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Dick jokes (and sings and dances)

Panto Launch: DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th September, 2016

 

Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for the Hippodrome’s pantomime.  This year it’s Dick Whittington and appearing in the title role is the irrepressible all-rounder John Barrowman, star of stage, screen and page – he’s also an author now, writing in partnership with his sister Carole.   I’ve been a big fan from way back in the days of Going Live!  and I first saw him on stage in Sunset Boulevard – and I’ve been low-level stalking him ever since.

Also appearing are The Krankies, with whom Barrowman has built up a rapport having appeared with them in panto in Glasgow.  Musical theatre star Jodie Prenger will be Fairy Bow Bells.  Perennial favourite Matt Slack returns for the fourth year running to play Idle Jack, and King Rat will be none other than Phil Mitchell himself, EastEnders favourite, Steve McFadden.

dick-whittington-2016

I got to hang out with John Barrowman on a splendidly gaudy throne.  What follows is a transcript cobbled together from our chat and a general Q&A session.

Q. Hello, I’m William. I write a blog called Bum On A Seat.

John Barrowman:  Congratulations!  Put your bum here.

We take the obligatory selfie (“Smile, William!  Smile!”) and I tell him I’m looking forward to him giving his Dick to Birmingham this Christmas.

JB: I’m looking forward to giving it.  All over Birmingham.

Clearly the man is up for tiresome innuendo as much as I am.  And that laugh is infectious.  Barrowman is a bath bomb of a man, filling the place with his personality.

Q. John, you spend a lot of time here and a lot of time in the States. You straddle the Atlantic.

JB. There’s a joke for the panto right there!

Q. Why hasn’t panto taken off in the States? Why hasn’t it exported well?

JB. They don’t understand it. They see the dame and they think it’s a drag queen, which is a whole different type of performance.  They don’t understand the humour, they don’t understand the irony; it’s a British thing.   When I came back to the UK in 1989, I kind of looked at it and I thought, what is going on?  But now I get it.  I totally get it.  I love that we comment on social things, local things and political things.  We make fun of the audience and of ourselves.  People in the UK get pantomime, they get the humour.

Q. And what do you think of the Birmingham audience?

JB. I love being here. I love the people – they’re very welcoming. When I do my concerts, they sell out – I do two nights.  I love shopping in Birmingham.  The German market over Christmas is just amazing.  Birmingham people love the tradition of panto and that’s what brings me back here.  Birmingham has always wanted me back and that’s a thrill for me. Birmingham in winter, it’s really cloudy and dull but the people are friendly and warm and there’s always a smile when you walk down the street.

Q. Will you be attempting a Brummie or Dudley accent this time?

JB. Absolutely not! I’m terrible.  The Cat’s going to be Brummie.  I don’t know who’s playing the Cat yet.  I’ve asked for someone very hunky.

Q. Do you find that people travel to see it, because it’s you?

JB. I have an international audience that comes from as far away as China. France… From Germany, from South America…and the States, and Canada…from all over, and it’s not just two, it’s group-loads come. And they don’t come once, they come every night. And the one thing they have to – I’ve told them – they’ve tended to laugh before the joke, because they wanted the audience members to know they knew what was coming, and I had to tell them, Stop! Because he (Ian Krankie) would come off and he’d go, They’re fucking blowing the jokes again, and he’d say, Can you tell your fucking fans to stop blowing the jokes?  I had to go on Twitter and say stop laughing.  He’s not getting to say the tag lines.

Q. What’s it like working with The Krankies?

JB. They’re a national treasure. I’ve worked with them for five – six years.  The reason it does work is there’s no egos.  We’re there to have fun.  We’re like a family.  We have our arguments but we fix it and move on.  The chemistry – I can’t explain it – but when you see it, you’ll wet yourself.  Part of the show is what happens in the wings.  If those two go off script, I’ll chuck one on stage.  If things go wrong, we tend to keep it in – the audience think it’s happening for the first time, but if it works, we keep it in, and that’s how it develops.

He is keen to speak out against those who might deride panto.  With the Krankies at hand, his accent reverts to his native Scottish.

