Feeling Festive – A Day at the Hippodrome Panto Rehearsals with Cast Interviews

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As Christmas draws ever closer, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs panto cast is beginning to get into the festive spirit with rehearsals for the show, which will open at the Hippodrome later this month. Along with a handful of journalists, I joined a coach trip down to London for a special behind-the-scenes look at how things are going so far. Just three days into rehearsals, it’s already looking fantastic, with the promise of even more spectacle, singing and surprises still in store.

After arriving at the rehearsal space, we were first treated to a few snippets of the show, beginning with a musical number featuring John Partridge as Prince John, along with an impressive group of dancers. This first scene takes place at the beginning of Act 2, with the Prince assembling an army to go in search of Snow White (Danielle Hope), who has been captured by her stepmother, Queen Sadista (Stephanie Beacham).

The second excerpt featured the wicked Queen herself, calling upon the Man in the Magic Mirror (Gok Wan), to reassure her of her beauty after she discovers that the dashing Prince John is a long-lost childhood friend of her “uber-cute stepdaughter”, Snow. As Stephanie Beacham hammed it up as the dastardly drama Queen, Gok Wan “flew in” with perfect comic timing, interrupting her preening with deadpan put-downs.

Finally came a scene featuring our heroine Snow White, alongside the Dame’s son and secret Snow admirer, Muddles (ventriloquist Paul Zerdin). During the play, Muddles competes for Snow’s love with his brother Oddjob (Matt Slack). In the scene we were shown, Muddles uses his puppet pal to help him tell Snow White how he feels about her.

Following this, the cast gave interviews and I teamed up with Paul Hadsley from The Bridge radio in Birmingham to speak to John Partridge, Gary Wilmot (The Dame) and Danielle Hope. Transcriptions from the interviews are below. At some point, the audios should be going out on The Bridge Radio – more info on this when it arrives!

BapGXjZIYAA0kxv.jpg largeAn Interview with John Partridge

PH: You’re a serious actor who’s had many serious roles. Is this where you have some fun and let off some steam?

JP: We do have fun, but make no bones about it, panto is a very, very serious business. There are no shaky sets or dodgy costumes: this is a multi-million pound production in every sense. We play 12 shows a week, and if you didn’t have seasoned professionals who were able to handle that type of schedule….you know, we’ve got no understudies in panto so if you’re sick, there’s a problem. You have to take it very seriously. Of course there’s the winking and the nodding to the audience but everything is in it’s place. It may look off the cuff but it is rehearsed and drilled and we only have 10 days to put all of that together. It is great fun, don’t get me wrong. We all do it because it’s fun, but it is also a very serious business at the same time.

PH: So, after you’ve said all that, we know that Gok Wan will be joining you on stage. All I’ve heard so far has been fantastic praise for him, being thrown into this world for the first time, with people saying he’s doing really well. Is that right based on what you’ve seen?

JP: I think that what Qdos do so well when they put these shows together is that they make things very collaborative with everybody bringing to the table what they do best. Somebody asked me before if I had any tips for Gok and I said, “I don’t need to give Gok any tips because panto is all about making an audience feel good and that’s what Gok does for a living – he makes an audience feel good about themselves and this is no different.” Everything that each of us does individually we bring to the table here. So, you know, Stephanie’s here for your dramatic art and Gok’s here to chat to the audience. I’m here to do showstopping numbers. Everybody’s actually in their “box”, for want of a better word. He’s gonna do great, he has a natural rapport with the audience and that’s basically what pantomime is, so he’s already winning.

HK: What’s been your favourite scene to rehearse so far?

JP: Well, obviously we’re only about three quarters of the way through and we haven’t finished the end yet. I always love the end because we have a rule in panto which is that you never perfom the last scene until the first show because it’s bad luck, so that’s the first time you do it and I always love waiting for that scene because, you never know: something might go wrong in that bit. I do have a couple of scenes with Stephanie and I have to say, I’m a huge Stephanie fan. I just think that for somebody like Stephanie to be appearing in a show like this – somebody who’s been at the Royal Court, who’s been in Hollywood, who’s had such a breadth of experience on both stage and screen – for me, it is an honour to play scenes with her and I relish all the moments I have on stage with her. On the first day of rehearsals, she came in in a full-length fur and I was like, “There you go, Miss Hollywood!” A bit of Hollywood’s coming to Birmingham and I love all of that. It’s just great. And that’s the other thing, you know, ‘cos panto can sometimes get a bad rep but you’ve got celebrity Big Brother if you wish to go and die now so you don’t come and do it in panto.

