Cast rehearsing

Dick Whittington on The One Show

According to Charles Dickens, Christmas is a time when old ghosts come back to haunt you and I’m getting a small taste of that at the moment. Dick Whittington, the first pantomime I wrote, together with Pamela Hope, for my local group Mawdesley Amateur Dramatics Society, and the second to be published, is now appearing on BBC1’s early evening magazine The One Show.

Winterslow Drama Group in Wiltshire chose to perform my version of the famous English panto, and now they are being mentored by actor and pantomime legend Christopher Biggins. Clips of their rehearsals and his advice are being threaded into three editions of the programme leading up to Christmas, starting from 12th December, and continuing on 13th and 16th December. You can watch them for up to 30 days later on the BBC iPlayer.

Here is the first installment on BBC iPlayer. Panto feature starts at 12:56 minutes in.

This may or may not surprise you but I don’t retain a full memory of previous scripts in my head. So there are moments watching this where lines and names come as a surprise to me too. I think the cast are doing a superb job. Christopher Biggins is an actor I’ve respected for both his comedy performances in the likes of Porridge and Psychoville and drama too. Who can forget his sociopathic Nero in I, Claudius? When it comes to pantomime he has an incredible fund of experience as a performer and director, so I would always pay attention to him. I’m hoping he liked our script, even with its alterations to the classic plot.

Christopher Biggins

You always have a special place in your heart for your first, and Dick Whittington will always have a lot of good memories for me. Not only was I learning the ropes of what made a good panto script, but I was also playing the Dame, which might make you suspect I gave myself all the best lines, but that is absolutely not the case loves! Since this series has started, it has been fun to hear from my old former cast mates who are amused to be reminded of their old lines again, just as I am.
At that time MADS was a fairly low ebb in terms of cast and resources. We had the village hall (which looks uncannily similar to Winterslow’s btw) and good costume designers but in terms of sets, props, light and sounds we had recently lost a lot of expertise. So one of the driving factors of that script was that it was simple to stage and its a virtue I have tried to keep to with all my subsequent scripts. I always advise that groups can build on my descriptions and effect suggestions if they fancy it.
Probably the most important lesson I learnt that initial time out was not to try to be too surreal or too intellectual with my jokes. All the best laughs come from audacious groaners – the chicken run joke for example, or good character stuff that the audiences recognise in themselves, or logical stupidity, such as the henchmen threatening Hugo and the Baroness with pretend guns because they cannot afford a real one, followed by established idiot Hugo claiming he’s helpless because they have got him covered. And don’t be embarrassed by happy accidents. I wrote a line about Dick being spotted around the docks just as a plot point, not realising the innuendo until audiences started laughing on the nights.

If you would like to read the script yourself or maybe even consider it for your own theatre group, please take a look at my author’s page at Lazy Bee Scripts.

I knew about this One Show coverage from the Winterslow Drama Group home page, and only knew it had started when a friend texted me to say he had just seen my name on the telly. So I have no idea what is going to happen in the next few editions, but I’ll certainly be watching to find out!
Merry Christmas!

Aladdin poster

Cannot get enough of Aladdin

That plucky young lad from Ancient China seems to keep crossing my path at the moment.

For a start I’ve just been making a video trailer for Bolton Little Theatre’s production of Aladdin in December. This one is based on a script by Alan P Frayne, who has previously provided scripts for BLT’s Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella.

Once again I was in the Forge studio theatre, improvising with the cast, but this time the emphasis was on laughs rather than menace. I had expected to be filming the cast in their civvies, but the wardrobe mistress was marvellously able to dress everyone who turned up in appropriate panto gear. We worked pretty fast, keeping the camera in one place this time and moving the actors in and out of the frame. I did not have much time to work on a polished script or too many takes because the cast were due to hold a full readthrough that evening. Then it was time to put the footage into the ever reliable Cyberlink Power Director to add some effects and a Chinese overlay downloaded for free from the company’s website. Hope folk like the result. It will be going live on Facebook next week.

