Behind the scenes at Kent's theatres this Christmas

The stars may get all the headlines, but where would they be without the backstage crew, the box office staff and the hundreds of volunteers manning Kent's theatres? Kent Life takes a look behind the stage curtain

Behind the scenes at Kent’s theatres this Christmas

The stars may get all the headlines, but where would they be without the backstage crew, the box office staff and the hundreds of volunteers manning Kent’s theatres? Kent Life takes a look behind the stage curtain

Pantos, ballet, seasonal plays: Christmas is traditionally a time when families get together and visit the theatre. But Kentish playhouses offer far more than a once-per-year visit, and the county’s theatres not only provide fun for visitors but also endless entertainment for those behind the footlights.

It’s the people who make theatres what they are. Visiting stars may draw the crowds, but once their light has moved on, it’s the regular crew who provide the theatres with life. A stalwart of the Woodville Halls Theatre, Gravesend is box office clerk Mary Lewis, who will celebrate her 22nd Christmas season at the theatre selling tickets to second and now third generations of families.  

“It’s really nice to see families growing up and teaching their children the fun of the annual Christmas pantomime,” says Mary, herself a grandmother. This year she has seen parents coming in with their children, who were themselves children just a few years ago coming with their own parents. “Pantomime really is a generational thing and long may it continue,” she adds.

Even if you haven’t grown up with a tradition of pantomime visits at Christmas, it’s easy to catch the bug. Cheri Strudwick is marketing and development manager at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells and says: “I have to confess that before joining the Assembly Hall Theatre I had never been to a pantomime!

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“I started at the Assembly Hall Theatre one September and will always remember driving PC Pong and Widow Twankey (it was Aladdin) over to Crowborough to turn on the Christmas lights. They were in full costume and they were cracking jokes and waving at people from the car – boy did we get some strange looks!”

For many theatres planning the annual pantomime usually starts as the current one closes. Organisers put their heads together to debrief, discuss its success, consider how they can better it and start thinking about stars for the next one. By Easter the panto is chosen and an outline cast already pencilled in. 

Pantos and Christmas go together like mince pies and brandy butter, and many theatres in Kent are offering the traditional entertainment. Woodville Halls, for example, is putting on Cinderella with Kim Woodburn of How Clean is Your House? as Fairy Godmother. 

The Churchill Theatre, Bromley has chosen Aladdin with local Kent boy Chris Till in the title role, Don Gilet as a splendidly wicked Abanazar, and Melinda Messenger as the Genie. 

The Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks has an all-Kent star cast for its Jack and the Beanstalk.  Giant Fleshcreep is played by Graham Cole who starred as Tony Stamp in The Bill and not only moves from Sun Hill to Sevenoaks but also from decent copper to boo-able baddie (see also our interview in November Kent Life, page xxx). 

Cinderella pops up again at the Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells with Shaun Williamson playing Buttons. Shaun says: “Panto is a child’s first experience of live theatre so I make a great effort to ensure it’s a special one. Panto combines comedy, drama, song and dance and music hall. It is total theatre and theatre really is my first love.”

But it’s not only the professionals who take to the boards at Christmas. A number of Kentish theatres either offer the opportunity for local talent to take part in pantos, or have their seasonal show put on entirely by non-professional companies. 

In The Stag Theatre’s Jack and the Beanstalk Jack and Princess Apricot are played by local winners of the Panto Factor, the Stag’s own search for pantomimic talent, while Dick Whittington at the Herne Bay Little Theatre has an entirely amateur cast.

The Hazlitt Youth Theatre (HYT), based at the Hazlitt Theatre, Maidstone, is one of the largest in the south east and works in conjunction with local schools to offer a broad array of workshops and support for a vast number of school productions.  Mandy Hare, Theatre and Events Manager at the Hazlitt Arts Centre, comments:  “The future for arts organisation is quite challenging at the moment. I hope that we are able to present shows to the Maidstone public that will stimulate and excite them and so continue to attract the audience numbers.”  Similar concern is expressed by John Goss, Client Partner at Coutts & Co, Tunbridge Wells, sponsoring The Adventures of Mr Toad at the Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells this Christmas. 

John says: “The appeal of Trinity is its engagement with the local community, producing a programme that has widespread appeal, and with an underlying goal to nurture and support young talent regardless of background.”