HK: Obviously you’re not able to tell us everything at the moment, but have there been any big surprises reading the script? Any diversions from the traditional Snow White story?

JP: There are no big diversions from the traditional Snow White story but I love it when I get a script from Michael Harrison, because basically there’s nothing in it. You know, you get the script, and you know it’s gonna be nothing like that by the time it comes to the show, and then they start saying, “Oh, you don’t mind if they do this, do you, John?” Erm…. And, “Oh, you don’t mind if this happens, do you, John?” Hmmm… So, there are a couple of moments – and I actually will be looking forward to it – where I really send myself up, and they’re not on the page. You suddenly think, “What have I let myself in for?” But it is gonna be great!

HK: Have you done much panto before?

JP: This is my third panto, and somebody described me as a “panto veteran”, but some of these guys here have done, like, 10, 12, 13 of them so I’m still…almost virgin-like. Not quite, but almost (it’s nice to be a virgin at something at 42, that’s what I say)! But yeah, I’ve done three before and I loved all of them so I’m very much looking forward to this one. I’ve been at the Birmingham Hippodrome before: I was here in about 2005 with Miss Saigon and I was in the old theatre, way back in about ’96, I think it was, so I’m very much looking forward to coming back. It’s great to be at the Birmingham Hippodrome because they have such a great crew there, who know what they’re doing, which is great for us because when you’ve only got such a short amount of time to put a show on, it’s great that everyone else around you knows what they’re doing even if you don’t! We will, by the time we get there, but it just takes that pressure off you when you’ve got such an experienced theatre staff there looking after you. It really makes a difference.

HK: I have to ask – have you enjoyed wearing the prince costume?

JP: I love my prince costumes, even though they keep trying to push me into tights and I won’t wear ’em. I don’t like the junk on display, not at my age! But yeah, I love my prince costumes, especially my prince shoes. I’ve got fabulous shoes that are made especially for me: gorgeous, gold, high-heeled, buckle-up shoes!

HK: You’re gonna be looking for fashion advice from Gok soon!

BapE7O3IQAARGCL.jpg largeJP: (laughing) Listen, you wait till you see what he’s wearing! I won’t be taking any fashion advice from him!

PH: Just one last question: pantomime is obviously a Christmassy thing, but you’ll be carrying on past Christmas, won’t you? So how are you going to keep the Christmas spirit alive into mid-January?

JP: Darling, we wish to keep the Christmas spirit alive past January and beyond! So for us, well, I’ll just keep slapping that thigh until somebody tells me not to!

An Interview with Danielle Hope

PH: Have you been to Birmingham before?

DH: I have, I’ve been once before, we did a press launch for the show, when I went for the day there and it’s amazing. I’m really excited to be spending Christmas there. Being Northern, it’s nice for me because I’ll be halfway between home and London, which is great.

PH: Did you have any trouble finding your way around? Because I’ve heard quite a few people saying they got a bit lost.

DH: (laughing) Yes, it’s huge! All the streets are amazing but they all look the same. I was running up and down the shops and I couldn’t find anything, but two wonderful people showed me the way to the theatre, so thank you to that couple!

PH: People may remember you from Over the Rainbow, and you’ve had some serious acting roles, so is doing panto a chance to have fun and let go, or is this a big challenge itself?

DH: I think this is actually a challenge in a completely different respect because panto is such a different beast and you have to approach it in a different way. It’s on a huge scale! When I did Les Mis, for example, it was in quite an intimate space, whereas this has got to be able to read from all the way over there (gesturing far away). So yeah, it will be a challenge in a different way.

HK: Do you get much of a chance to use your lovely singing voice in this production?

DH: Yes indeed! I’m getting my Disney on! I’m gonna be singing a song that I’ve sung before and that’s all I’m saying.

HK: How are the rehearsals going so far? Is it all going well?