For more details and to book tickets please visit Bolton Little Theatre’s Aladdin page

Meanwhile I am delighted to announce that there are two productions of my own Aladdin, co-written with Adrian Barradell, coming this Christmas.

November – St Anselm’s College, Wirral, UK
December – 2nd Comber Drama Group, County Down, UK

More details when I get them. If you would like to know more about my take on the famous tale, please visit my page at Lazy Bee Scripts

 

 

 

Writing Rumplestiltskin the pantomime

goblin

Now available for theatre groups of almost any kind is my pantomime version of the Grimm’s fairytale “Rumplestiltskin”. It has been published by Lazy Bee Scripts and I want to thank Stuart Arden for his help. It’s my first solo panto outing, having co-written versions of “Dick Whittington”, “Aladdin” and “Treasure Island”. You can take a look at all of them on the Lazy Bee website – http://www.lazybeescripts.co.uk/Authors/Author.aspx?iIA=239

Rumplestiltskin has become one of the slightly lesser known of the Grimm’s collection. In fact when I’ve been talking about, its noticeable how many people get it confused with Rapunzel. I suspect its partly because the latter has had the Disney treatment in the marvellous “Tangled”. Another reason is because its inescapably one of the darker stories, with its baby trading plot and few sympathetic characters. I mean even the heroine is someone who offers their baby away, albeit under duress. So adapting it into a frothy family show had some challenges. That was actually one of the reasons I chose to adapt it, because at the time there were no other versions on Lazy Bee’s books (Aladdin by contrast had eight different scripts at the time.) By the time I submitted it however, it was number three.

As someone who has acted in eight panto productions, my philosophy with panto writing is to keep it as fast moving as possible, with the minimum amount of sentimentality and romantic scenes. In my experience romantic duets, even with accomplished singers, can leave the audience shuffling in their seats and similarly dramatic pathos can quickly become tedious bathos. So young love and tragic events are pretty much transparent plot devices to drive the story onwards, and the story is there to hang comedy on to.

Generally I’ve been writing for amateur theatre companies who don’t have much in the way of resources. My first was written in an emergency for a largely inexperienced group of friends, so Pam Hope and I felt obliged to write something with the minimum of props and major scene changes. I’m quite proud that none of my scripts have needed more than three backdrops, as I make extensive use of the half-curtain stage space. In Aladdin, I turned the lack of ability to stage a standard flying carpet sequence into an asset with a scene where the carpet and actors stay still, whilst landmarks are carried past them by the junior chorus, a bit of lo-fi comedy which always seems to go down well.

Whilst panto plots may be more contrived that most, they still have to have internal logic. In the original tale the heroine marries the king who imprisoned her and forced her to spin gold. This struck me has hard to swallow, so I changed to an evil king and queen who had a good son, who eventually confronts them and rescues the girl. Furthermore it is the goblin who has magically made the king and queen evil, so they can freed and become good again, whilst making Rumplestiltskin even nastier. The matter of the heroine offering her first-born, without losing all audience sympathy was another tricky one. I dealt with it by really stacking the deck against her. She makes the deal as much to save her family as herself and also hopes that she may not have a baby. In the second act, she is clearly shown regretting the decision and is also the person who ultimately defeats the goblin.

At the readthrough for the play with some friends, I found that the first act was too long, pushing the whole play over my self-imposed time limit of two hours. My solution was to edit the heroine’s imprisonment from three days to two, thus cutting out two scenes, and also cutting some of the introductory dialogue which was just exposition with no jokes. The result definitely feels tighter. Some readers felt the story was still a bit too frightening, so I took out the goblin’s line – “a real live baby is more precious to me than all the gold in the kingdom.” After that it was ensuring that the jokes come thick and fast. Pantos have a definite formula, which can be helpful for writer, but I have to be careful to watch out for repetition or too many jokes of the same kind. I hope that “Rumplestiltskin” will have a good shelf life for many years to come, and that groups have as much fun putting it on as I’ve had writing. More in fact!