A Snow White Christmas: behind the scenes at the Alban Arena panto
- Credit: Laura Bill
It had been a bit of a dreary, rainy morning, and I arrive at the Alban Arena windswept and weary, only for my spirits to be lifted over the next few hours.
I walk into the auditorium where the cast and crew are in full technical rehearsal mode - clearly there is a lot of hard work and concentrating going on but for me it was like entering a magical world after what has been a horrific year. Curiously, the last time I was in this actual room I was here for my Covid vaccinations.
Today is day eight and the pace is fast and focused, and producer and director Dorcas Wood is working everyone hard as they only have 10 days of rehearsals.
Dorcas said: "This is a fabulous cast and we are all having such a great time. Chizzy is doing her first ever pantomime!"
It is her 21st panto and her experience is evident. Clearly in charge and yet approachable and keen to collaborate, I briefly consider asking if there are any jobs with national panto company extraordinaire Evolution.
At a table next to Dorcas is choreographer Aaran Anzani-Jones who is putting people through their paces and reminding everyone to "be on their numbers".
Muddles (Jonny Weldon) is high energy and fun and hearing him deliver the usual lines such as "Come on St Albans, I think you can do a bit louder than that!" feels strangely soothing and comforting.
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I look around to check the other adults in the room are also joining in and decide that the pretend audience participation is probably a key part in keeping up their rehearsing morale and metaphorically slap my own thigh encouragingly.
Chizzy Akudolu (the Wicked Queen) tells me how she is staying in the city for the panto schedule and renting an apartment with Natasha Hoeberigs (Snow White).
We sit down and try and figure out the instant coffee and urn situation resulting in two rubbish cups of 'coffee' and a chat about Covid and the importance of wearing a mask.
"There are some great shops here and some interesting characters," she says.
Approachable and full of humility, I could speak to her all day but time won't allow. She wipes a tear from her eye as we reflect on the last two years and the impact on people's mental well-being and loss of lives.
The band is playing some upbeat tracks, but having to stop and start in order to arrange technical things like where spots are marked out on the stage, making sure Chizzy is not hit over the head by the Magic Mirror coming down from the ceiling and so on.
Then, in come "The Seven" for the afternoon rehearsal. I have a conversation with Jimmy Vee and two women from the ensemble.
Jimmy has starred in Doctor Who and Star Wars alongside actors including Matt Smith and David Tennant. I ask him about his experiences of being a shorter actor: "It was fun. I had done a few Toyota adverts where I had played a creature and then for Doctor Who the prosthetics team recommended me as the producer was looking for 'a short person'.
"Panto is really a Christmas pastime for me. Theatre has become much more inclusive and while I used to find my height restricting, it is less so much the case nowadays.
"Us guys mainly do know each other as it's quite a small world in acting."
Jimmy, 62, said showtime is exhausting and he paces himself to get through it. The Scotsman added that he loves St Albans and remarked that "even the homeless people here are all really friendly".
It is great to see Ian Kirkby as Baron Von Badapple still jovial and secure without his sidekick Bob Golding. It could be an act though!
Natasha appears to be the perfect Snow White - a polished singer, dancer and actor. She tells the producer she has sparkly trainers on because her shoes have gone to the cobblers, to which Ian quips: "And so has your performance!"
With time running out before the curtain goes up, I decide it's probably best to leave them to it, and make my farewells knowing the next time I see them will be on press night. I can't wait!