JB. Listen, anybody who takes the mickey out of people who do pantomime, they need to have their arses kicked, because this is the hardest – one of the hardest things in theatre and in the entertainment business to do because you’re doing two shows a day, consistently, you have to maintain that over the course – even if you’re sick. Energy levels have to be up; you cannot waver.  And, you know, people – some people come in and they do it for the first time, they get a shock.

I refrain from making a remark about the stamina of his Dick.  Just about.

Q. What can we expect from this Dick Whittington?

JB. The end of Act One – just a tease: I’ll be upside down… (suggestive grin)

Director Michael Harrison adds: King Rat will have the biggest rat.  The end of Act One will not be the usual Dick Whittington dream.  3D is back: there’s an underwater sequence.  The special effects have become as much a part of the show as anything else.

Rehearsals begin at the end of November.  A rough draft will be given to everyone for them to bring ideas, for routines, for songs.  It all sounds like a lot of fun and almost makes me wish I was on the other side of the curtain with them.  I can’t wait to see it but for today I’m glad of the chance to meet a real favourite.

Dick Whittington runs from Monday 19th December until Sunday 29th January.  Tickets are available now on 0844 338 5000 or from birminghamhippodrome.com

barrowman-and-shakespeare

Together at last: Barrowman meets Shakespeare

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Chuckles, Cotton and Pan

PETER PAN Panto Launch

The Molineux Centre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 3rd September, 2015

 

The Grand Theatre’s pantomime this year will be Peter Pan, starring the indefatigable Chuckle Brothers as a pair of hapless pirates, Paul and Barry Smee, and EastEnders’ John Altman as Captain Hook. First though, I meet newcomer Ross Carpenter who will be flying high in the title role.

Only 22 years old – but he doesn’t look it – Carpenter is a personable young man whose boyish good looks make him great casting. “All my family and friends call me Peter Pan,” he says, “because I’m like that anyway.” He says you have to be Peter Pan in real life to make Peter Pan believable; the role is “a heightened version of myself.”

No stranger to the wires, Carpenter first played the role last year in Northampton and admits the flying is daunting at first but it’s the best part! Now, I may be a boy who never grew up, but I’ll leave all the aerobatics to him.

Ross Carpenter IS Peter Pan

Ross Carpenter IS Peter Pan

Next up, I encounter TV’s Nasty Nick Cotton, John Altman who is of course much nicer in real life. (That’s what acting means, William). I ask how he’s going to approach Hook and he tells me he won’t necessarily be Cockney – although there will of course be Nick Cotton references. Pirates of the Caribbean-y, he says, a roguish pirate. He is keen to point out that he doesn’t regard himself as typecast in the role of villain, and when you look at his CV you see there is more to him than Soap’s nastiest baddie. I ask about musical theatre roles and he reveals he’d like to try something like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Walking around with Nick Cotton’s face is all right, he says. “I was worried when I first took it on but it’s OK.” He avoids pubs at closing time when people might get a bit lairy, so it does affect decisions about where to go and when, but on the whole, it’s good.

I ask about Shakespeare. “Yes, good question.” He’d love to do it but never has. He feels ready for it now. “When you study Shakespeare as a child you don’t appreciate it, you don’t understand most of it: the love story say of Romeo and Juliet, and the rival factions. You don’t realise that’s something that goes on all the time, all over the world.”

I say I can easily see him as a Richard III.

“Thank you. Or Shylock maybe. That’s something I’d like to try.”

There is something about Altman, beyond his warmth – a hint of wickedness, perhaps. “I’ll be striking fear into the hearts of the Wolverhampton peasants,” he says. And you believe it.

Slinging his Hook: John Altman talks to Jason Forrest.

Slinging his Hook: John Altman talks to Jason Forrest.

Paul and Barry Chuckle greet me with a twinkle in their eye. “It’s great to be back,” says Paul (not the small one, the other one), “We love Wolverhampton.”

Astonishingly, it will be their 49th year in panto. Add to that one they made for the telly, and Peter Pan will be their 50th. I ask what’s the secret of their longevity. “We won’t go!” laughs Paul.

