A sign of the special place Harrogate Theatre’s annual panto has for schoolchildren and families alike is this: with this year’s panto still going strong until Sunday, more than 500 tickets have already been sold for the next one.
Famously praised by Sir Ian McKellan for rejecting the world of ‘adult’ humour and celebrity culture, the Harrogate panto may be a cut above the rest but the emphasis is always on pure fun.
As entertaining as Beauty and the Beast is, surely it can’t be laughter all day long for its cast and crew?
If one man knows the secrets of behind the scenes, it’s Phil Lowe who’s been the panto’s director and co-writer for the past 11 hugely successful years.
There’s a lot of hard work involved, he explains between shows in the theatre’s gorgeous Circle Bar as big queues start to build-up for the next performance .
Sanitiser back stage!
Phil said: “We're clinging on to the festive period! But performing until the second last week of January isn't that unusual in the world of panto.
"I wouldn’t say it’s getting any easier each year, though. We’re already working on the script of next Christmas’s panto, Jack and the Beanstalk.
“The show runs for ten weeks, often twice a day, and takes a lot out of people. Our longest-running cast member, Tim Stedman spends most of the run in the gym when he’s not on stage.
“There’s not many injuries but sore throats and colds are a constant problem. You have 33,000 audience members in total coming to the theatre to see the panto, bringing their coughs and sneezes.
“There’s a lot of hand sanitiser back stage, I can tell you!”
Modern as well as traditional
Harrogate Theatre’s panto is renowned for its traditional, family-friendly approach; it’s something which clearly appealed to McKellan on his surprise visit a few years back.
But Phil said the team were always keen to freshen up the storylines; no easy task when, strictly speaking, there are only eight recognised panto plots to choose from each time.
Despite its reputation, he and fellow co-writer David Bown, the theatre’s chief executive, are also committed to keeping it relevant to modern audiences.
In this task, the dance troupe, mainly youngsters from local dance groups and Harrogate schools such as St Aidan’s, come in very handy, it seems.
“The chorus girls are an amazingly good barometer of what’s current. We like to be up to date but modern references are changing all the time.
“Who’s famous this week is important. The panto is a big team effort which I’m very proud of.”
The theatre’s overall associate director, Phil’s experience in most aspects of theatre goes deep.
I used to be a stage technician. I know they can do it!
If putting together the panto, only one part of a vast range of duties, is hard work for him, he doesn’t let anyone else off the hook.
Take the stunning stage sets for Beauty and the Beast, created by Harrogate Theatre’s own award-winning scenic services department which supplies sets for big shows across the UK.
“The set is beautifully built each time by our team in Starbeck. I love them.
“I know that hate us because they all know I used to be a stage technician!
“I know the layout of Harrogate Theatre and how everything works so when I ask them to do something hard, I know they can do it.
“They know they can’t wheedle their way out of it!”
Cast members often give priority to Harrogate
Despite the tough standards, Phil, David and the team are obviously doing something right.
Harrogate first presented its panto an incredible 118 years ago but the last decade has probably been this Victorian venue’s most golden era.
The cast may have to work hard but a lot of them keep coming back for more.
Phil said: “We’re lucky to have the cast and crew coming back each year. Some of them turn down big roles in bigger theatres elsewhere to come back. Their professionalism is amazing.”
The spotlight in recent times has tended to fall on audience favourite Tim Stedman.
No wonder, currently playing the part of Muddles in Beauty and the Beast with his irresistible combination of slapstick humour and natural crowd interaction, the talented comic actor has been in every Harrogate Theatre panto for the past 18 years.
But this panto legend is not the only cast member who keeps returning.
Something about the Harrogate panto seems to draw them back.
Actress hated panto orginally
Take Katy Dean. Her performance as the arch-villain Mona Lisa with her Only Way is Essex accent is her seventh straight major role at Harrogate and this from someone who originally told Phil she hated panto!
Phil said: “She’s an amazing actor and singer plus she’s willing to put up with myself and Tim for ten weeks!
“I first saw her in a show about speed dating in Derby eight years ago and I said to her “I think you would be really good in panto.”
“She said “I’ve only done one panto before and I hated it.”
“But I persevered and she agreed to play Belle in Beauty and the Beast that year.
“She absolutely smashed it. She gives 200 per cent to every show. The audience needs to like people instantly at panto. We’re lucky to have Katy - and Tim.”
Cast allowed say in the script
Standards are everything for the Harrogate panto, well, almost.
The script is constantly tweaked, occasionally even during the run. It all is genuinely a team effort, says Phil.
“We give the cast quite a loose rein in rehearsals and let them come up with their own ideas.
“Sometimes ideas which look good on the page don’t work on their feet, so you have to change it.
“The format of Beauty and the Beast changed. The fight in the second half of the show wasn’t working so we came up with new ideas in rehearsals. It’s really funny now.”
The ultimate bar for everyone concerned is the entertainment value.
Panto isn’t Shakespeare, afterall, Phil says.
Still, there’s not long to go now on this year’s run and the end is in sight.
As the schedule relaxes a little, the atmosphere behind the scene changes and the hard-working cast and crew begin to dream of relaxing
No rest for the wicked for some, however. For some, the whole crazy circus is about to start again.
Phil said: “When the panto is on, people usually come up to you and say how amazing it was but you can’t rest on your laurels.
“We pushed this year’s a bit towards being intelligent but Jack and the Beanstalk will be sillier, I think. And Tim Stedman's role will be even bigger in it.
“Everyone involved with the panto at Harrogate Theatre cares about offering value for money and not letting people down.
“Or Tim, for that matter, though he is getting older!”
Beauty and the Beast runs at Harrogate Theatre until January 21.