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It’s behind me!

The Singing Librarian as the Genie of the Lamp - click for larger version

The Singing Librarian as the Genie of the Lamp

PPA Productions’ Aladdin has been over for almost a week now, and I still feel as though I’m recovering somewhat, despite returning to the Library of Doom full time and resuming rehearsals for my next two shows (no, I don’t ever stop, and I’m not sure I’d be allowed to). I had a terrific time, and really did stretch myself. I would never have expected to sing a Queen song for the paying public or wear and dance in a costume that involved so little material above the waist. Nor would I have expected to be applying quite so much glitter to myself, not to mention the hateful daily routine of self-tanning. The things we do for art!

I had a few days when I really wasn’t enjoying myself, mostly due to worrying too much. Once I accepted that I would never be the world’s greatest Genie (nor probably even Kent’s greatest Genie), but applied myself to simply being the best Genie I was capable of being, it became somewhat easier in the mental department. The cast was very supportive, though, and we buoyed each other up, since everyone had at least one “what the heck am I doing here?” day. By the end of the run, I was really enjoying the performances and was remarkably unselfconscious about wandering around in my beautiful but revealing costume.

I shall treasure various memories, mostly of exciting ad libs forced on various people by circumstances beyond their control. Technical problems, memory issues, unexpected heckling from the audience and so forth. I shall certainly always remember the scene in the final performance when the Dame decided he was going to try to make me laugh – a great battle of wills. I came so very close to laughing, but made it through (biting the inside of my lip eventually) and the audience thought it was hilarious, so everyone was a winner. The axe which hit the wrong person then went missing is also a firm favourite.

Would I ever do something like this again? Absolutely yes. Tiring, not at all easy, but so rewarding, thanks largely to the wonderful cast and crew. It’s behind me now, but I hope to return to the world of “oh yes he should” the next time panto season rolls around.

The Genie's Make Up

The Genie's Makeup

Wardrobe malfunction!

It was one of those moments when you really hope that nobody in the audience is looking your way.  If I’m lucky, all eyes were centre stage gazing adoringly at Aladdin and Princess Jasmine.  In the final few seconds of last night’s show, you see, I had a serious wardrobe malfunction.

The Genie costume took a little bit of getting used to for me, as it exposes more flesh than I am accustomed to exposing and certainly could not be worn by a lady librarian.  The main items are some baggy trousers, a hat, two cuffs and a diamond-shaped thing that covers my shoulders and bits of my chest and back, attaching to the front and back of the trousers via two of the diamond’s points.  It was intimidating at first (and has required the use of fake tan to avoid the make-up procedure taking several days), but I have become accustomed to it and can now say that it is a great costume.  When it behaves itself, that is.

Last night, happily singing and dancing my way though the big finale song, I reached a moment when the principals are all on a raised platform while the dancers do crazy stuff below us and realised that my costume was coming adrift.  It is held together at the front by two hooks and eyes and a popper.  The popper had come undone and I hastily reaffixed it during the next bout of hectic freestyle movement, making sure that my back was to the audience.  All was well, or so I thought.

Perhaps my next few movements (we were very near the end) were more violent than usual.  Perhaps something was in the air (others had costume issues as well).  Who knows.  But in the final couple of bars, we all take a final bow.  As we did so, the hat decided to make its presence known and I struggled to keep it on.  We stood up, and I felt pleased with myself for not losing it, but worse was to come.  On the final beat of the music we all stretch an arm up high and grin madly.  I stretched, and all three fastenings came undone as my costume made a bid for freedom.  I had to grab hold as quickly as possible to prevent the diamond flying too far up and the trousers falling down (they are only figure-hugging near the ankles) and as the lights went out, the hat finally decided enough was enough – it did not want to be on my head for another second.  Blackout, front cloth in and…laughter.  Trying to hold my errant costume together, I could not help but laugh.  I had no idea if the audience had noticed (if they had, they’d have gained a very brief glimpse of a lot more Genie chest than they were accustomed to), or if the director had noticed.  At the beginning of the run, I’d have been mortified and horribly embarrassed, but nine performances in, it just struck me as hilarious.  How a week can change your point of view!

