Thursday, 17 January 2008

Pardon me for pointing it out but in actual fact he is, indeed, behind you. Or: Gig-a-Blog™ (Dick Whittington, Hackney Empire)

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

I have sworn a solemn oath not to do any silly pantomime jokes in this piece. And it is no use, Tamsin, you shouting out "oh no you haven't" like that: you will not get me started.

Right then: here's the background.

  • The Hackney Empire's MD (and composer) for this panto and quite a few before it is the rather eminent Steven Edis. He knows Lottie through Haringey music, because his kids have been through that splendid setup too.
  • Steve also knows Stephen Bentley-Klein, a gentleman who among many other talents plays both violin and trumpet, a not-entirely-common combination. As a consequence the panto - which runs on a very small band - is written for a violinist/trumpeter who swaps between the instruments.
  • Unlikely though it may seem, Steve B-K has a regular deputy: someone else who also doubles thus. However you clearly don't want too many eggs in too few baskets here and indeed the dep was unavailable for this winter's panto season of Dick Whittington at the Empire.
  • Hence the requirement for Lottie to step in and deputize for Steve B-K, she apparently being next on the list.
  • In fact it was more than just a touch of depping - Lottie did a total of (I think) ten shows which, while it's nowhere near half, must be a reasonably substantial chunk. Indeed, she was listed in the programme alongside Steve B-K which I thought was very civilized of them.

Naturally as proud parents we trooped along. (Aside: the online booking system was having a very bad night when I tried to book and I pretty much ended up throwing my teddy in the corner. In the end Deb got through on something called the "telephone".) And that's how we ended up sitting in the stalls, within worryingly close audience-participation range, on this particular Wednesday night. There were actually a fair few other family and friends there so Lottie was well supported.

I was thrilled to be back at the Hackney Empire. I was there in the 1980s when it reopened after a long period dark, and I was there again in the 1990s with the Grand Union Orchestra in If Music Could, so it was nice to be back for my scheduled visit for the 2000s. It's such a great place: I really ought to go there more often. You really ought to go there more often. It is an essential London experience.

It was a wonderful show. One of their policies is that they get proper panto experts, the pros, rather than doing that horrible cheesy thing of just using whoever just won some dreadful TV show or something. This policy reaches its magnificent peak in the Dame, Clive Rowe, whose indescribable brilliance defeats the feeble scribblings of this blog: you simply have to see him. He's really quite something; and the hats, my dears, the hats. Oh yes. It seems invidious to mention Clive when I'm not doing the whole cast in detail but let me just briefly say:

  1. You can't not mention Clive. He is a force of nature, an elemental being, not just some quite big bloke in a very big dress and mindboggling hats (though he is indeed that too);
  2. The rest of the cast were extremely strong. There literally was no weak link on stage - everyone sang, danced, acted, and were heroic or glamorous or evil or naive or magical or maritime or pretty or witty or feline or ratlike or simian or merpersonoidal in full measure, and really belted it out in a most satisfactory way.

Production, technicals etc were excellent and it all ran smoothly. There's a great piece of set, a sailing ship which gets shoved around a bit and has a rather excellent, Polly-Pockets-like interior. Oh, and a giant ape, the mode of whose operation gets you guessing a bit.

Edis is a very clever composer. The music is just right in so many ways, and he chucks in lots of quotes so that most people, I guess, will recognize something they like.

The band were great. Well, you knew I was going to say that, but they were. It's just a five-piece but it makes a proper pit orchestra contribution and has other doublings which add versatility: sax and keyboards, guitar and bass guitar. Steve directs and plays keyboards and the drummer drums and it's all very fine. And of course I was immensely proud of Lottie who played well and looked infinitely cool and professional. Most of the paid work I did early in my, er, "career" (aha) was in pit orchestras so I felt quite sentimental about this. (This isn't to say that it's the first time I've seen a von Neustadt kid doing well in the band for a show, of course: but I do think it probably is the first time I've seen one operating there as a professional trumpet [inter alia] player. Which was quite cool.)

And now I'd better try to slow down before this gets overlong: I'm not going to attempt to explain the whole plot or whatever. (Believe me, you wouldn't want me to.) Suffice it to say that the show had all the proper elements, that it was executed with consummate skill, and that it absolutely brought the house down. I was hoarse with laughing, shouting and singing and believe me I was a model of restraint compared to some of my fellow-audienceers.

One thing that I rather appreciated about this show was how it celebrated its neighbourhood and culture: London and Hackney in particular, ethnic diversity: all clearly on the agenda. I liked this. In the 80s when I came to the re-opening it was because I was an arts officer at Islington Council and this kind of thing was pretty much our stock-in-trade but I was delighted to hear it still emphasized right up here in the cynical, hard-bitten 2000s where I sometimes feel that people have lost the plot a little: but I must not preach.

In passing let me add that it wasn't just proud parents and that night's audience who thought the show was great. Others included Time Out, The Times and Sunday Times, Hackney Gazette and others - for more see the Empire's complete list assuming the page is still there.

Lottie very much enjoyed her time at the panto and when she'd finished it was clear that she suffered a little from the post-show blues that we all get - well those of us with hearts do - when this very intense time is over and you're back to being a civilian.

So just imagine how chuffed Lottie was when Steve B-K texted her, asking her to do one more performance - the very last of 2007 in fact, the matinee on New Year's Eve. And as if by magic, seemingly within minutes of her joyously texting him back (yes please lovely jubbly etc) Lottie started to get really quite unwell with all this dreadful cough/cold/flu business. As it progressed this took up and pretty much trashed the rest of Lottie's Christmas vacation, required a couple of trips to the doctor, acquired the tag "bronchitis", and so on. Not at all good.

So then you have a potentially awkward situation if you've agreed to dep but then are ill: and in the specific case of the job requiring such an unusual doubling you may be in real trouble. Possibilities were discussed, including Deb and me going in or Lottie doing the violin and me the trumpet. None of this filled me with delight as I'd seen the part and the complexity of the swapping and cueing and I felt it would be difficult to go in cold and do a really good job. I should add that this was all speculative and hadn't yet been discussed with either of the Steves, but I certainly agreed with Lottie's feeling that it was better to have something up your sleeve, rather than just have the dep turn round and say, "sorry, can't play" and leave everyone else with a problem.

To my huge relief, Lottie deemed herself well enough to do the show and Deb and I were off the hook. Phew. She drugged herself up to the eyeballs and somehow got through it (a small medal is being cast) and a couple more friends went along to see it. All very nice, and well done Lot (and thanks!)

Just before we stop I should mention that I was interested to learn that "pantomime", in the sense of this type of Christmas/New Year show, is not universally understood. Apparently it is largely a British and Commonwealth usage and doesn't work like this in the USA, where you're more likely to be (mis)understood as meaning, er, mime. This is or was covered well by the Wikipedia article on pantomime, so if you do not know what I'm attempting to describe I do recommend that you have a look and that we both hope that the article has not been ruined by Year 10 since I saw it.

So, the joys of Dames and Boys and shouting "he's be'ind yer" and hissing the awful wicked villain are seemingly not widely known in the USA. They're missing out: it was a wonderful evening.

PS Have I mentioned the hats?

PPS The public domain photo of the Empire is by Fin Fahey, thanks.

PPPS The show photo and text logo are lifted from the Empire website by kind permission, thanks.

PPPPS The hats were pretty amazing.

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