Romford Pictures: Hornchurch panto cast prepare for Dick Whittington at Queen's Theatre
PUBLISHED: 12:00 23 November 2013
A quiet backstreet in Hornchurch is probably the last place you would expect to find a boy and his cat on an adventure to defeat an evil rat king.
Though it sounds improbable, anything is possible during panto season.
Kicking off next week, it’s a time for men in drag, tongue in cheek and screams of “he’s behind you!” But why do we love it? And how has it stood the test of time?
“It’s the tradition of it,” says Sam Pay, who stars as the booming voiced Alderman Fitzwarren in Dick Whittington at the Queen’s Theatre from next Saturday.
“It’s like turkey or roast potatoes, it brings the whole family together.”
Director Bob Carlton agrees, and reveals that panto was his first taste of theatre as a child.
He said: “It’s the only theatre I went to. It’s like there’s something missing if you don’t go to see it.
“The dame’s jokes are kind of like meeting old friends.”
Pantomimes have been ingrained as part of our Christmas celebrations for generations, but finds its origin in the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte and the chaotic 18th century Harlequinade.
There are five tradition stories, according to Bob, which include Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, and of course, Dick Whittington.
Rehearsals have been underway for weeks in an inconspicuous community hall, in Newmarket Way, where the floor is a maze of multi-coloured tape marking the prop positions in each scene.
Navigating this twisted-looking Tube map, the cast meticulously go over every line - introducing ideas and one-liners as they go.
Panto can be an actor’s favourite time of year, but playing comedy can be the “hardest thing to do”, according to this year’s dame, Simon Jessop.
His character, Sarah the Cook, is part of a double-act and fires off a constant stream of innuendo, and slap-stick moves, designed to leave children and adults in stitches.
He said: “You can get away with drama because you need silence until the end. This is immediate. If they don’t laugh, it’s tumbleweed.”
Waiting for the laugh to come can be the worst thing to do on stage, says Sam Pay. Who describes panto as one of the “most rewarding” styles of theatre - though the “least forgiving”.
If we’re drawn in each year by the tradition of panto, then what’s in it for the actors? Spending a month playing the back of a cow, or crawling on all fours, two to three times a day isn’t most people’s idea of fun.
But for the Queen’s Theatre’s in-house company of actors, Cut to the Chase, it’s a chance to introduce the world of theatre to a whole new generation.
“Yes, you get into the Christmas spirit,” explains dame, Simon. “But you get very young children who are there and are bewitched by the magic of theatre.
“It’s the only time throughout the year that they might go, so you do your best to keep the theatre flag flying.”
For Sam Kordbacheh, his role is perhaps the most demanding this year, requiring him to channel his inner-feline to play Tommy, Dick’s loyal and trusted cat.
It’s a role that requires heavy make-up and lots of fur, which has seen him sweat off any excess weight under the stage lights.
He said: “My back isn’t too bad, but it does get hot in that costume. I did this role five years ago, so I’m reprising it this year. You just have to know your body.”
Dick Whittington runs from November 30 to January 11, with performance times ranging from 10am to 7pm. To book your tickets, visit queens-theatre.co.uk.