Amateur interest abounds throughout the county. The Tower Theatre, Shorncliffe near Folkestone is owned by local drama group the Folkestone-Hythe, Operatic and Dramatic Society (FHODS) which held open auditions for Babes in the Wood.  FHODS has been producing pantomimes at various venues locally for the last 40 years.

Pantomime stalwart Peter Heselden says: “I was in the first pantomime Puss in Boots at the Little Theatre, and have been lucky enough to have participated in some of the finest local amateur productions.  I hope to be in this one; what an anniversary to celebrate!”

Not everyone sees themselves as the next Daniel Radcliffe and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved without needing to act. Volunteer ushers at Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells are full of enthusiasm. Carolyn Price enjoys “quality drama on my doorstep”, and Will Berendt, a student of acting at West Kent College, agrees that it’s “a great opportunity to meet the acts.”

Laurence Avis loves film and says that “it’s great to have independent films in the centre of town,” while for Ruth Hancock “Trinity is a jewel.  If you want to keep it, support it.”  Bill Price sums up neatly:  “What’s not to like?!”

Backstage at every theatre some of the staff work on every show over Christmas but never get to see the performance the right way round. Scene shifters, fly-men, lighting operatives and sound crew get to know the show backwards – literally – seeing it from a stage perspective where stage left is the audience right and vice versa. 

Ken Green has been at the Woodville Halls virtually since it opened in 1968 and after 40 years of service still heads the technical and caretaking crew. He recalls that it was back in 1968 that the venue opened to Royal acclaim, when HRH the Duchess of Kent made a rare royal visit to the town, to open the Woodville Halls and newly built Gravesend Civic Centre. 

Dawn Gabriel, operations manager at the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, remembers: “Ee had a show at the theatre in 2008 when the show management requested that the star of the show would like to bring her dog; this of course was fine with us as we are used to unusual requests and happy to oblige with most.

“After the show had finished, I was checking backstage and kept hearing whining noises. It was only when I followed the whimpering and checked on stage behind, or rather wrapped up in, the curtain, did I find what I later learned to be Truffles, a fluffy Pomeranian.

Scene shifters, fly-men, lighting operatives and sound crew get to know the show backwards – literally

“In the rush to clear out backstage, the dog had found his way on stage and amongst the noise clearly wasn’t heard.  Poor Truffles clearly wasn’t cut out for the limelight!”

Running a theatre, particularly at Christmas time is an exhilarating and exhausting job. Woodville Halls Theatre Manager Graham Long has been there for eight years and looks after the day to day (and evening) running of the theatre.

“It is his job to please both stars and audience and ensure that the show goes on. He is obviously happy in his work: “I love my job, I get to meet lots of different people every day, as shows come and go, as well as work with a great team of staff.

“There’s a wonderful atmosphere here at the theatre, one I think you would struggle to get anywhere else. It’s a dream job.” 

What more can you say?


�— Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells and Tower Theatre, Shorncliffe are both located in former churches.  Trinity in the former parish church of Holy Trinity designed by Decimus Burton while Tower is in the former garrison church of St Mark

�— The Hazlitt Theatre, Maidstone was the Corn Exchange until 1955 and is named after William Hazlitt the essayist born in Maidstone in 1778

�— Graham Cole, arch-baddie of Jack and the Beanstalk at The Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks is patron of the new Stag Community Arts Charity

�— The Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks used to be the Majestic Cinema and gets its name from the group campaigning to bring a threatre to the town; the Sevenoaks Theatre Action Group

�— The Theatre Royal Margate claims to be the oldest theatre in Kent and the second oldest in the country

�— The tradition of panto goes back at least to the 15th century. The plot is always basically the same: a girl dressed as a boy is the son of a man dressed as a woman who wins the hand of a pretty girl dressed as a girl with the assistance of various clowns and at least one person dressed as an animal.  Simple really.


Assembly Hall Theatre

Tunbridge Wells TN1 2LU

01892 554162

Churchill Theatre

Bromley BR1 1AH

0844 871 7627

Hazlitt Theatre

Maidstone ME14 1PL

01622 758 611

Herne Bay Little Theatre

Herne Bay CT6 8UH

01227 366 004

Stag Theatre

Sevenoaks TN13 1ZZ

01732 450 175

Theatre Royal

Margate CT9 1PN

01227 787 787

Tower Theatre

Shorncliffe CT20 3HL

01303 223 925

Trinity Theatre

Tunbridge Wells TN1 1JP

01892 678 670

Woodville Halls Theatre

Gravesend DA12 1DD

01474 337 774

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