I’ll spare you the first “Oh yes it is!” of the season, but it’s panto time. As always, Chipping Norton leads the way, and as I arrive at the Theatre, this year’s Chippy Panto, Jack and the Giant, is in its first week of rehearsal. Up in the attic studio, it’s noses in scores, and fingers on guitar strings and flutes for a music rehearsal. “This year for the first time the entire cast are actor-musicians and multi-instrumentalists, so it’s like having a full-sized band on stage,” director John Terry explains. In charge in the attic is composer Oliver Birch, who is cracking through the songs.
“That’s fine, thank you,” Oliver says as the cast reach the end of There’s a First Time for Everything. “Has everyone got the score for the second section? It’s to get the audience going after they’ve finished their interval ice creams.”
You don’t have to watch the Chippy rehearsals for very long to realise cast members have a great deal to assimilate in a short space of time. “You do have to learn an awful lot of stuff,” Rachel Dawson, playing Jack, agrees. “The first week of rehearsals is just overwhelming, but I’m sure it’s very good for our brains. Musically, I’ll be playing mainly double bass, and a bit of cello — I’ve been playing the cello since I was about three. I had a sixteenth-size cello when I started. All my family are professional musicians, so I was brought up in that environment.”
That will certainly help Rachel in this, her first panto. It’s also a first for JJ Henry: it’s his maiden outing in frilly frocks and elaborate coiffeur as he plays Dame for the first time. Dames tend to come in two versions — they are either well-upholstered and jolly, or they’re pinched, mean, and forever grumbling.
“I’m definitely going to be well upholstered,” JJ reveals with glee. “One of the most enjoyable parts of this first week of rehearsals is stuffing and restuffing the bras I’m going to be wearing. I believe they are going to have to be more, shall we say, structurally supportive than a normal bra. I’ve got a wonderful Dolly Parton costume too — sort of pink and cowgirly. And a big blonde wig. I believe there’s going to be a cheese headpiece too — Dame Trot is a milkmaid. “My father is a dairy farmer, so he was very pleased when he found out that I was playing a milkmaid. He wanted me to help with the milking for real when I was a kid. But the smells and everything of real farming were not for me. I’d much rather dress up in women’s clothing and pretend.”
JJ was introduced to panto at an early age, he tells me, when his grandad took him along to the Hawth in Crawley.
“The star was Joe Pasquale, and I guess he was playing the Buttons character. I remember him singing ‘I know a song that’ll get on your nerves, get on your nerves’, and I sung that all the way till the next Christmas. I really annoyed my whole family, but I thought it was the most hysterical thing I’d ever heard!”
At this point JJ is called back to rehearsal, for it’s time for him to try out one of scriptwriter Ben Crocker’s jokes: “I’m a poor widow woman, but I’m always on the look-out for a new fella,” Dame Trot announces. “I’ve even started going clubbing, I have. That’s the way to get a man I can tell you. Mind you, I always take a big club…”
Truly the panto season has begun.