Panto frolics

Well, Aladdin at the Margate Winter Gardens is well under way, and the cast and crew are enjoying a day off, all hoping to recover enough energy and vocal strength to continue through the next week’s performances. It has been a lot of fun and a lot of stress, a general roller-coaster of emotions and activity. The audiences seem to be enjoying themselves, which is the aim of any pantomime (the genre should function as a theatrical ‘gateway drug’, getting kids hooked on theatre) and we have continued on, despite the inevitable technical hitches and a fainting Chinese policeman. We have thus far given five performances complete with everything from malfunctioning mangles to singing clouds, puffs of smoke to unexpected audience participation, all the ingredients of a fun panto.

I spend quite a bit of the show either sitting in my dressing room or pacing the corridors, and have discovered that the latter is inadvisable if the junior dancers are around – apparently either I or my make-up is (or am) terrifying in semi-darkness, causing them to jump, start or squeal. Some younger audience members also seem to find the Genie disturbing, though one young person did tell the Dame that his favourite bit of the panto was when I appeared – hearing about this cheered me up somewhat.

Many things about the show are a joy and it has not yet become routine for me. The cast are amazing, on stage and off, from Widow Twankey who can ad lib her/his way out of any sticky situation, to Aladdin, who has shown such openness and determination to learn new skills. Many of us have been on a steep learning curve and we are constantly on our toes. Some particular joys for me:

Dodging dancers. During some numbers, I provide off-stage backing vocals, and in one of these there is a dance break, where I must remember to clear a space for K, one of the incredibly talented senior dancers, to jog past as he exits and re-enters the scene. I have no idea whether he sees me smile and nod to him as he goes past, but I find the moment strangely reassuring, a sign that the show is going as it should.

Waiting for the pop. As is traditional, the Slave of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp appear in a puff of smoke. There is a health and safety side to this, as any actor too close to the pyro which provides the smoke could easily be burned, so our mantra as we are about to enter is ‘wait for the pop’. On one occasion I got confused, or possibly over-excited, and failed to wait for the pyro to go pop, so I had no puff of smoke. Entirely my fault. Of course, I now get a significant look from the pyro-man every time I’m about to enter to remind me not to do it again.

Listening in. The show relay is a very handy thing, allowing actors in far-off dressing rooms to hear what’s going on and thus know when their scenes are approaching. During Aladdin, it has also been a source of amusement to me. Having seen the scenes so many times in rehearsal, I know how things are supposed to go, so it’s always interesting listening for deviations and wondering what’s gone wrong (or unexpectedly right) at any given moment. Hearing Widow Twankey ask one of the crew to remove a stray prop or the Chinese policewomen get confused about which one of them is which is almost as funny as seeing it unfold in front of me. More intriguing is trying to work out why someone says “oh, that was unexpected!” or similar. The thrill of live theatre is possibly never more evident than in panto when it seems absolutely anything can (and does) happen.

Freestlying. Actually, if we’re listing joys, that’s a lie. In choreographic terms, I don’t think there is any word that’s more scary than ‘freestyle’, at least to a non-dancer like myself. There are parts of the big finale that are freestyle, but I think most of us principals have settled ourselves into a routine for those moments, and do essentially the same ‘freestyle’ moves each time. Anyway, by the time we reach freestyle, I’m having so much fun that I can’t help but smile even if I have a blank and can’t think what to do.

Tired as I am, this has thus far been an amazing experience, quite unlike anything else I’ve done on stage thus far.  I have cried with laughter and cried with frustration.  I have invented a new key to sing in (though thankfully have not returned to it) and danced my socks off (if one who is barefoot can be said to dance their socks off).  I have met new people and got to know others better.  And I only have a week more of it to go.  I’ll be a little relieved when it’s over, but I know I’ll miss it.  It has been wonderful to have a licence to be utterly daft for a few weeks and the sound of the audience shouting “it’s behind you!”, even if they’re not actually shouting to me, is a sound to be treasured.