Brother Barry adds, “The comedy we do is for everybody, across the board. That’s probably why we’re still going.”

Paul: We never do stuff for kids. Or for mums and dads. What we do is for everybody. If it’s not funny, we won’t do it.

As influences they cite their own dad, who was a gang show performer, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, and Abbott and Costello.

I ask them to describe pantomime to someone who has never heard of it, a Martian perhaps, or an American.

“Fun,” says Paul. “In our pantos that’s all we aim at: comedy. It’s a fairy story –

“With laughs and a few songs thrown in,” Barry finishes the thought for him. Audiences can expect a lot of laughs, pies in faces, and nothing but fun.

Producer Michael Harrison says he sees pantomime as a distinct art form, like opera and ballet. “There are some people who can do it, and some that can’t.” Judging by the line-up I’ve met so far, I’d say this particular panto is in very safe hands.

Peter Pan runs at the Grand Theatre from December 12th until January 24th. I can’t wait!

To Smee, to you: Barry and Paul Chuckle.

To Smee, to you: Barry and Paul Chuckle.


A Season Has Been Arranged

SUMMER PLAY SEASON LAUNCH 2013

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 30th May, 2013

 

It has become something of an annual tradition for the Grand to house a month’s worth of plays from Ian Dickens Plays, four weeks of varied fare including, of course, the obligatory murder mystery!  The season kicks off on Tuesday 25th June with Simon Brett’s comedy Murder In Play (which I caught in Malvern last night – read my review here).

Before the launch began, I had a chat with the actor Dean Gaffney.

Dean Gaffney

Dean Gaffney

Congratulations; it’s a very funny show.

DG. Thank you very much.

I’ve seen you in a few things; I think the last one was in Derby…

DG. Ah, yes…

I saw it before the fateful night (In January Dean’s car got up close and personal with the central reservation of the A38) So are you all recovered from that now?

DG. Yes, I mean at the time it was – something like that happens and you think, Am I going to work again?  The nicest thing, as you can probably tell, now is the scar has healed quite a lot and it’s only been four months – so I’m very lucky to be here.

Because I wondered, Has he read my review?  Is that what’s driven him off the road?

DG. Ah, funny!

Did you approach Murder in Play differently to the previous one?

DG.  The previous one is an Agatha Christie so it’s very stylised; it’s very stuck in the 1920s and 30s, and it has to be… you know.  So many people love Agatha Christie – which I found when I did an Agatha Christie about four years ago.

I saw that one as well. The Uninvited Guest?

DG. The Unexpected Guest.  That was a different character – that was someone who had learning difficulties.  The thing about Agatha Christie is that they all come in their droves to see it.  Everyone loves a murder mystery and no one does it better than Agatha Christie.

There is a line in the play, isn’t there, he (Director Boris) says touring audiences will come to see anything with ‘murder’ in the title.

DG. That’s right.  And I think with this one, you’ve got the play-within-the-play, very stylised back in the 1920s, but when you come back into real time, it’s nice to be a bit more casual, a bit more, you know, not so R.P.  So yes, it’s a very different play.  I have a lot more lines in this one I have to say but there’s more … you can relax a little bit more.  Because it’s a comedy as well, I enjoy it more.  I loved doing the Agatha Christie but there’d be times when you’ll be doing a scene and you’ll go, I’ve got another hour and a half!  But the good thing about the comedy is it just flows.

Yeah, you’ve got to keep the pace up otherwise it will fall flat.  I enjoyed your twitch, your tic.

DG. Thank you.

Is there something you really want to do? A role you’d like to tackle?

DG. That’s a good question.  I did a play about four years ago that Alastair McGowan wrote called Timing and that was in the King’s Head in London – it’s a pub theatre but it’s a very prestigious one and there was only 30 to 40 seats so they’re literally on top of you.  So that was interesting, but I’d love to do something like James Corden did, Two Guv’nors.  I’d love to do something where people walk away from the theatre and go, Wow! That’s different than what that person’s been known for.  And I think the hardest thing about the business is you only get that when they know you can do it.  You can only prove that you can do it when you get it.  It’s that thing when someone who’s say, homeless, can’t get a job because they haven’t got an address but how can they get an address if they haven’t got a job?  Sometimes you’re stuck in a rut there but the more that you do things – plays like this, plays that people get to see – slowly but surely, hopefully, that door will open. 

