A night at the opera with PB Theatricals

Jamie Benson as the Pirate King, and James Chetwood as a very modern Major General lead the cast from the rear

Jamie Benson as the Pirate King, and James Chetwood as a very modern Major General lead the cast from the rear - Credit: Archant

Auditioning, rehearsing and putting on a performance in a week is no easy task, Andrew Griffiths reports on PB Theatricals’ annual production in the High Peak

The Major General tugs at the young pirates' heartstrings

The Major General tugs at the young pirates' heartstrings - Credit: Archant

The room is large, the floor is bare and wooden, the walls are painted institutional cream, all the drapes are blue and the bare stage is missing only the lectern and head teacher’s address. The children are there though – about 50 of them, sitting on rows of plastic chairs facing the stage.

We are in the main hall of St Thomas More Catholic School in Buxton, beside the Palace Hotel. It is a Saturday morning towards the end of July and it is audition time for PB Theatricals’ staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s perennial favourite, Pirates of Penzance.

First up is Emily, a twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl. Directly In front of the stage the two musical directors and the director sit at a makeshift trestle table and prepare to make their judgement.

Emily, score in hand, begins to sing: ‘When Frederick was a little lad...’

Her voice is thin and tight with nerves, but the director smiles encouragingly. On she goes.

Pamela Leighton-Bilik and Dan Simmons outside the theatre in New Mills

Pamela Leighton-Bilik and Dan Simmons outside the theatre in New Mills - Credit: Archant

Suddenly the director, Pamela Leighton-Bilik, stands from behind her trestle and interrupts. She wants Emily to change her emphasis, to put the stress on ‘wonder’ in ‘I wonder where we are?’

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Pamela’s American accent sounds strangely exotic in the Buxton school hall.

‘I wonder where we are?’ Emily duly trills. Pamela nods, satisfied, sits down and marks her sheet.


I was expecting at this point to be writing something like: ‘The tension on the faces of the rows of nervous children was beginning to tell...’ but something odd was happening. As the auditions went on, the young people waiting their turn were beginning to behave like an audience, and an appreciative audience at that.

Cornish maidens in the Pirates of Penzance

Cornish maidens in the Pirates of Penzance - Credit: Archant

By the time young George broke into a rousing rendition of ‘The policeman’s lot is not a happy one’ the whole hall was joyously singing along with the chorus. I was starting to think to myself: ‘Ah, they have done this before.’ Call it journalistic intuition if you will, but I am quick on the uptake like that.

And done it before they had. For this was no ordinary production, this was a PB Theatricals production, directed by Pamela Leighton-Bilik. There would be no disappointed faces here amongst these eager young people, everybody who wanted to play a part in the show would be given the opportunity to do so, Pamela would see to that. Nobody would be left out.

And did I mention they were staging the opera the following Saturday, at New Mills Art Theatre? They have one week, from audition through rehearsal to performance, because that is the Pamela way.

For her day job, Pamela Leighton-Bilik teaches and directs educational theatre at the Herbert Hoover Middle School, Maryland, USA, where she specialises in teaching children with special needs. But once a year she comes over to England and stages a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas over a three week period.

This began with the youth production for the Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s summer festival in Buxton in 1997, but PB Theatricals was formed in 2009 and since then Pamela has continued the tradition under this banner.

Schay Wickham as Frederick and Ellie Taylor as Mabel

Schay Wickham as Frederick and Ellie Taylor as Mabel - Credit: Archant

Pamela’s whole life has been steeped in Gilbert and Sullivan. Her grandfather, father and uncle were passionate about the comic operas. She grew up listening to D’Oyly Carte recordings, and attending D’Oyly Carte productions in New York City. She was in her first Gilbert and Sullivan production when she was twelve years old and hasn’t stopped since.

For an American Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic, coming to England must have seemed like something of a pilgrimage. ‘All of a sudden I am seeing these streets and these places that are mentioned in Gilbert and Sullivan,’ she tells me, remembering she first came to London as a 19-year-old student. ‘It was very very strange.’

It is a long way from the D’Oyly Carte in New York City to a draughty school hall in Buxton, but during a mid-week snatched break in rehearsal, Pamela explains her personal philosophy. Pamela believes that Gilbert and Sullivan lends itself so well to her inclusive approach to theatre because of the ensemble nature of the productions. ‘There are no stars in Gilbert and Sullivan,’ she is frequently heard to say.

‘My belief is that everybody in the whole world who wants to be in a show has something to offer the show,’ she says. ‘It could be a smile at the right time or it could be clapping when another kid performs.’

