Each year, we at the Caerphilly Courier try to be innovative in our review of the Events Group’s Bishop Burton pantomime. This year we set ourselves a particular challenge as your correspondent was asked to become embedded in the cast. Wikipedia defines “embedded journalism” as “news reporters being attached to military units involved in armed conflicts. The term first came to be used in the media coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.” Now while the Bishop Burton pantomime is hardly an armed conflict, there are superficial resemblances to the invasion of Iraq, especially the shock and awe tactics of the US forces. Being embedded gave our reviewer a very (grammar! ed.) unique insight into the back-stage goings-on that few people outside the cast have been privileged to witness. Being embedded also meant your brave reviewer needed to wear a flak jacket just like John Simpson of the BBC – that was no skimpy waistcoat you saw! That wasn’t the only similarity with the national treasure as he wore a wig that was reminiscent of John’s bouffant hair style (reminded me more of Harpo Marx – ed.).

The pantomime in this 10th anniversary year was Cinderella, an old favourite of the cast and the audience. Do I really need to tell you the plot? Well, just in case you’re from the planet Zog – here goes: Cinderella according to the retired dentist from Johnson’s Pond, Mr Mike Lund.

Prince Cuthbert must take a wife. Dandini, his man servant, is assigned to scour the country for a suitable partner. The search is designed to find someone who can cook and can dance. And a Great British Bake-off and a Strictly Come Dancing type competition is organised to assess the candidates. Deirdre and Myrtle are two ugly (I thought they were very pretty – ed.) sisters who thrust themselves to the front of the queue. A third sister is also pulled in to the competition, Cinderella, who is the family drudge. A fairy godmother ensures that Cinderella is properly dressed for the big ball and has a suitable carriage. Cinderella is the winner of the cooking and dancing competition but is obliged to flee the ball at the stroke of midnight losing a boot in the process. Dandini then has to find her by trying to match a foot with the stray boot. He finds it fits Cinderella and she and the prince get married, and probably live happily ever after.

So how did it seem from the inside during rehearsals? Well, I was very shocked that the actors didn’t always speak the words what Mr Lund wrote. They forgot their lines, made up others and even improvised. In preparation for the improvisation, the cast had rehearsal sessions where they pretended to be actors preparing for a pantomime. Charleyne Wright pretended to be the director, Robin Douthwaite the set designer and Father Christmas pretended to be Rodger when he was away pretending to play golf. Sue Brooks pretended to know the words of the script – impossible, I say. The only one not pretending was Nickie Hoddinott who pressed buttons on the computer for real, producing noises on and off.


Most rehearsals were conducted at breakneck pace as the cast were very keen to get through to the technical de-brief. For this we sat in a circle, drank lots of wine and beer and confessed to things that we’d done wrong or we listened to other cast members telling us what we’d done wrong. The last time I felt like this was at an AA meeting when I was also embedded – What? No! I certainly wasn’t there for real; the editor insisted but I only agreed on the understanding that it was a professional assignment i.e. I was pretending to be a drunk!! Luckily, we mostly retreated to the Altisidora where we could really have a frank exchange of views – mostly about those who weren’t there. A word of advice to potential cast members. Don’t miss a rehearsal or you may find your part is down-sized or changed beyond recognition when you do turn up.

While your reviewer was given free access to most of the production area there was one area off-limits, the ladies’ caravan, forbidden territory jealously guarded by bouncer Jack Wray when he wasn’t being Len Goodman. So while the village web site has pictures of semi-naked men, fully clothed women were the order of the day for those unable to peep into the caravan.

As with most Bishop Burton pantomimes, Mike Lund’s favourite pieces are what he calls “the stunts”. Who can forget “baby-faced” Rodger Middleton popping his head out of the crib in the 2012 Hansel and Gretel? And this year was no exception as an explosive device associated with a spell by the fairy godmother almost brought the house down. Your reviewer was to be found flat on the floor behind the stage sheltering his precious camera. The fire alarm also went off on Friday triggered by the billowing smoke but our masterful MC Trevor Thomas took over and brought a measure of calm and serenity back to proceedings. Your reviewer soon stopped kissing the floor and got on with his job and the fire brigade went home.

