It’s December, and with panto season well underway, rehearsals for the UK’s biggest pantomime have just begun, with the stars of this year’s show, Jack and the Beanstalk, getting into character in London’s Jerwood Space.
Yesterday, members of the press were invited to sit in on some of the first read- and dance-throughs. Although we caught the cast early on in their rehearsal process, from the short scenes we saw, it was clear that both the comedy and choreography were already taking shape.
First up, we got a glimpse of the opening dance number, with the chorus getting jamming along to Pharell’s ‘Happy’. Next, Jane McDonald (The Cruise, Loose Women, Star Treatment) and Chris Gascoyne (Coronation Street, New Street Law, Soldier Soldier) took to the floor to face off in their respective roles as The Enchantress and the Giant’s assistant, Fleshcreep. Returning for his second Hippodrome panto running, ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (who plays Simple Simon) and his puppet, Sam, then rehearsed a scene involving a complicated gag centred around the names of three neighbours. Zerdin was later joined by returning comedy co-stars Gary Wilmot (Dame Trot) and Matt Slack (Silly Billy) as well as Blue’s Duncan James (Jack), who discussed the hard times the family had fallen upon, and made a good early attempt at some very complicated lines! Finally, a second dance sequence ended with a number from TV songster Jane McDonald.
After lunch, I had chance to interview some of the stars about their roles in the show. Here’s what Jane McDonald had to say about The Enchantress.
Tell me a bit about your character in the panto.
My character is The Enchantress and she is the magic spirit of all that is good. I come in and fix everybody’s lives and make sure that nobody gets hurt and that the love is shared all around. So it’s the perfect role for me, really!
You’ve not long started, but how are the rehearsals going so far?
No, we’ve only been doing it for two days, but I have never laughed so much! The cast are the funniest people I have ever met in my life! I’m really looking forward to it now. I’ve never done panto before – this is my first time – and a lot of people have said it’s hard work, but to be quite honest, I go out and do my own shows for two and a half hours every night, so to actually work with a cast is a lifesaver for me! I’m also looking forward to being in the same place every day and sleeping in the same bed every night. That’ll be complete luxury!
You could say that, yeah! I only finished on Sunday night and then it was straight into the first rehearsal on Monday, so I’m at the stage where I’m not sure how I’m even managing to talk to you right now! But it has been fabulous fun, and you just keep going in this business.
This is your first pantomime, but it won’t be your first stage musical, so how does it compare to other things that you’ve worked on in the past?
I did Romeo and Juliet in the West End, which was very dark, so this is obviously much lighter! It’s very camp and very funny. The script is hilarious. Even my opening line is about my knickers coming off! When I first read it, I thought, “Blimey, that’s a bit much!” But it is funny. It’s all typical English humour, which we don’t see a lot of, nowadays.
I think I caught sight of your magic wand earlier on. Have you had chance to try your costume on and see how everything looks yet?
How heavy is that wand?
I think it’s about half the size of me!
Ha, it is, actually! It’s massive, isn’t it? And it lights up and does everything. I think you can probably see it from space! It is very heavy, so I’m going to have to get used to handling it. It’s phenomenal though. It’s got its own credit, that wand.
How about the dress? Have you had a look at that?
Yeah, it’s lovely. Lots of Lycra! So that’ll give me a bit of breathing space – built-in underwear, that’s me. It’s actually very easy to wear.
And sparkly, I bet.
Yeah, of course it is!
That doesn’t light up as well, does it?
No – not yet! That’s an idea, though!
Yeah, we’ve done a couple of shows together. It’s great, actually. You get to know people a lot better when you’re doing something like this, because we’re going to be working together for eight weeks. He’s a cracking singer, you know. When he started up singing in the rehearsals, I was like, “Blimey!” He’s got a really strong voice, and he’s a great actor as well, so I think it’s good for him to be doing this in his own right. I think a lot of people will be impressed. I was certainly wowed when I saw him, even though I’d seen him in the West End before so I already knew he could do it. He’s hilarious, too – not at all like his character. He’s very very funny and very dry.
Have you had chance to have a look at the theatre yet or will it all be new to you when you arrive there?
I went over to have a look and to do the press day before, and it’s absolutely stunning! The Birmingham Hippodrome is like the place to perform. Apparently everybody’s coming to this place and everyone comes to watch the Birmingham panto, so I’m hoping they’ll all come and see this one – otherwise it’s not going to reflect very well on me! I must admit I’d go and see a show there. It’s a very comfortable theatre. It has really nice seats and fantastic views. I’m really looking forward to performing there.
What about Birmingham more generally. Do you know the town much?
You’ve got everything there, haven’t you? Selfridges and all the shopping. I’m well excited!
So has starting the panto rehearsals put you in the Christmas spirit or have you resisted the festive pull so far?
I think I’ve avoided it a bit, just because I haven’t really had time to think about it. But all the adverts on telly are starting to get me now. I think once I’m in Birmingham that’s when I’ll start to feel really festive. I’ll have my partner there and my mum will come to visit, and my best friend. I think it’s gonna be lovely!
Jack and the Beanstalk will be showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome from Friday 19th December until Sunday 1st February. Tickets are available from the Birmingham Hippodrome website. Keep an eye on this blog for my interviews with panto co-stars Matt Slack and Gary Wilmot.