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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
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He's behind you!



Hands up who likes Panto?

Panto, or Pantomime, seems to be one of those institutions that some people are vociferously passionate about - whilst the rest of us feign disinterest yet secretly hanker after being allowed to sit in a richly ornate theatre and yell "He's behind you!" whenever the baddie appears on the stage.

Panto is also an art form well suited to the temperament of the amateur dramatic society.
Everything about it is done tongue-in-cheek, the audience are positively encouraged to get involved, the slap-dash nature of the genre means that even the most outrageous mistakes on stage come across as being 'all part of the show, folks'. For amateur musicians too it's a veritable stomping ground, providing a means for classical players to let their metaphorical hair down and for gaining some experience of performing in the public gaze.

Panto tends to follow a set of protocols. Punning is the order of the day, and punning a-plenty there shall be. Let no pun go unpunned. You get the drift.
Musical puns abound too - the usual trick is to take a popular melody and change the words around slightly to suit the characters, and the plot.
The plot is non-negotiable though - boy meets girl dressed as boy (in actual fact it's even more bizarre given that the boy is always a girl dressed as a boy) and they fall in love nonetheless. Love's sweet course is foiled by a baddie, but aided and abetted by a fairy godmother, whilst a man dressed up as a (traditionally ample) woman sees that all goes according to plan - whilst still having time to bake a few pies. Baddie falls under the amorous influence of the man dressed as a woman, boy/girl thingy whips his wig off at the last (to sighs of relief all round, despite the fact that it's still a girl really) and all join hands for three choruses of 'Happy days are here again'.
Or something like that.

So when I was asked to put together an ensemble of volunteers (there's never any money in these things) to form the pit orchestra for an amateur Panto I did so with no small measure of delight. Naturally we wouldn't have the resources of a professional entourage and from a musical perspective the band often has little more to follow than a copy of the piano score, ruthlessly hacked about and liberally scribbled with directions.
There's always a vain attempt to keep these directions in their correct Italian form, with 'DC al Capo' and 'Con Moto' jockeying for position with 'Presto' and 'Largo' - but in the end even the starchiest conductor has to face the reality of the genre and settle for more fitting directions...such as 'play from here...unless he fluffs the intro' and 'repeat until custard pie'.

We were under the baton of a curiously stiff chap who wielded a small glockenspiel. I wondered what possible use the glockenspiel could be (don't we all?) and was rather amused to find that the conductor used it rather like the announcer at a train station uses a bell to announce that he's going to make an announcement.
This lent our efforts a rather curious effect. At every point where there was a direction in the score, the conductor would ding his glock (not necessarily using the right note either) and yell out the direction - quite possibly under the assumption that we'd fail to read the marks in day-glo yellow on the score. Next time you find yourself listening to a song from a show, imagine a little 'ding' at the end of each verse, and a urgent voice yelling "Back to B lads, back to B!"

After many weeks of rehearsal it's time to 'put the show on the road'. In amateur terms this usually means half a dozen or so performances spread over a week, with perhaps a matinee on the Saturday.
The performance to avoid is the first night - if only because no-one knows where all the light switches are, so most of the Panto is performed in complete darkness...or at best a wash of deep green light - and when you get to the bit where the baddie is supposed to be 'behind you', more often than not he's sprawled over the floor stage left, having taken a tumble over a badly lit bit of scenery.
The best performance is always the last night - when everyone's (a) comfortable with their part (b) well up on the script, and (c) quite possibly drunk.
It's not unusual too to find the band interacting with the cast by this point - which implies a certain raising of the level of bawdiness as the band chips in with impromptu ad-libs.
It's also the time when dues are paid - and there's many an uppity amateur actor come unstuck when the band decides to repay a snide remark by shifting his 'big solo number' up a couple of tones...

And so it was that we started our run.
The first night was disastrous. We were OK, but the cast was ragged - and many a fluff was made, not least of which were in the musical numbers. I shudder to think what the public must have heard, what with the faltering actor stumbling over both the words and the notes to the song, plus the verse order too, whilst from the pit came a cacophony of 'dings' followed by a hapless conductor yelling "DC al bloody Coda! DC al bloody Coda!!" One can only guess at what they thought when, halfway through a tortuous rendition of 'Some day my Prince will come", the ball dropped off the end of the conductor's glock beater and he yelled "Me knob's dropped off! Keep playing lads, keep playing!"

The week continued relatively uneventfully - and then came our final day.
In the course of the afternoon a heavy fog descended, and so I arrived at the venue a little later than usual that evening to find that the drummer had not yet turned up. This was unusual for him, as he liked to get in a few swift drinks before kick-off - but I put it down to his having been similarly delayed by the fog.
The evening wore on, and still no sign of the drummer - nor of our conductor.
Approaching 8pm, and curtain up, I began to panic. Sure, we could manage without a conductor, but the drummer was a pretty vital part of the orchestra.
I paced to and fro in the hall, periodically staring out of the windows in the hope of seeing anything...and then I saw something.
Coming through the mist and darkness were two gigantic headlamps. Slowly and ponderously they approached, and as they drew closer the mist parted to reveal the sedate progress of...a hearse!
The drummer worked for an undertakers - he'd obviously pulled a late shift and had cadged a lift to the gig straight from 'the office'. His drums were stacked in the back of the vehicle where the dearly departed usually resides.
It's not often you see a chap dressed in full undertaker's kit (top hat included) lugging a floor tom and a bass drum out of the back of a hearse whilst clothed in an eerie grey mist - the whole effect being slightly ruined by the drummer shouting 'shite' and 'bollocks' when one of the cymbal stands got caught up on the coffin runners.

So we had a drummer, but still no conductor - and with the clock on 8 we decided to go ahead without him.
The first half went very well - my favourite point being a little bit of 'business' with the baddie.
His scripted part was to fluff a musical intro, blame the band, then pull a replica pistol from his coat and 'shoot' the band....and we'd all slide down the scale a la comedy-style dead musicians.
For the final performance we'd all come tooled up with our own toy guns - so instead of dying on our feet we replied with a hail of cap guns and starting pistols. This clearly put him off his stride, so much so that the only comeback he could think of was to yell "Bloody Communists!" at us.
The public liked it, but to this day have no idea why that was the only ad-lib he could think of.

We finished the first half and retired to our changing room....and there, scrawled across a board in chalk were the words 'You started without me, clearly you don't need me, so you can finish without me'.
The conductor had obviously arrived late and had taken umbrage with the fact that 'the show must go on'.
We were momentarily taken aback at such a passionately pained outburst - until we spotted on the table in front of the board a glock mallet, ceremoniously broken in two.
I nearly wet myself laughing.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Simon Mockett, drummer - 1964-2013.

 

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015