DH: Yeah, really well! I mean, we’re on day three and we’ve almost finished the whole thing. For me on stage there’s usually about three weeks where we move through and we’re all like “Oh gosh!”, but with this we’re on day three and we’ve nearly finished it already! It’s amazing, we’re moving so fast! And then we get a week and a half to get it all fleshed out and then we’ll go back and run it and run it and run it.

PH: Is that a normal time frame for this kind of thing?

DH: For a pantomime apparently you get about a week to a week and a half but usually for any other shows you get about three weeks so it’s all condensed.

PH: Do you think it’ll be better in the early stages while you’re still working things out or later, once you’ve perfected it a bit?

DH: I think it’s like anything – it evolves naturally, doesn’t it? I think it will develop and change but I’m quite excited about that. The more different things you find, the longer you can keep doing it.

HK: Do you have a favourite scene that you’ve worked on so far?

DH: I think all my scenes with John, my prince, are probably my favourite, when we’re dueting. It’s all very lovely and very romantic!

HK: Has he been good to work with?

DH: Oh yeah, amazing! I mean, obviously I know John from doing Over the Rainbow but getting to work with him on stage is lovely.

PH: You get to judge him on his performance! It’s your revenge! (laughter) One last thing: I just wanted to know why on the publicity pictures there’s no Snow White. Is that just because you were late or was there another reason?

BapQ0a9IcAAbnw9.jpg largeDH: It was. I confirmed a lot later than everyone else. But, you know, that’s quite nice actually. Anyway, it’s called Snow White, isn’t it? You don’t need my face! I’m pale anyway, you know. And it’ll be a nice surprise. People will be like, “Oh, Danielle Hope’s in it!”

HK: Are there any surprises to look forward to – anything we’re maybe not expecting from a traditional Snow White?

DH: Oh goodness, many! But probably different things on different nights. I’m working with an amazing team and they’re all incredibly funny. I’m just playing it straight and trying to keep a straight face but they’re all wickedly funny!

An Interview with Gary Wilmot

HK: So how have you found working on the pantomime this year?

GW: It’s fun. It’s a giggle, and it’s a great bunch of people.

HK: I’ve heard that you’re from Birmingham, so has it been good to be doing a show back at home?

GW: Well, it’s not really my home, but my mum is from Birmingham and I’ve got family who live there, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Birmingham. I’ve been to the Hippodrome lots of times, and the Alex. Years ago I did a show at the gay club called The Peacock but that’s not even there now. I went to the Studio Theatre when I was growing up. So yeah, I like Birmingham very much.

HK: You’re playing the Dame in the show. Is this your first time dressing up in drag?

GW: Erm…sort of, I’ll say yes. It’s my first time doing it in a panto. Years ago I did a sketch programme and we were all required to dress up as women from time to time, but dressing up as a Dame is different. I mean, I’ve never seen a woman dress like that before. I think of her more as a clown than a woman. But it’s not been a problem at all – in fact, the dress is surprisingly comfortable.

HK: Can you tell me a little bit more about your character? How does she fit into the story and what’s her relationship with Snow White?

GW: Yeah, Snow White doesn’t generally have a Dame in it. There isn’t one in the story but for the pantomime they’ve put one in. She’s the cook at the palace and she’s Snow White’s best friend, really. She kind of mothers Snow White a bit. She’s got two sons, and again I’ve never seen these two sons in Snow White before. The three characters are new to the show – they’re the kind of modern addition, if you like. There are a lot of characters in the show who aren’t particularly funny so the Dame comes on really to raise the comedy (there’s some laughing and complaining from other cast members in the background about this!), so that’s what I’m booked for.

HK: Do you have a favourite scene or favourite gag for your character?

Well, I’m not gonna give any gags away now but I do have a favourite one. As for scenes – well, any of the scenes where we’re all interacting. We’ve got a scene where it’s kind of got worse for the Queen and it’s a great ensemble. Everybody mucks in and it’s very, very visual. We’ve actually been rehearsing that all morning.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens at the Birmingham Hippodrome on Thursday 19th December and runs until Sunday 2nd February, with a special, relaxed performance on Thursday 30th January. For more information and to book, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website.

Merry Christmas!

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