Behind the scenes at Westhall pantomime

Sarah Brealey Westhall could not be further from the kind of village where no one knows each other. And it has a lot to do with the village pantomime, which starts tomorrow and is one of the highlights of the year. Sarah Brealey goes behind the scenes.

Sarah Brealey

In less than 48 hours from now, the curtain will go up, the air will smell of greasepaint, and the sounds will be of laughter and “It's behind you!”

But the venue is a small village hall, and the cast and crew drawn from a village of just over 300 people. Westhall, near Halesworth, is an unassuming place, not populated by am-dram enthusiasts or London luvvies with second homes, but it has managed a pantomime every year since 1991. From Jack and the Beanstalk to Cinderella, via Dick Whittington, Sleeping Beauty and Robin Hood, they have all been written by villagers and staged in the village hall. This year it is Robinson Crusoe, the first time they have had to repeat a script after running out of pantos, though a couple of others have appeared in completely rewritten forms.

But even Robinson Crusoe has seen a few changes since it was last put on in 1997. “We had to make it very politically correct,” says Brenda Smith, the choreographer. So there are no blacked-up faces this time round for Man Friday or the cannibals.

The panto tradition was started by Helen Holmes, a mother of four and grandmother of two who is the exception to the rule, having been involved in am-dram all her life. It soon developed into an important fundraiser, and is now the biggest fundraising event on the village calendar, raising about £2,000 for the church and village hall. Its financial success has put on the pressure to keep going.

Helen, the director, says: “It is quite a large cast to get together. We are not people who belong to am-dram groups, it is a question of rounding up people from the village.”

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But people get involved, even those who have never acted before, because it is a chance to meet their neighbours. In a world where the concept of a community has become a rather shaky one, the village panto is at least part of the glue that keeps it together in Westhall. It is by no means the only village to put on a panto - nearby in South Norfolk there are examples in Denton and Ditchingham - but it is an impressive effort. The production crew are a cross-section of the different elements of village life: Margaret Rogers, the musical director, is parish clerk; Lindy Fletcher, who has done the costumes, is on the community council; stage manager Linda Clifton is on the parochial church council; and Helen is churchwarden.

Brenda, a full-time teacher, says: “It brings people together. We always have two intervals and that gives people time to chat. I think it is a real social occasion. We don't try to make it like a Theatre Royal production - it is a local thing.”

The planning starts in summer with meetings to discuss scripts, and rehearsals start in October. There are always local references - in particular to Tony's Stores, the supportive local shop. Audience participation is also an important element, and those in the front row seats have come to expect that they will have to take part in some way.

Kevin Clouting, 32, is a paramedic when he isn't starring as Robinson Crusoe. He only went to the audition to take his 10-year-old twins Kyle and Bethany, who will be appearing as a sea nymph and an octopus respectively. But he found himself being roped in, despite never having acted before. He said: “I am having a ball. It has been quite a challenge because I have no experience and I am in every scene, but I will definitely be doing it next year.”

Malcolm Rogers, 74, by contrast, has appeared in many of the village's pantomimes, often as the dame. This year he is reprising the role in the guise of Mrs Crusoe. A retired nuclear power station stores manager, he said: “It keeps me away from the television and gets me out and about meeting people.”

The annual pantomime is not without its real-life dramas. Last year Cinderella got laryngitis shortly before the show was due to start, but another talented actress stepped in. This year there was a struggle to find enough cast members, and then no piano player could be found. The show has always had live piano music and the production crew were gloomily talking about having recorded music. But then pianist Margaret Charlton stepped in and saved the day.

Sally Bassett, who is Linda's daughter and is playing the lead pirate, says: “There have been times when we nearly called it off. We have had key characters walk out at the last minute.

“These disasters do happen but it means we overcome them. It is like a panto - good wins over bad in the end.”

tRobinson Crusoe begins on Wednesday, January 30, and runs until Saturday, February 2. All performances start at 7.30pm at the village hall. Tickets cost £5.50 (children £3.50) and are available at the village shop - telephone 01502 575207. Friday and Saturday's performances have nearly sold out but there is still availability for Wednesday and Thursday.