Centre Stage column with Harrogate Theatre's chief executive David Bown
2016 has been the year of the underdog, or perhaps more the unexpected, so I'm told. Leicester City football team, Brexit, Trump, Ed Balls, Honey G'¦ Jackie Solly (one of our lovely cleaners) not attending the Christmas party.
Well, 2016 here at Harrogate Theatre has ended as the year of the understudy.
Our pantomime Dick Whittington kicked off on Friday, December 2 and by the evening of Saturday, December 3, two understudies were on stage and another cast member hospitalised.
Alice Barrott and Maisie Hall stepped into the parts of Alice Fitzwarren and Tommy the Cat respectively and were flawless throughout their first performance – all at the drop of a hat’s notice in performances that required song and dance.
Since then Georgina Greenhall has taken over the part of Tommy on a semi-permanent basis until our actress Harriett Hare recovers.
Alice, Maisie and Georgina are all Harrogatonians and have grown up dancing in our pantomimes over many years. Not only was it a relief to see them get through their first performance, it was also an immensely proud moment for all the staff and of course their families.
I think a lot of credit has to go to Phil Lowe, the director, who decided to cut the traditional part of the Alderman, make another female role much stronger and free up resources so we could afford an understudy.
Not to mention the extra time he, the cast and the crew put in to the intense, but necessary, rehearsals needed when something like this happens.
The pantomime is so important to the financial well-being of not just Harrogate Theatre, but most provincial theatres.
One cancelled show, for whatever reason, is worth thousands in lost revenue. So it’s wise to have a plan B in place when illness kicks in.
Also, the money that is generated at Christmas allows many theatres to take artistic risks throughout the rest of the year.
If it wasn’t for the men in silly frocks during the festive period, we wouldn’t have the Chekhov’s, Shakespeare’s and new plays across the rest of the artistic programme.
Whilst I’m on the subject of understudies, there are a couple of others that I’d like to mention. Dave Robertson, who many of you may know as our jovial duty and operations manager working front of house, was also an actor in a former life.
He actually played the King in Jack and the Beanstalk here four years ago and the last time we produced Dick Whittington he took on legendary Tim Stedman’s role, Idle Jack for two weeks, when Tim fell ill. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that’s a fairly nerve-wracking assignment to be confronted with.
Also, the year before in 2009, Dave walked on stage with script in hand, on Boxing Day, at a couple of hours’ notice and gave a much appreciated performance of Abanazar in Aladdin when Tom Peters was taken ill.
I have so much admiration for those that have the courage and grit to say “yes” in such circumstances.
Of course there are many stories of it being a big break moment. From Katharine Hepburn to Woody Harrelson, from Dustin Hoffman to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, from Jane Horrocks to Michael Sheene who were all understudies that got the big break and went on to stardom. However, one a little closer to home was our own Lara Denning.
In my first year at Harrogate Theatre back in 2004, the actress playing the principle boy in Mother Goose fell ill. Our choreographer Nick Winston recommended Lara, a then drama school undergraduate, who he thought could possibly take on the role at very short notice.
A matinee was cancelled and Lara hopped on a train from London. She mastered the whole part including dances and songs in just one afternoon. She went on that evening “off script” and didn’t put a foot wrong.
Lara has since starred in four Harrogate pantomimes and many West End shows including Matilda (which saw her perform in a Royal Variety Performance) and she now has a leading role in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, which is playing at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and transfers to Broadway next spring.
Finally, back to this year’s pantomime Dick Whittington. Despite the uncertain start, press night was a huge success and the show has received tremendous reviews and feedback. So, well done to all the cast, crew, creatives, marketing, front of house, box office and everyone that puts in so much effort each year to make the pantomime the special show it is.
There are still a few tickets left for most performances over the Christmas period and good availability in January, so do try and pay us a visit over the festive season. You won’t be disappointed.