With the old meme of Batman answering Robin’s “It’s nearly Christmas” with a slap across the face and the words “It’s only November” once again doing the rounds, I find myself thinking: “If only the Caped Crusader had known my life.”
I am a producer of pantomimes. Evolution Productions – which I run with my husband Paul Hendy – was born 12 years ago. This year, we have seven shows at major theatres up and down the land.
Evolution’s life has coincided with the panto renaissance. No longer are these shows viewed as the poor stepsister of the theatre family. The high-class, high-production panto is here to stay. Audiences expect great performers, big names, sumptuous sets, great jokes and glittering costumes. All this takes preparation.
As Christmas decorations are packed away and half the population takes the January pledge, our working year starts with a fleet of lorries traversing the country to return sets, costumes and props to our warehouse in Kent.
We don’t have Boxing Day. Our boxing month is literal and it starts a week later. Cleaned, repaired, labelled and itemised, sets, props and costumes are stored away for 10 months. With 17 sets and 5,000 costumes safely packed, we roll up our sleeves and start preparations for the next season.
Star casting starts in February. Not every actor is suited. It requires a special set of skills. A character needs to be established in a split second – strength and energy are required to break the fourth wall, to draw an audience in, to drive along the narrative.
Above all, the thing we look for is a performer who can deliver. After that, we think about the name that will draw in the audiences.
In March, when the days grow longer, we wave our wands and it starts to snow. Baubles are dusted, studios are hired, heroes woken, villains rounded up and photographers hired as the marketing machine gets going.
Dames, dwarfs, Dandinis and dastardly devils are next. And then come the principle boys, the Prince Charmings and the pantomime cows. It’s summer and it’s company casting time. I am insistent that the dame has to be a bloke in a frock. It’s all belching, farting, legs akimbo, stubble, Dr Martens and outrageous dresses here, please.
So, with a full company and an empty tank, we take August off to recuperate and prepare for the sprint to Christmas.
Then we write. We unashamedly nick the latest jokes from our kids, we scour newspapers for local references and gently rip into the little foibles of politicians, sports stars and actors. Always the powerful and never the weak.
Halloween passes and we gather to let the magic begin. Rehearsals start, storage houses are emptied and the machine coughs into action and motors towards December.
Across the country, trees are brought inside, wine is mulled and mince pies are baked as we stand in the wings waiting for the conductor to tap the baton… Let the rumpus begin.