Pantomime- it’s much better than sprouts at Christmas.

1 year ago by in Croydon, Reviews

As a child, pantomime wasn’t part of our family Christmas traditions. We went to the cinema and theatre but never to pantomime. The first time I ever went was a 19 year old, with my then boyfriend and his family, as they did go, every year on Boxing Day. It mustn’t have been a great show because I remember enjoying the theatre and the lovely Christmassy feeling of being all dressed up and out at a theatre that had a giant, beautifully decorated tree and foyer, but the pantomime itself left me cold. I was of course more grown up aged 19 and may just have been too sophisticated for it back then!

And so when my husband and I had children and all of our friends were taking their children to pantomimes each year, I felt that I ought to but imagined that it would be two hours of fun and entertainment for the schildren, that I would enjoy watching them enjoying it, but had no expectation that it would be in any way fun or emtertaining for me. In fact, so unenthusiastic was Iabout going, that we didn’t! It seemed expensive, it was already a busy time of year and I just didn’t prioritise it.

Then in 2013 I was offered the chance to review Fairfield Hall’s production of Peter Pan for the Croydon Advertiser. And so, just like that, pantomime was on the Christmas entertainments list! And what a surprise it was: I absolutely loved it! I laughed until my cheeks ached, the melancholy moments were surprisingly powerful and touching and the whole show was brilliant! Then in 2014 we went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, starring Gareth Gates and again at the Fairfield Halls, and again we had a wonderful evening and both the children and my husband and I really enjoyed it.

Us at the 2014 Fairfield Halls Pantomime

So for me, pantomime used to be one of those Christmas traditions that I felt I should partake of, like sprouts. Luckily, being a Croydon resident and having the Fairfield’s show as my local one, it’s more like partaking in a Christmas tradition that I’d hate to miss now, like eating my body weight in Ferrero Rocher. The pantomimes at Fairfield Halls are actually funny! Not only do I feel that I should go because it’s a part of Christmas, but I actually want to go!

I am aware that I’m committing the most rotten of acts by talking about Christmas in October, but pantomime proceedings have begun and so I have to. The last week in September saw the press call to Fairfield for the formal introduction of the 2015 cast for this year’s production of Cinderella.

As for the past four years (Jack and the Beanstalk in 2012, Peter Pan in 2013, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 2014) the show is written and produced by Paul Hendy and Emily Wood of Evolution Productions. In fact Evolution will be staging seven pantomimes around the country this year. During the press call, Paul Hendy told us that the cast he has put in place for Cinderella at Croydon for 2015 is like an a-team football squad: he knows that whoever has the ball at any point, they can be relied on to entertain and thrill us with their performance in the spotlight. Benjamin Brook who is playing Prince Charming couldn’t be there for the press call but Paul Hendy laughed as he told us that he will be great because he looks good and can sing!

As is usual for the introductory press call, journalists, photographers and bloggers like me had gathered to chat and await our introduction to the cast. We looked like any ordinary, daytime gathering of people. And then, the double doors opened and in walked two large men dressed in a matching ensemble of stripy green velvet frocks and feathered hats; a lady in a peasant dress carrying a broom; a second lady in a pink, pink frock, covered in diamonds and pink, pink jewels with a crown atop her head and a wand in her hand, and bringing up the rear, two young men, one in a royal blue bellboy’s outfit and one in frock coat and tights. And so on this ordinary, bright, sunny afternoon in Croydon town, we ordinary looking guests of the Fairfield Halls were introduced to the costumes, characters and over-the-top magnificence of the pantomime cast:

  • The Ugly Sisters will be played by Stewart Wright and Matt Daines
  • Cinderella will be played by Joanna Sawyer
  • The Fairy Godmother is played by Lisa Davina Phillip
  • Dandini is played by Steve Wickenden
  • And the big-name draw of the 2015 cast is Stephen Mulhern of Catchphrase, Big Star’s Little Star and Britain’s Got more Talent. Stephen played Buttons in 2010 in Croydon too

Stephen was the main member of the cast that I got to speak to and to pose questions to. The process goes like this: local journalists sit in a circle and then the actors come to join us. There is the moment of awkward quiet after the smiles and the hello, when we all halt in the very British way so as not to be the first to speak or seem self-important.