Props also played their part in the fun of the show. In what pantomime would a burnt pie, a giant pumpkin, a zimmer frame, a vacuum cleaner and a flowery wellington play leading roles? You might well say, “any Mike Lund production”, and certainly Cinderella was up to Mike’s high standards.

Cinderella was played by Ishtar Elmes, revisiting her role in the original production of eight years ago. She handled all the transitions from cleaner to expert cook and dancer back to cleaner and then to beautiful princess with great skill and won the hearts of the audience, not least because she was about the only person to remember all her words!
Rodger Middleton and Mark Hoddinott (alias Whodunnit, Hottentot, Howdidido ( Ha!ha! – I bet you haven’t heard them before, Mark ) played Deirdre and Myrtle, Cinderella’s older ( ok, I’ll let you get away with that since it was rather obvious in spite of all the make-up ed. ) sisters. Rodger even carried his role onto the golf course on Saturday steadfastly refusing to remove his pink nail polish until after the last performance. I don’t know if he scored well or if he won a medal. Perhaps his Ganton chums can let us in on the secret.

Rodger and Mark were brilliant and brought the audiences to life on both nights drawing the adults and children into “hello darlings”, “oh no it isn’t”, “oh yes, it is”, “behind you” “c’mon you u-ull” routines. The audiences were well deserving of their interval ice creams and “home-made” mince pies (you mean “home-made” like Myrtle’s pork pie? – ed.). The audience also fully joined in for the singing of “Lady in Red” and “Chapel of Love” especially with the skilled deployment of lyric poster boards by Rodger and Mark for those able to read.

Dandini, the ever so camp aide-de-camp or personal assistant to the king, was played with a suspicious excess of enthusiasm by Graeme Pittaway. We all had great fun and he had the audience in hysterics. I can exclusively reveal that he was filled with a sense of impending doom the closer we got to Saturday night – What will the in-laws think? Will they realise this is all an act? I leave others to answer.

The Crown Prince Cuthbert was played with great authority by Richard “Tombliboos” Thomlinos. He really warmed to his task once he learned to dance and drink red wine without dribbling it. I can also reveal a back-stage secret that his original wig ended up on Sue Thomas’ head because he couldn’t keep his crown on while wearing it and he threw a hissy fit until a pudding-basin blond wig was found for him.

The continuing recession meant some actors had to double up on their roles as there wasn’t enough money to pay the wages otherwise. So Sue Thomas and Bryn Jones were required to be both hospital porters and footmen for no extra money! And they had to pull a coach without getting a special horsey payment. It’s just as well Anne and Pete Cattle kindly sold plenty of tickets from the village shop, otherwise no one would have got paid anything.

I have a question to test the observation of the audience. Who played Fairy Godmother and who was Santa Claus? Here are some clues to help you: FGM (sorry about the luvvies’ jargon but it’s catching) was R-w-a-d –r-d-e-a-e- while SC was –o-l-n- B-i-g-w-t-r. Both parts were played with great aplomb – the Welsh connection, you see, look you! And the very funny rusty FGM with her “Fairy Spells for Dummies” text book was an even more notable achievement since our thespian hero only took over the part with three weeks to go. Which reminds of a problem of a minor error in Nickie Hodinott’s otherwise excellent programme – on the front cover picture Cinders is twice as tall as the FGM; in our version, it’s the other way round!

Two main set pieces drove the plot along. The first was the great British Bake-Off style competition to discover who was a good cook. The excellent judges were Peter Frewer as scouser Paul Hollywood [keep that wig Peter – it really suits you!] and Lynn Middleton as the fragrant Mary Berry – who else could look for a soggy bottom with such elegance and decorum? All three sisters tried to produce a nice pork pie – Cinderella succeeded; Deirdre produced a burnt offering worthy of Alfred the Great; while Myrtle cheated by getting her pie from a well-known local supermarket. The cooking process was great fun with traditional slap-stick involving spoon fighting, boiled egg juggling and head slapping with a raw egg.

