“Oh No I’m Not… (in panto this year)” by Ben Stock
It’s nearly time for panto! “Oh yes it is!” Well… actually this year... ”Oh no it isn’t!” Normally at this time of year (and only this time of year) my thoughts are turning to eyelashes, pumpkins, theatrical digs, National Treasures and tights!
Let me explain! For the last 11 consecutive years I have played Ugly Sister in Cinderella around the UK. From Hastings to High Wycombe, Bradford to Bristol and Wolverhampton Northampton, I’ve locked Cinderella in wardrobes, cellars, magical mirrors, torn up her invitation to the ball over a thousand times and at approximately 8 costume changes a show have been poppered, zipped and velcro-ed during over 8,000 costume changes! Well known faces such as Lynda Bellingham, Gok Wan, Lesley Joseph, Brian Conley, The Krankies, Julian Clary and Brendan from Coach Trip have become work mates and pre-matinee breakfast buddies. Christmas Eve dashes to get home have become the norm and Boxing Day Secret Santa has rooted itself in my heart as my least-favourite Christmas tradition. (Forcing a smile when opening your fairy wings and face paints from Poundland for the umpteenth time gets harder!)
But this year is different. Although a few theatres are (thankfully) opening small-scale shows with socially distanced audiences, I will be having as ‘normal’ a Christmas as anyone else this year... and it feels very odd! I’ve been working in the theatre for 22 years and this will be the first time I’ve had more than a day off in that time. I don’t normally ‘notice’ Christmas... don’t get me wrong… I LOVE Christmas... but it is literally a day off and so is quite simple to plan! This year (depending on what we can and can’t do) I have to plan stuff and can’t get away with skipping the washing up and prep which I have to say I always get out of by playing the “but I’ve done 12 shows this week” card...!
On a personal level, I will of course miss panto so much! I love the routine; trimming up the dressing room and digs; finding treats for the company; doing a jigsaw in my dressing room between entrances; not to mention THE MONEY! You see, as a self-employed freelancer, panto is a big gig! Don’t get me wrong... it’s not the mega-bucks for us jobbing “turns” that often get reported in the media (I really must get my agent to sort me a stint on MADE IN CHELSEA!), but it’s an important part of my working year in every way. Just like it is for the theatres themselves. Most theatres make about a third of their income for the year during the panto season. But perhaps more importantly, it’s often the only time many people come into the theatre. Kids come with school or Cubs or Brownies; care homes and day centres bring groups of our older friends; families come in groups of multi-generations. For me this is the real sadness this year. And of course, the people. Being in one theatre for several weeks, you get to know the crew, front of house, stage door, actors, cleaners, stage management, box office, marketing and management far better than any other time. I will miss that company feeling dreadfully.
We will of course, be back. Maybe bigger and better. Maybe clinging on for dear life! But theatre and its people are resilient. Professional or amateur, big or small, north, south, east or west, the theatre is in our blood. Until we can get back I, like many thousands of others - including all of you - will have to remain positive, hopeful and READY! Let’s keep singing and supporting, watching and listening, interested and passionate... even if it’s just popping into your local theatre for a coffee or buying some Christmas cards to support a theatrical charity, there are things we can do to stick together!
And spare a thought for this Ugly Sister, who although relieved he won’t have to fake a Secret Santa smile on Boxing Day, will have to adjust to walking in flat shoes in December and doing the washing up! Hang on in there - you will find that this situation is “BEHIND YOU” and next year’s panto season is something to look forward to... ”Oh yes it is”!!!
P.S. If you are looking for a Christmas present, I have two albums for sale! Available from my website www.benstock.biz They make excellent stocking fillers and failing that, even better coasters... forgive the plug... but I’m never one to miss an opportunity!!