I was thinking about people who like to do Shakespeare, to be taken seriously, to prove that they’ve got the chops to do it.  Have you ever had any kind of leanings towards that?

DG. I love things when they’re modern, i.e. on film – what Baz Luhrmann does with Romeo and Juliet.  I love stuff that’s brought into this era and I think James McAvoy did something recently that’s a bit trendier, and I think if it was something like that, I’d love to do it.  It think if it was straight Shakespeare it would frighten me a bit, and I think that’s when people know whether you’re bloody good or not.  I think you have to have confidence in yourself but I wouldn’t want to be hung out there like that.

You’ve already done some Beckett, haven’t you?

DG. I did Waiting For Godot. It was my first job – with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson, and that was good because I was fourteen; I didn’t know what acting was, Jesus!  I was barely out of nappies!  But to learn the craft from two legends like that!  My first job in the West End of London!

Looks great on the C.V.!

DG. Yeah!  To walk around in the middle of that! Obviously I still had my mum and dad with me, but at that age to be working professionally in the West End!

Do you still get called ‘Robbie’?

DG. God, yeah.  The thing about EastEnders is that it’s such a powerful show.  People always say to me, Ooh, do you get recognised in Sainsbury’s? And it’s like you get recognised everywhere!  It’s just part of being in that show.  And I think, yes of course, it dwindles, but I think that show’s so powerful even in 20 years if we were sat here, you’d still be asking the same question, because you’ll never lose it.  There’s certain characters that I might say to you and you’d go, Who are they? But there are certain characters within EastEnders that you’ll never forget.

It’s like Katy Manning’s character in the play.  She’s got this past in a soap that she keeps on about.

DG. Exactly!  That’s the thing about this: people like yourself and actors or people in the business come and see it and they get it.  Some people might go, Why is this old man talking about Richard Burton? In our profession, that’s exactly what the older generation do.

I also managed to grab a few moments with Dean’s former EastEnders colleague Gemma Bissix, also known for her role as glamorous villain Claire in Hollyoaks.

Gemma Bissix

Gemma Bissix

GB. I think I’ve seen you before.

Have you?

GB. Here, a couple of years ago, at a thing like this.

(I didn’t disillusion her but it must have been some other hunk).

I saw the play last night.  Congratulations, it’s very funny!

GB. Thank you!

And well done – it falls to you to turn detective and deliver great swathes of explanation – especially in the second half.

GB. Yes, it’s unusual for a character like mine to have that function.  Usually it’s a Miss Marple or a policeman.

I thought it’s a bit of shame that you don’t get to have as much fun with your characterisation as some of the others do, because you have to play it straight, so that we get all the information we need.

GB.  Yes.  I’m kind of – I’m kind of the cement that holds it together.

This isn’t the first season of this type you’ve been involved with.

GB.  No, I was in  Dry Rot as the maid – and it was such a – it was so nice to play something that was desexualised, you know, because Hollyoaks is so glam, very kind of slinky dresses –

Lipstick and heels!

GB. Absolutely! And to actually play that, to desexualise it completely, and people laugh at you, I find it great.

It shows that sometimes the old plays, they still work.

GB. Oh, absolutely.

You don’t have to be all experimental and controversial.

GB. I think sometimes what an audience needs is that slapstick stuff, they want that, and the farcical kind of thing, and that’s what I think Murder in Play does, even though as you’ve said it’s a Noises Off kind of feel, it’s got that farcical kind of thing to it, hasn’t it?  When they’re coming in and out of the doors…

You’ve got to keep the balloon in the air, haven’t you?

