From Judy Garland to Jammy Dodgers: Panto in Chipping Norton
"The whole community is behind building the show"
5pm one Monday, The Theatre Chipping Norton. A Sleeping Beauty rehearsal is in full swing, with something to do with the pantomime going on in every available space. Lucy Penrose walks into the green room. She’s playing the role of Princess Rose, and is needed on the theatre stage shortly for a few promo photographs. She hasn’t put her princess frock on yet, but her makeup is complete.
“Eyes look good, babe,” says fellow cast member Erica Guyatt (who portrays the evil witch, Belladonna Bindweed).
“Yeah?” Lucy says.
“Yeah. God, you look so much like Judy Garland.”
Lucy (who recently played Garland in the West End) takes her cue, putting on her Judy voice for a brief burst of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
“Good lipstick as well,” says Erica, of her crimson mouth.
“Yeah, I don’t like to go for a light red.”
Soon after, Lucy leaves to put her costume on. Erica remains in the green room with Christian James (or Willy Wallflower), Connor Bannister (Prince Jagger), and me.
Belladonna Bindweed’s “got a vendetta”, Erica explains.
Willy Wallflower is head gardener at King Lenny’s castle, Christian offers, and “loves a bit of horticulture”.
“Come see it, you’ll find out,” Connor says, not giving anything away about Prince Jagger.
Erica has done a fair few Watford Palace Theatre pantomimes, and Christian has played Dick Whittington and Aladdin at Newbury’s Corn Exchange, but this is Connor’s first panto – and also one of his first professional acting jobs. He’s liking how the show’s director, John Terry (also artistic director of Chippy Theatre), works – though he admits it’s a way of working that he didn’t predict. With his actors, John explores the finer details of the script (written by Andrew Pollard) With his actors, John explores the finer details of the script (written by Andrew Pollard), which you might not expect from someone directing a panto; after all, as Connor points out, people often just associate this theatre form with gags and sweet throwing – and how much scrutiny of text is needed for that? However, the performer says, “John really tries to get to the heart of a situation.” As a result, the love between Prince Jagger and Princess Rose – for example – is better acted and thus more believable to an audience.
John’s ‘changing up’ and rearranging of traditional pantomime traits is possibly what has helped make Chippy Panto something of an institution, suggests Connor, along with the fact the pantomime here always boasts an original script and original music. Christian cites the “entirely new score” as a reason for his liking of this panto, praising “the wonderful” Harry Sever, who’s responsible for Sleeping Beauty’s music and lyrics.
Chippy Panto’s institutional status has also been achieved, Erica reckons, by “the community feel to the show”. The children in the cast (The Pippins) are all from the local area. They’re not chosen from one specific drama or dance school, she says. “It’s quite universal casting, in that sense.” Further, she explains, local people from the town have been assisting in the making of costumes. “It feels like the whole community is behind building the show, which I think is why it's become an institution, because it’s inclusive.”
Erica, Christian and Connor are London-based actors. Chipping Norton provides something of a contrast for them. “I feel much more relaxed being here,” states Connor.
“No one’s running,” Christian points out.
“And people say hello to you in the streets, it’s very nice,” Erica says.
Having discussed the uniqueness of the Chipping Norton panto, we talk about the ways in which it does not neglect tradition. For example, it will include ‘the slop scene’, which – according to Christian – “is going to be very funny and very messy”.
Also, the production tries to make it so the villain always enters from stage left. The director is apparently “quite flexible” with this rule, says Erica, “but it’s one of those old traditions that we will try and nod to if the script allows us”.
Soon, Paul Tonkin (King Lenny) enters the room in full costume (as designed by Emily Stuart). Donning a necklace of fake jammy dodgers and a well-padded belly, he appears about four times wider than he would do normally.
“That is excellent,” Erica assesses.
“Hello,” he says.
“How the hell are you going to fit through doors?” she asks.
For the record, I later watched Paul as he posed for photographs, and he did manage to fit through a door onstage with little difficulty – although it was hard for him to sit down on a garden hedge without flashing a bit of bare thigh.
Before heading out into the auditorium to watch the photography take place, I question why panto is important. “It brings families together,” Erica says, going on to describe a whole audience enthused by a pantomime, reacting to what happens onstage, as “something beautiful”. The direct relationship between audience and performer that you get in panto, she says, “is a bit like gold dust”.
Sleeping Beauty is at The Theatre Chipping Norton 14 November-14 January.
Images © Josh Tomalin
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