‘Tis the season…

…to shout at fat men in dresses, to sing along with a bumbling fool, to be raucous in public and even to be encouraged to show disdain.  It is, in short, panto season.  Pantomime is a bizarre tradition, both terribly British and terribly not.  Fiends from other nations tend to be confused at best, and disturbed at worst, by a trip to the pantomime.  Familiar stories have strange elements added to them, random characters are played by people of the wrong gender who don’t even try to persuade you otherwise, there are calls and responses which it seems everyone knows and there is, in general, rowdy behaviour in public.  Those in charge even chastise you if you’re not raucous enough!  Compare this to the stereotypical dweller on this beautiful collection of islands – quiet, reserved with a stiff upper lip and a frown never far from the lips.  Once a year, around Christmas time, all that pent up emotion comes flooding out, and a pantomime audience is born.

I’m fairly sure that in my younger days, pantomimes began on Boxing Day and continued into January, but they have been going on all month, and perhaps even before that.  During December this year I have (so far, let’s not rule out another visit) seen three pantos, all very different, but all enjoyable.  The key, I find, is just to let go and join in with as much joyful abandon as you can muster.  The more you participate in the “it’s behind you”s and the “oh no it’s not”s, the more fun you have.

First was a production of Aladdin in a village hall in Birchington.  I caught this one as one of my fellow library people was playing Aladdin, and did a jolly good job too.  The ladies were, as a rule, much better than the men involved, with a particularly memorable pair of Chinese policemen and a magnificently haughty Empress of China providing much amusement, while the Princess Noodle provided some beautiful musical moments.  There was, occasionally, additional comedy to be found in the little details that had been overlooked.  I particularly enjoyed the all-important laundry scene, where a stage full of people all watched the washing machine drum rotate at different speeds and, at one point, in different directions.

Next was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury.  Last year, I wrote about how much I’d enjoyed Stephen Mulhern’s performance in Aladdin, and he was back, playing the comic relief Muddles (though most of the cast could have been classified as comic relief).  The production was not quite as much fun as last year’s but was still highly enjoyable from the moment the Wicked Queen appeared to the unbelievably cheesy finale.  Every element was well done, from set and lighting to choreography, with plenty of well-timed silliness to keep everyone laughing (including, from time to time, members of the cast).

Finally, Peter Pan in Hastings, which I caught as a good friend of mine is the musical director.  The production starred Jon Lee (formerly of S Club 7 and also an excellent, seriously excellent, Marius in Les Miserables), who was a joy as the boy who never grew up, particularly in his songs ‘My Shadow and Me’ and ‘Do You Believe in Fairies?’.  The children were, as children often are, a mixed bunch and there were some interesting moments with the set, but once again I had a great time.  I particularly enjoyed the audience singalong, which was a tongue twister, but was a little easier for me as I’ve been rehearsing ‘I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General’ for the last few months.  I wasn’t too disturbed by the crocodile, but I suspect that had I been in the stalls rather than the circle, I would have been grabbing the nearest person for protection.

As an audience member, my panto season is now over.  However, that doesn’t mean that I am leaving audience participation behind me for another year, as I will be taking part on the other side of the footlights in January.  I shall be appearing in a puff of smoke as the Genie in Aladdin at the Winter Gardens in Margate.  The production stars Ben Mills (X-Factor finalist) as Aladdin and comedian/actor Mark Arden as the evil Abanazar and should be quite excellent!  The members of the cast that I know are people who can be trusted to give great performances, as well.  I will essentially live this production for three weeks, and will be the most intensive work I’ve ever done on a show.  It won’t be the first time I’ve worked with professionals, but it will be the first time I’ve done so in a principal role, rather than in the ensemble.  I’m busily learning my lines and music, and look forward to learning the blocking and, more scarily, the choreography in the New Year.

If you haven’t yet made it to a pantomime this year, I encourage you to do so.  And if you’re within striking distance of Margate between the 16th and 25th January, why not catch the Singing Librarian in action at the Winter Gardens?

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