GB. David Callister who plays the director and Richard Tate who plays Harrison, they’ve got such a great double act going on, and it’s not something you might expect from this play at the start but they are – that’s what works, and everybody empathises with different characters – That’s what I love about this play – just silly things – but that’s what I think the audience want nowadays; they just want light relief.  Unless you want to go and see a serious piece like the Agatha Christie that we did – but I think lots of people just want – they come out in the evening – not so far as pantomime season is panto and that’s for adults and children but I do think there is such a big market for farce now because people just want to come and be entertained.

And it’s also thrilling to see something that’s so skilful being pulled off because if farce doesn’t work, there’s nothing worse.

GB. It’s terrible! Oh my goodness!

You’ve got to have the timing.

GB. Or then it’s not funny. Absolutely.

Both actors were then called up to the stage along with Murder In Play co-star Katy Manning and director and producer of the season, Ian Dickens.  The good people of Wolverhampton were not shy in asking pertinent and searching questions.

Question Time. Katy Manning, Ian Dickens, Gemma Bissix, Dean Gaffney

Question Time. Katy Manning, Ian Dickens, Gemma Bissix, Dean Gaffney

Ian Dickens is clearly passionate about his company’s work and spoke frankly and with good humour about the issues raised.  Here is just a sample from that Q&A session.

Q. How do you feel when a theatre is half full – or half empty?

ID. Sad – it means I’m not earning as much!  I work on audience figures of about 40 -50 % capacity in order to bring shows in on budget.  We need to improve the culture in this society of young people coming into the theatre.

KM. Back in the 70s places like this were absolutely packed.

She went on to suggest that people bring youngsters to the theatre as birthday or Christmas presents.

GB. It’s about educating young people, to get them away from reality programmes.

ID. Musicals have made drama the poor relation.  What we have to establish is plays as part of a mix of what a theatre presents.

GB. Plays are considered sort of old-fashioned, because they’re not on television any more.

The discussion – and I hope it’s reported elsewhere – also considered topics such as the state of training of actors and how that has become a business, with the weaker students not being directed into careers more suited to their abilities.  There is a difference between wanting to be famous and doing the job for the love of doing it.

The live broadcasts to cinema from the National Theatre were also discussed, leading to consideration of what a national theatre should and shouldn’t be doing, in Ian Dickens’s view.

On the whole it was a fascinating and rewarding session, going beyond a publicity stunt to entice us back to see the season of plays.

For the record that season comprises:

Murder in Play by Simon Brett – hilarious play-within-a-play

June 25th - 29th

June 25th – 29th

Steaming by Nell Dunn – famous all-female play set in a Turkish bath in London, with ‘some nudity’ starring Rebecca Wheatley and Kim Taylforth

July 2nd - 6th

July 2nd – 6th

The Trouble With Old Lovers by Angela Huth – Ian Dickens’s favourite of the bunch, a great observation of a couple who have each been a bit naughty in the past, starring Peter Amory and Nicola Bryant

troublewitholdlovers

July 9th – 13th

A Murder Has Been Arranged by Emlyn Williams – a ghost story set in a theatre starring Anita Harris and Oliver Mellor.

murderarranged

July 16th – 20th

The plays are visiting other theatres before and after their time in Wolverhampton.

The Wolverhampton season runs from Tuesday 25th June until Saturday 20th July.


It’s a puppet!

WAR HORSE Press Launch

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 14th January, 2013

 

I saw the West End production of this marvellous show not long back and today I had the chance to get up close but not personal with the star of the piece, Joey the titular war horse.

It was a strange moment.  There I was, in the Hippodrome’s bar, sitting among journalists and bloggers and what-have-you.  We had been welcomed by Stuart Griffiths, the Hippodrome’s chief executive, and we had seen a stirring video, a trailer for the touring show.  We were being addressed by Toby Olié, associate puppetry director, when in came Joey, trotting happily to meet us.

Joey is a puppet.  There is no denying it.  You can see the puppeteers.  You can see the cane and aluminium framework he is made of.  But he is life-sized.  He moves and behaves like a real horse.  He breathes!  In fact he does everything but blink and poo on the carpet.  It is astonishing to behold.  The artistry of the puppeteers makes him life-like and naturalistic.  Given that the show is built around a puppet as its central character, something very special is required, if the audience is to have an emotional investment in the story.  This isn’t Punch & Judy, Sooty and Sweep, or even The Muppet Show.