She tells me about one production in The States where she was working with children with profound Downs Syndrome, which some might think limited them in what they were able to contribute. Pamela though profoundly disagrees: ‘They could smile and sway and it didn’t matter that they weren’t able to sing, that wasn’t the point,’ she says. ‘They were not detracting from the show, they were adding spirit to it. And that is what I am after – everybody has something to offer.’

In the production I was following, almost 20 per cent of the cast were classified as having some kind of learning difficulty. This rose to 50 per cent for another production staged over the summer.

I ask Pamela why she insists on working to such a tight deadline, staging the whole show in a week. ‘Because as a child and being a procrastinator, I knew that I did my best work right at the last minute,’ she says simply.

Most children, Pamela reasons, have no concept of time if it just seems to stretch out endlessly in front of them. However, most people can recognise a short deadline. ‘If it is Saturday and I say: “Right, a week from today you are going to be walking out on that stage,” that they get!’ she says, laughing. ‘It focuses them and it focuses me too. I am completely compartmentalised when I am doing this, nothing else gets in there.’

Talk to the cast and the phrase that crops up again and again is: ‘It is like a family.’ Some of the children have been coming every year for ten years, and Pamela has watched them grow into young adults.

‘It is a family, it is working together really hard and really fast, and supporting each other every second of the time,’ says Pamela.

By midweek, the show is really starting to take shape. I call in on the Wednesday to check on progress. It is 4 o’clock in the afternoon and they have been at it since 9 that morning. The cast is clearly weary, but Pamela is standing on a chair, urging more out of the children, her enthusiasm and that exotic, off-the-television accent infectious. The girls find a new lease of life and perform ‘Climbing over rocky mountain’, then the boys take a turn, getting the movements right for ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one’. I am beginning to discover that I know more Gilbert and Sullivan songs than I realised, so inculcated is it in our culture, like quotations from Shakespeare’s plays – well, almost.

One of the policemen is a rather nervous looking young man, 18-year-old Dan Simmons. He soon gets into the swing and when I spoke to him later he told me that he had been diagnosed with ‘pathological demand avoidance syndrome’, which is on the autism spectrum.

‘It manifests itself in trying to make excuses, to not do things, and taking part in the production is a combination of trying to do things,’ says Dan.

It is easy to be amused at the thought of a teenager making excuses not to do things, but the joke falls flat when he tells me that a few years ago he suffered from such severe anxiety that he could not even leave his house. It also makes you look at the PB Theatricals experience with renewed respect when he tells you that it is his involvement here that is largely responsible for getting him back out into the world again.

‘It has been amazing to have people as supportive as they are here,’ Dan says. ‘And Pamela to give you the opportunity, and not pressure you. She is incredible, she is absolutely amazing. The amount she puts into it is incredible, for all of us.’

This is Dan’s third year and he is testing himself, taking a deep breath and coming out of the chorus and taking on his biggest role yet as a policeman. Pamela is sure he can do it.

There could not be a better venue for a youth production of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera than the bijou music hall style of New Mills Art Theatre. The lighting and staging look superb, as do the young cast in their costumes. During the last minute preparation, I managed a quick word with PB Theatricals Producer, Gill Hindle. Her excitement at the coming performance was tempered, because as ever with ventures such as these, money was in short supply. They have struggled for the last few years by drawing on reserves, but now the situation was getting critical.

‘If we don’t get funding this year, I don’t think we’ll be here next year,’ she told me. They had a funding application in as we spoke and were waiting to hear, and I was genuinely pleased when I had a call from an excited Gill a few days later to say that their application had been successful to Foundation Derbyshire, an independent charity which administers a small amount of funds on behalf of Comic Relief. So hopefully, Pamela Leighton-Bilik will be able to make her annual trip next year and keep the Company alive – and the family together. In the great tradition of the theatre, the show will go on.

‘I am not training actors here, although if it happens that is wonderful,’ she explains. ‘But I am training them to be confident professionals. I am teaching them that life is about meeting deadlines but not letting deadlines control your life. It is real life, because in real life if you don’t pay your mortgage or your rent on time, you have a problem. But once they have done something like this, they have a frame of reference, they are able to say to themselves that: “I can do this, I really can.”’

And in ‘The Pirates of Penzance’, on that stage in the New Mills Theatre, Dan the policeman took a deep breath and found out on the night that he could indeed do this. That he was, if not a star, then a highly dependable ensemble player – in short, a good family member.