Scene from the other side of the panto

Millions of us look forward to seeing a Christmas pantomime every year, but do we ever spare a thought for the work that it takes to ensure things go with a bang? Tara Greaves went behind the scenes at a production of Sleeping Beauty at Norwich’s Theatre Royal to see just what goes into making sure we roar with laughter.

It is seconds before curtain up and the wings of the Theatre Royal are a picture of calm. At this point, to stay true to form, there should probably be a cry of 'Oh no it isn't', but the fact is – to my untrained eyes, at least – the stage looks set, the cast is in place and the crew is primed and ready to move into action.

Throughout the production the actors and crew work as a team to make a seamless production, which the audience clearly adores.

But while they make it look easy, there is little doubt that it has taken many months of work to get it to this stage, and even after six shows the production of Sleeping Beauty is still evolving and changing.

Few adults sitting in the audience, enthusiastically joining in with the boos and hisses aimed at Morgan Le Fay, cheering for Muddles or ahhing at Briar Rose, could imagine what it takes.

There are seven in the lighting crew, eight in the stage crew, several dressers, chaperons for the panto babes, a stage manager and a deputy, together with countless other staff (both in front and behind the stage) – not to mention the cast.

It is the first time in the theatre's recent history that the tale of a princess cursed to sleep forever unless a handsome prince can save her has come to the theatre.

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But it certainly seems worth it in terms of revenue, and this year the panto looks set to break last year's box office record of about £596,000.

Rikki Jay, who appears as Muddles and also co-wrote the show with Richard Gauntlett, explained work starts on next year's production during the current one.

"It is a long process. I write with Richard but it is getting more difficult because I am spending time in Los Angeles and he is in the West End, so we do a lot by e-mail.

"The deadline for the script is October 31 and I think we've got it in by then once. When we go into rehearsals the script is also fined tuned and a lot is rewritten."

The cast has just three weeks of rehearsals, which seems like an incredibly short time to me, but members of the cast tell me this is actually quite a long period.

They spend two weeks working at the Garage, opposite the theatre, and then for the last week they get to use the stage.

Mr Jay added: "Panto is great because it is usually the first time kids attend the theatre, and if they like it they will want to come back and see other things."

And Sleeping Beauty certainly got a thumbs-up from the audience – from both children and adults.

Five-year-old Harry Darley thought Muddles was funny but also liked Merlin the Wizard, played by David Gant, while Marina Ebbage, six, liked Morgan Le Fay.

Her mother Beverley said: "She has been coming to see the pantomimes since she was three and I think they get better each year.

"The nice thing is they work on many levels because there are puns and current stuff that adults get but then there is also the booing and hissing and fun bits to entertain the children."

As the curtain falls and the cheers of the crowd die away, there is still work to be done. And for the cast and crew it is only a matter of hours until they do it all over again.

For tickets to see Sleeping Beauty, which runs until January 22, call the box office on 01603 630000.

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