Toby explained how Joey was constructed by South African outfit, Handspring Puppet Company, and how the three puppeteers share physical and emotional aspects of Joey’s performance.  One operates the head, the second the heart, and the third the hind.  It turns out you can be a professional horse’s ass without being a member of the cabinet.

We followed Joey outside for a photo-opportunity.  Passersby marvelled at him as he – well, I won’t say posed.  There is nothing anthropomorphic about Joey.  He behaves as an equine should.

Having seen the show, it was a treat to get to see the puppet up close and to learn about what goes into his operation.  Not only is the form of the show remarkable, the content is also powerful stuff.   There is a reason why it’s now in its sixth year.

It is encouraging to see shows of this magnitude touring the country, and indeed other countries.  You don’t have to go down to London to see everything.

War Horse comes to Birmingham in October.  You can check out where else it’s playing here.  I can’t wait to see it again.  It delivers an experience that Spielberg’s film version doesn’t quite manage to pull off.

JOEY


Prelude to the Mane Event

Disney’s THE LION KING Launch
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd October, 2012

The cinema has trailers to let you know of forthcoming attractions. The theatre has launches. I was lucky enough to be invited to such an occasion this morning in Birmingham’s tucked-away gem, the Crescent Theatre. It had been taken over for the day by Birmingham Hippodrome to promote what will be one of the city’s greatest theatrical events next year: the touring production of the West End, Broadway and global phenomenon, the stage musical adaptation of one of the most successful animated feature films ever.

Gasp.

I make a big deal of it because I’m against a notion prevalent within the minds of some producers, agents and other showbiz professionals that nothing of note goes on beyond the bounds of the M25. That a tour of a show of this scale (50 people on stage, 150 behind the scenes) is now do-able is good news all around the country and is a big feather in the Hippodrome’s cap. If people are attracted to their local theatre by a big show, they may well come back for some of the other, homegrown fare. Theatre can be very addictive.

(Of course, there is a counter-argument that someone more academic than I could posit in a hefty dissertation about the branding of shows and the plundering of other cultures in the postmodern, corporate world. I’m not going to do that here. Perhaps I will be led to touch on such matters when I come to review the show next June.)

These launches are always very pleasant. A glass of Buck’s Fizz at 10:30? Don’t mind if I do. Who attends? Apart from yours truly and various members of the Press, the place was packed with “friends” of the Hippodrome, group bookers, and also representatives from a range of businesses. An influx of theatregoers into the city will bring opportunities for restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and all the rest of them. This is a marketing exercise, after all.

It was also a very enjoyable morning.

The presentation was led by Stephen Crocker of Disney Theatrical Group. Using slides and video clips, he described the genesis of the stage show – a sort of ‘making of’ feature like you find on DVDs. Best of all there were songs by cast members in full get-up. “Rafiki “got things off to a hair-raising, blood-stirring start with The Circle of Life, backed by the Birmingham Gospel Choir. There is something primal, something rousing about this number, coupled of course with nostalgia for the film. Other songs were performed by members of the London cast, as Simba and Nala. We began to see how the masks, on top of their heads rather than over their faces, work.

Crocker demonstrated some of the masks and even in his inexpert hands, the remarkable puppet of the bird Zazu came to life. On screen, director and genius-in-chief Julie Taymor spoke of her eclectic use of Masai dress and Balinese jewellery for example, and the simple but ingenious way animals, plants and even the sunrise are represented. It’s all about theatricality, which is refreshing in this CGI-saturated world. More than that, The Lion King, like any myth, like the Shakespeare from which it borrows, is about people. This informs all of Taymor’s design and directorial choices. It was fascinating. You might say, she has pride in her work. (You might; I would never stoop to such a poor joke.) It might be (well, it definitely is!) a commercial venture, but it’s also about artistry of the highest quality.

And it certainly did the trick with me. I can’t wait to see the show. June 2013 seems a long way off. Start saving your pennies, folks.