At this moment I saw the first evidence of what a confident, professional Stephen Mulhern is. He took charge and started to talk first. He told us that he was in pantomime in Croydon in 2010, playing Buttons then, as he is now. He said that in a bizarre way he loved Croydon and it was a shame that he hadn’t been back before. He said that the venue (the Fairfield Halls) is amazing and that for him, Cinderella is the best pantomime, with Aladdin his second favourite.

This is Stephen’s twelfth year in panto and so he returns as a seasoned veteran of the art! During our round-table interview with Stephen we asked him about how his very experienced role as a presenter fed into his performances in pantomime and how his well documented time as a Butlins Redcoat had added to his toolkit. He told us that he is able to ad lib with confidence, to be on-script or off-script and still be comfortable. I asked if he had always had this high level of confidence or if he had been more anxious about performing/ presenting in the early days of his career. It’s hard to imagine that he may not have had this solid confidence at some point, and some people do have this just as a part of them. He kind of laughed at my question though, saying that of course he had been afraid when he first started out. He said that he had learnt from being thrown in at the deep end as a young Redcoat, quickly working out what made the difference between a crowd pleasing performance and it’s much more uncomfortable opposite! Stephen told us that he likes to mess with his fellow cast members a little, throwing in changed or unexpected lines, so I hope they are as good at the ad lib as he is! He learnt to cope with whatever was thrown at him on stage and whilst performing.

In his 2014 pantomime season playing in Aladdin in Crawley, it was Ant and Dec that were thrown at him on the stage! In one of the most ambitious and complicated pranks they have ever devised, they took over one performance of the show to send Stephen into a world of chaos. The backstage crew, the cast and the audience knew that mischief was afoot, but amazingly, the secret was kept from Stephen. With a steely glint in his eye, Stephen told us in no uncertain terms that he would get the tricky pair back one day! I look forward to that piece of television gold whenever it arises!

The bleeding heart part of me always feels a bit sad for people working so hard and putting on so many performances over the many weeks of pantomime season. I’m gradually adjusting my thoughts on this though, as in lots of ways it seems like a good gig and as if there’s lot of fun to balance out the hard work. Stephen said that he really enjoys pantomime and that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be doing it. The cast that I’ve spoken to as I’ve reviewed the shows over the last 4 years have often done pantomime for many consecutive years. There seems to be great camaraderie and affection amongst the cast members, and they seem to build their Christmas around it. Stephen Mulhern said that he always spends Christmas Day itself with his family and pantomime doesn’t get in the way of that.

When Paul Hendy introduced us to the actors and their characters, he said that he felt that this production of Cinderella was going to be the best pantomime that he has brought to Fairfield to date, that each year he likes to build on the spectacle and the great show of the previous year. Stephen Mulhern told us that Paul Is open to the cast bringing in and using special skills and talents. Given that Stephen is a magician amongst his other skills, it seems as if magic will almost certainly feature in the show.

I really do think that Cinderella is going to be an amazing family show. I still haven’t taken my 3 year old to the pantomime yet (she’s not a sit-down-and-watch-a-show-girl, really. She shouts things out out like “Oh when will this ever end?!” and “Oh it is never finishing!”) The rest of the family are a different story though: me, my husband and my two big girls who will be 11 and 9 by then are really, really excited and can’t wait to see the Fairfield panto of 2015. I would highly recommend it and hope to see you there!

Pantomime season in Croydon starts on the 4th of December this year and runs through until the 3rd of January.

For information about dates, times and ticket prices, and to watch a video showreel of Evolution Productions 2015/16 shows, visit this page on the Fairfield Halls website.
 Alternatively, call the Fairfield Box Office on 020 8688 9291.

And now, let us stop talking about Christmas for another 7 weeks. I apologise for this early interlude into the silly season.

In the interests of full disclosure, I received no recompense for this review piece. I was simply invited to attend the press call.

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