Christmas Juniors’ show time
- Credit: Archant
Once a Co-op Junior, always a Co-op Junior. Wayne Savage talks to two generations of members of the Ipswich theatre company about why it has a special place in so many people’s hearts, especially at Christmas
Alison King, Louise Yule and Claire Dunnett cry with laughter as they swap stories of their time with the Co-op Juniors. Some, involving all sorts of riotous behaviour, aren’t for sharing outside the group. Proving once a Co-op Junior, always a Co-op Junior. Perhaps they don’t want to give daughters Connie, Courtney, Caitlin and Francesca – all members too – ideas.
Alison remembers being one of several witches fitted with tumble harnesses under costumes made from strips of fabric and hoisted into the air during The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Everything was fine until the final flip.
“The fabric got wound round this hook which wouldn’t have been a major problem other than I was a character part at the time and had to get off, get changed and get back on. We’ve got this frantic dresser in the wings holding up this costume and a girl who’s trying to unhook me. In the end one of the older girls just ripped me out,” she laughs.
Flying was Louise’s downfall once too, when she hit a latched French door window hard during Peter Pan and spent much of the first scene trying to keep a straight face as she spun around.
She recalls another when the crew brought Cinderella’s horse-drawn carriage on during the ugly sisters’ boudoir balcony scene, suffering a head injury while picking up a prop in Daisy Daisy, and sister Julie transforming from a mermaid to a girl too soon and her fan tail having to be thrown back on at the last minute.
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Mishaps run in the family.
“I was Alice last year in the Christmas Spectacular and I had a giant book I had to jump into,” says daughter Courtney, who admits to singing around the house all the time. “In one of the dress rehearsals I got stuck because I went in the wrong hole. It went dark, and I was sitting there, and had to wait until the backstage crew could lift me out.”
Caitlin confesses to tripping a lot because she can’t wear her glasses on stage, while sister Francesca says people are always losing bits of their costumes, remembering her stick-on cheeks constantly falling off during a toy soldiers number in her first year.
Like many, the company – started in Ipswich during the Second World War – is in their blood. Alison has been associated with the Juniors for more than 40 years, along with older sister Lindsey, who once played the Queen to her Sleeping Beauty. It became a real family affair. Dad Brian helped construct sets, and mum Janet still works behind the scenes. Niece Ella was a Junior and Alison’s nephew Oliver, who performed in a few summer musicals, is now training at London’s Mountview Theatre School.
Louise performed in nearly 20 shows from the ages of six to 24. She actually met husband Paul, a former member, when they were children in the Co-op Choir, run by Nik Kershaw’s mum. Daughter Courtney has been a member since 2009 and Louise’s son Tristan did a few shows, until football won out. She got involved at the suggestion of her neighbours’ daughter, Joanne Clark, who left the Juniors to train with the Royal Ballet. Her parents soon got in on the fun too, mum with costumes and dad with sets.
Other relatives involved included her grandmother Daphne Godbold – a member of Sid’s Juniors in the days of Pat Monk, when they used old parachutes to make costumes – her sister, Julie, and brother, Adam, which meant Louise’s mum was making a good 25 or so costumes every September and December. Louise’s sister-in-law, Lizzie, cousins Neil, Gavin, Charlene and Damian, her niece, Sienna and nephew, Corey, round out the roster.
Claire was a member from 1980-1989, following in the footsteps of her older sister. Her niece left only a couple of years ago. Daughters Caitlin, who helps teach at the dance academy every Saturday morning, and Francesca have picked up Claire’s mantle, appearing in nearly 18 shows between them. Their cousin is also a member.
“I’m very proud of them and you do get a bit emotional because you know how they feel. I’m probably more nervous watching them than I ever was performing,” Claire laughs. “I often say I know how my mum felt, running me around to all the rehearsals, now that I’m a mum with daughters in it.”
Claire, Alison and Louise laugh off taking over taxiing and late night costume sewing duties from their mums.
“It’s an eye-open,” the latter smiles. “I phoned mum going, ‘oh my goodness’ and she’s like, ‘it’s okay, calm down’. To see them up on stage dancing in costumes you’ve made is extra special, however frustrating the hem might have been.”
There’s always a story to tell, a comical memory to share, a piece of music that takes them back to the good old days, be it flying across stage as Wendy in Peter Pan, shows at Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion, supporting Bob Monkhouse, Showaddywaddy, Little and Large and even a very young Shane Richie. They can see the same already happening for their daughters.
“I’ll always remember the pride of being on the shoulders of Gary Avis as a youngster in my first role as Tom Thumb, when I was about eight,” says Louise. He’s one of the company’s most famous alumi, telling me recently how important the Juniors was in taking him from bullied schoolboy to Royal Ballet star.
There’s also Liam Scarlett at the Royal Ballet, Joanne Clark, who spent seven years with English National Ballet and Gill Grueber, who performed with the Juniors at the Regent, and was dance captain for Disney’s The Lion King and Saturday Night Fever in the West End before setting up her own dance academy. The cast of this year’s Snow Queen worked with Gill recently on a couple of dance numbers.
Jon Clarke started on lighting with the Juniors and is now one of the top lighting designers in the UK, working in the West End, Broadway, the National Theatre and more. He recently lit The Commitments in the West End and Amadeus at the National.
It’s not just about creating stars of the future or even performing. In the case of drama teacher Louise – still a little sad she never made the middle of the kick line – the Juniors taught her everything she needs to work with children and pass on what she’s learnt with pride. But mums and daughters agree it’s the life skills and friends you pick up along the way that makes the company so special.
Caitlin and Francesca love sharing the experience and helping each other practise. Says Caitlin: “Whenever I see Fran on stage it makes me happy. I like how close everyone is, it’s like a big family.” Those friendships, adds Claire, last a lifetime. Even when she wasn’t a Junior Alison’s mum and lots of her friends, many of who now perform for a living, came to her wedding. No matter how much time, or distance, between ex-members you feel like you’ve never been apart. As Alison says, “you simply always belong”.
“It’s clear the Co-op Juniors have passed down great things to many generations,” says Louise. “Once a Co-Op Junior always a Co-Op Junior.
The Snow Queen
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is the inspiration for The Co-op Juniors Theatre Company’s Christmas Spectacular at Snape Maltings from December 2.
It boasts an 80-strong cast, a new stage set which looks like a giant snow-globe, projection, special effects and plenty of surprises - including a walking, talking snowman puppet called Crumbles.
“We developed our own story from the original fairytale,” says director Rebecca Darcey. “We added 24 musical numbers that follow the story of a brother and sister seeking the truth about the legend of the Snow Queen. On their way they meet ice bandits, magical frost trolls, travelling snow people and the Lapland villagers.”
The gorgeous costumes are part of what makes this Christmas show truly spectacular, adds resident director Jeannie Ingram. Working from original designs by Oliver Brett, who also designed the stage set, it’s taken weeks to source the fabrics and make hundreds of costumes.
As the largest youth production in the UK, Christmas Spectacular has to live up to its name. Rebecca Darcy says it’s also about those special moments in a show when the audience gasp with surprise.
“Like when the entire Mad Hatter’s tea party rose up out of the floor last year. We have some surprises in The Snow Queen too.” w