone looking in the spring, it wouldn’t have been there. I checked with the publisher and it turned out our little community theatre group would indeed be staging the world premiere.

Directing a panto is a huge undertaking. It’s not just the large cast (I’d directed a larger cast in Inherit the Wind), but also the costumes, the sets, the music, the make-up. It’s all consuming. And also, it’s true, very rewarding when it all comes together, which this one did.

One of the many things I loved about this script was the opportunity it offered to introduce Shakespeare to the kids of the island in a fun way. My own introduction to Shakespeare had been made by English teachers who should never have been allowed within a yard of the Bard. It’s a miracle they didn’t put me off his plays for life. The editor of the local paper got that in his review.

It was the beginning of a beautiful – albeit long distance – friendship with Robin Bailes. I’ve gone on since to direct three more of his pantos. He and I had even arranged to get together for a pint when I was in London this summer. Oh, well.

Tonight should have been the opening night of a play I should have been directing for the past two months. Instead, like theatres everywhere, ours is dark. (Not that you could really call it a theatre.)

In lieu of live performances we’ve started doing a Throwback Thursday thing on our website and Facebook page, highlighting past performances. Today it was Will Shakespeare the Panto.

What larks!

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