The dancing ability of Prince Cuthbert’s potential partner was assessed through a Strictly type dance contest. So we had great comedy with Heather Hayward staggering around the stage with a wig that left her half blind and Anne Frewer as Tess Daly struggling to add together the judges’ scores. What an excellent pair of comperes! The judging panel were a lovely parody of the real thing – Jack Wray was most authoritative as Len Goodman, while Gina Douthwaite twirled beautifully and vaguely as the delectable Darcy. Paul Hayward drawled lugubriously through the scene as Craig Revel-Horwood although at times his thumbs were rather ugly (how would you know? you’re only in your first session of dancing lessons in Bubwith of all places - ed.). It’s such a shame that Paul Hankin as the wonderfully effervescent jack-in-a-box Italian (no, for the last time, Paul, he’s not Welsh!!!) Bruno Tonioli managed to waste a glass of red wine over Darcy Bussell on Friday. The post-show inquiry failed to resolve whether the fault lay with Paul’s excess of exuberance, or with Robin for having such a wobbly table, or with Richard for wanting a full glass, or with Paul (Craig) for not holding on to the glass with his misplaced thumbs, or with Darcy for being there on time. Such are the revelations that your reporter can reveal from behind the closed (almost) curtains.

The audience had a special treat before the dance competition proper with a guest appearance by Graeme recalling Freddie Mercury’s famous vacuuming performance of Queen’s “I want to break free”. Your ever vigilant reporter spotted a near disaster back-stage on Friday as Graeme tried five times to get his bra on the right way up as part of a very quick costume change. It’s a shame Emma didn’t let him practice this at home. On Saturday Graeme wore a bra through the whole show – did you notice? I wonder if he didn’t take it off at all between Friday and Saturday. Did you notice, Emma?

The dance competition involved Deirdre and Myrtle “dancing” with unsuspecting members of the audience in a carefully choreographed routine. Some were pre-warned and tried to hide in the auditorium but to no avail. The victims took part with great spirit; well, they had no choice really! It was no fault of theirs that Deirdre and Myrtle could only manage 13 points each from the judges. Cinders arrived from the back of the room as a last-minute addition to the competition. Her footmen must have pulled the zimmer-coach very slowly. Dressed in red, she was able to dance with the Prince while the audience sang along to Lady in Red and guess what? She was awarded 40 points by the “impartial” judges. I think a 35 would have been enough reward but who am I to judge?

Twelve o’clock struck and Cinderella was forced to flee the ball leaving her shoe behind – actually a flowery wellington rather than a glass slipper. Dandini was charged with find a matching foot for the boot so the Prince could marry her. Dandini’s attempts to fit the boot to the feet of Deirdre and Myrtle were hysterically funny but cannot be described in a respected organ such as this. Thankfully, he found a fit with Cinderella enabling his prince to find a queen.

The grand finale was a disappointment to your reviewer. He would have loved to lead the cast in to the final scene – just like John Simpson heading the army’s entry into Baghdad. But the footman from the other side of the York Road (Sue Thomas) got in first. The finale itself also ended in disappointment for the loving couple as the village chapel, the chapel of love, to which the loving couple were to proceed is no longer a chapel but a house. So they have to live in sin instead! Disgraceful!

Now if you were in the audience you may think that the pantomime I have reviewed was not the one you saw. Please remember on Friday and Saturday I could only see it from behind, mostly through a slit in the scenery wall. So while the review could well be a load of twaddle, the behind the scenes insights should give you a different angle. I certainly came to appreciate the actors and the excellent team of Mike Lund (author and creative genius), Charleyne Wright (Director and expert on everything), Robin Douthwaite (stage manager etc.), and a production team of Nikki Hoddinott, Karen Mosley and Anne Frewer, with Sue Brooks (prompt) and Trevor Thomas (MC); they put an immense amount of hard work into entertaining us so royally. I wonder if next year the editor would let me wire up the audience to get yet another view of the pantomime. That’s if there is another, of course…. Oh, please, please, please sir.

 

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