Get ready to rock it’s panto time

Set designer Barney George

Set designer Barney George - Credit: Archant

The New Wolsey Theatre’s rock’n’roll pantomime has a well-deserved reputation for offering family audiences something a little bit different. This year’s show breaks new ground. Andrew Clarke spoke to writer-director Peter Rowe

Sword in the Stone cast

Sword in the Stone cast - Credit: Archant

For the unwary, would-be panto writer it would seem an easy task to rustle up some seasonal mayhem. Surely all you need to do is change the setting each year, throw some bad jokes and popular tunes into the mix and then just re-costume your dame and a couple of hapless villains and you have a licence to print money?

New Wolsey artistic director and creator of the rock’n’roll pantomimes Peter Rowe knows that such a cynical, glib attitude will lead to disaster.

This year sees the premiere of a new rock’n’roll pantomime, The Sword in the Stone, and it’s the first time away the story strays from the traditional fairytale world which has been the staple of the British panto since the Edwardian era.

For Peter, the unveiling of The Sword in the Stone, his eighth show, is a big deal because he believes that you have to take just as much care with a pantomime as you do with any other musical. Something has to be happening on every part of the stage for every minute of the show in order to keep the energy levels up for both audience and performer.

The sheer amount of invention needed is breathtaking. Peter never takes the annual pantomime for granted and each year he is aware they have to not only match but top the year before.

This then is the background to the premiere of this year’s addition to the rock’n’roll panto canon.

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Peter explains that he felt he needed to stray from the fairytale path in order to find the right combination of elements which allows a panto to work.

“One of the reasons why there has been such a long gap between the last one I wrote, which was Beauty and the Beast, and this one is because I couldn’t think of another traditional panto title. I was drawn to the story of Arthur because we were brainstorming about what other stories had the elements which you need to make a good pantomime.

“The shows I haven’t done are Mother Goose and Puss in Boots, which haven’t really appealed to me, and Sinbad which is just a load of adventure sequences strung together.

“The main element which a rock’n’roll pantomime needs is a strong love story because an awful lot of the great pop songs are about love. For a rock’n’roll panto to work you really do need a genuine love story at the heart of it and that is something that ruled out some of those other more traditional pantos as well.”

He still harbours a desire to do a pirate rock’n’roll panto, but has yet to discover a story to deliver the necessary love interest.

“A story like Treasure Island is much too complex a story to work, but I would still like to do a pirate panto one day.” Making each show different is part of the fun for both the creative team and the audience. It’s important the key elements are present but each show also offers something unique.

“I think each show has a different flavour because of the story. This one is much more an adventure story. It’s a growing up story as well. This one is very much about three kids who we follow growing up into young adulthood.

“It seems funny to be talking about that in terms of panto but that is what it is about. What we love about the rock’n’roll panto are the songs and you have to earn the right to sing the songs, particularly the songs with a deep emotional content. You can’t treat them cheaply. You can’t disrespect them, so you have got to have story that says something, that has substance, which allows you to give them their proper weight.

“Having said that you can put songs in there to deliver a wonderful musical pun and there’s great fun to be had hearing the audience groan when you show that you’ve had the nerve to do that but for those big emotional numbers you’ve got to true to the intent of the songwriter because you are using them to deliver that emotional weight.”

The perfect mix for a rock’n’roll panto, he says, is a blend between a normal piece of contemporary musical theatre, a traditional pantomime and a superior covers band gig.

“Happily the writing gets easier with experience. This took me less time to write than some of those earlier ones and that’s probably just the experience coming through. For me the pleasure of writing them is to find the songs that really do fit the story. That happens as I am stitching together the scenario of the story – songs will occur to me and sometimes I check the lyrics, and occasionally I’ll find that the bit I remember goes really well, but there’ll be a section that I’ve forgotten about which doesn’t fit at all, and you have to find something else. But it’s amazing how many do pop into your head as you are writing.”

Peter has been working on the development of the show, off and on, for most of the year in between other projects.

“I started off by working out a scenario, working out where the songs were going to sit and then talking to the designer about the demands of the set. This year, because the story moves to a number of different locations rather just staying in the castle or the Dame’s cottage, I needed to know what was possible.

“I was telling him that I could change the writing if we needed the set to move in different ways. The shows moves to a variety of locations so it makes some big demands on the designer but it should be spectacular for audiences.”

This year Merlin is the audience’s guide through the action. Morgan Le Fey is the villain and Guinevere is the love interest.

“There is the notion in the original story that Merlin is living his life backwards so we have a little fun with that. He knows the future and he’s working backwards but I am saying no more.

“We’re including some hand magic, there’s the sword in the stone obviously and there’s a rather magnificent dragon guarding the sword at one point which the Dame has to lure away, so all the elements are there for a terrific show.”

The Sword In The Stone runs at the New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich from November 26 to January 30, 2016.