Theatre It's lunchtime on the 29th September and I'm sitting in a meeting room at the Hilton Hotel in Liverpool listening to Wizzard. One row back from the front of a phalanx of seats, in an isle chair, in front of me is a temporary stage and I'm waiting for a short introduction to the cast of Jack and the Beanstalk, this year's pantomime at St Helens Theatre Royal. Even though this isn't the kind of press event I usually agree to visit, it's a chance to finally have a reason to walk through the giant glass doors at the front of this complex and also we have the enticement of enjoying one of their cream teas afterwards. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more likely to get me to attend a press launch of anything than the promise of a meal afterwards
As what feels like the third key change in the Mull of Kintyre winds onwards, a compilation of Christmas music is being played to get us in the mood, I try to remember the last time I attended a full panto. My guess is that it's not since school and the Blue Coat's production of Jack and the Beanstalk. There's no particular reason for this, other than that I don't have family and reputationally it's generally something which families do. Growing up, my Auntie would take her cub pack to see the rocking pantos at the Everyman and I sometimes went along and very much enjoyed those, part fairy tale, part musical education. That may be the first place I heard The Twist. Luckily Disney films exist to fill in the gap, though they've never done a feature length Jack which is an oversight.
Before long, John and Yoko fade out and we're greeted to some jingling bell sounds as the presentation's compare, Radio City 96.7's Claire Simmo bursts onto the stage from a side door. She's playing The Fairy in the production and dressed fluffy pink costume and all in sparkles, even her skin which twinkles under the stage lights. The energy level in the room increases exponentially. After talking up the theatre and having us applaud someone I think is the producer, anticipation builds. Simmo's actually very good, slipping seamlessly in and out of character. Finding the right tone with these presentations must be a difficult business. It's not the whole panto and it's not really the kind of audience they can expect on a usual work night. There's only one child. Apart from me, but maturity age doesn't count.
In turn The Fairy introduces us to the cast. Here's the theatre's resident Dame, Simon Foster as Dame Dotty, to provide a musical and dance number. Here's panto and Shakespeare veteran (Black Box Theatre Company) Liam Mellor as Simple Simon accompanied by the all important cow. Here's Kurtis Stacey from Emmerdale as Jack. Coronation Street's Nick Cochrane as King Charles. Abby Mavers from Waterloo Road as Princess Jill and finally Linda Nolan as the show's antagonist Mrs Fleshcreep, who heralds in the Giant through a backdoor, a fifteen foot tall cartoonish costume. Each in turn introduces themselves and their fate in the story. We clap, we boo, we jeer, we laugh and participate as much as a room full of nervous people whose inhibitions have been firmly inhibited after years of experience will allow.
Before long it's over and we retire to the round tables at the back of the room for the cream teas. The Hilton's cream teas are shelved affairs. At the bottom assorted sandwiches. Next up, carrot cake, chocolate, cheese cake, victoria sponge and lemon sponge. Top shelf a couple of scones, clotted cream and a raspberry meringue, augmented by a cup of earl grey. Three of these were brought to the table and reader, I devour one of them all to myself, apart from some of the sandwiches (don't get along with egg mayonnaise, not a fan of prawns), one of the scones (not enough clotted cream) and the bottom half of the meringue (too sweet, too crunchy). I shall not be eating dinner tonight. Or the rest of the week, I suspect. Apart from some possible soup.
Meanwhile, the real press are interviewing cast members who in between their refreshments have their picture taken with each other and with guests. One of the attendees I speak to says she takes a group of children every year and had booked tickets for the Christmas Eve performance as soon as they became available even before she knew what the content would be, because it's such excellent value every year. The relevant information is here. Some shows start at 10am which must be when schools attend and there are three shows a day at the weekend which must require a fair amount of endurance from the cast and crew. Not sure I could do it, especially if it requires the amount of emotional energy we saw in just this brief presentation.