A rehearsal of St Albans panto with Andy Day, Bob Golding, Rita Simons, Jemma Carlisle and Ian Kirkby
PUBLISHED: 08:58 03 December 2019 | UPDATED: 08:58 03 December 2019
If watching good-looking actors sing, dance and lark about on stage gets any more fun than the legendary St Albans pantomime, then how about turning up at a rehearsal for a sneaky peak at the show in the making?
Yes please, stick me down for some of that merriment under the guise of work.
As I approach the downstairs bar area of the Alban Arena, I walk past ex-EastEnder Rita Simons who is sitting on the stairs with headphones in. I ask her if I can take a photo but she is literally in the middle of learning her lines - she learns them by listening as she finds that it works well for her, director Bob Golding explains.
Despite the summer media launch and Sleeping Beauty tickets being sold all year, rehearsals only start nine days before and they are really intense.
The main rehearsal area looks exactly like a scene from Fame and I get instant leg-warmer envy.
The caffeine is aplenty and there is an excited buzz in the air alongside a serious determination to work at a pace and to get things right.
The Jester, Andy Day and the king, Ian Kirkby run through their scene. Andy says: "Ah, greetings! You don't look very happy!" and Ian replies sharply: "Is that all you say? Get your line right!" and they both laugh.
Bob swings between his role as Nurse Nellie and directing the whole thing. Even the audience participation is rehearsed: "Has nobody ever told you not to sit near the front? What's your name?" I call out "Andrew" and instantly feel affirmed as he refers to 'me' throughout the scene, later asking: "Andrew, do you like my dress? Isn't it lovely?"
The musical director is on the keyboard and a choreographer is working alongside at the same time.
Her energy is high and she calls out "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6...2,2,3,4,5,6, then over!" which seems to make perfect sense to the dancers. The director steps in as they work through the scene, telling people where to stand and when to walk across the stage as well as gives instructions like "Don't throw that line away".
When there is a quick lull, I have a chat with panto stalwart Ian about how often they will go through the script and movement. To my dismay, they do it once through, and then they won't be prompted or directed again. A few take down notes but most of it seems to be done from memory.
The odd change might be made as they go and then the technical rehearsal brings it all together.
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It seems hardcore. I learn by repetition and by asking a lot of questions - I wouldn't be any good at panto.
It has to be slick and I can tell how truly professional and experienced they all are. I also realise the craziness of the job.
At curtains-up, the dance moves, the lyrics and the jokes all have to be delievered as if it is the first time yet there will be 56 shows with only Christmas Day and New Year's Day off. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.
I asked Ian how easy it was to keep it fresh: "We would be letting ourselves down and the audience if we have anything other than 100 per cent."
There is a loud noise which I - and I assume everyone else - think is panto-related as the dancing keeps going. After a few minutes Rita said: "Do you like how seriously we take the fire alarm?" We decide there isn't an actual fire and eventually it stops.
I am struck by Jemma Carlisle throughout the morning. She is bolt upright, constantly smiling and seems to know every line without her script. She starts singing a ridiculously catchy song that I am still trying to get out of my head. Her and the prince start dueting and dancing and I almost well-up. I feel the need to go over and tell her how brilliant she is.
She told me: "I've done this show before - it's all quite familiar and comfortable."
We have a chat about how they ward off germs during showtime by a having a flu jab before panto season and drinking hot water and taking cough sweets.
I am amazed how powerful it is without any set or costume, which I talk to Bob about: "Costume gets in the way at first.
"Everything you do and say has a rhythm and this week is about finding that."
There is a clear camaraderie and respect between actors and I can tell they get on really well, some having worked together before.
In their coffee break, Bob comes over to me and says: "That's bang out of order!" I am unsure what I have done wrong when I see him point to a sign that says 'BNAG' on a chair. Ah...you got me there!
After taking far too many photos than I can use and having a bit too much coffee, I wonder if I could make it on the stage... I don't really want to leave and I make a mental note to wear leggings and Ugg boots with a bobble hat more often. I am sure, like any job, it's not all hilarity, especially for the more mature cast members.
Ian added: "It's a funny thing. You feel incredibly tired but there's a saying that a good dose of Dr Theatre sees you right and the adrenaline keeps us going."