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The cast of Jack and the Beanstalk at The Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells

The cast of Jack and the Beanstalk at The Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells - Credit: Archant

How do Kent’s theatre directors pick the perfect panto?

The Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2LU

01892 530613

Jack and the Beanstalk, 13 Dec-5 Jan 2014

The panto director

Fighting my way past a lively costumed cast gathered around a giant beanstalk in the foyer of The Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells, I manage to track down Martin Dodd, the director of this year’s pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk.

With a new movie version out called Jack the Giant Slayer, starring Ewan McGregor and Nicholas Hoult, the story of the plucky boy, his magic beans and a terrifying giant is back in vogue.

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“We haven’t done Jack in this theatre for a long time,” agrees Martin Dodd, director of UK Productions. He’s been in the business for 40 years – “if you count starting as a piano-accordionist in a concert party at the age 11 – and adds: “Jack was due an outing – and it’s a great story.”

And you have this great big beanstalk, I point out, indicating the giant green inflatable threatening to swallow up the actors. “We’re renowned for our beanstalk,” smiles Martin smoothly.

Leaving the innuendo to one side, we chat about the cast – which includes Paddock Wood actor Philip Martin Brown, whom I’m relieved to see in rude health following his recent demise as Grantly Budgen on TV soap Waterloo Road.

“I am delighted with my cast, they’ve all worked with us before, on numerous occasions. Last time Phil worked for us he was Captain Hook and he was a great villain, but he’s funny as well. He has an amazing sense of humour and he’ll make a great Fleshcreep.”

Martin adds: “The thing about panto is that it’s an organic process in a lot of ways. We write the script and gather a creative team together, but everyone can bring their own thing to the genre and there’s plenty of room for getting to know people, see what they are good at, what they can add.”

And the cast never get as much time as the audience possibly thinks to rehearse? “That’s right – just two weeks,” says Martin. “A week to work on the book and the second week is most on the technical side.

“But we designed the panto with this stage in mind, so we know what we’re dealing with. And I love playing at the Assembly Hall, it’s a really good gig.”

The theatre director

Brian McAteer has worked for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council for more than 20 years and most of that time has been with the Assembly Hall, where he is the theatre director.

He read history and politics at university and has a computer science degree, but had always been interested in theatre and when the opportunity arose at the council-run theatre to introduce a new booking system to replace the old manual one, Brian’s background made him ideal to head up the project. And he’s never left.

So how does he go about choosing a year’s worth of programmes for the Tunbridge Wells theatre, culminating in a blockbuster panto that will bring audiences in their droves?

“We’ve had a really good year in 2013 and next year looks rather good too,” says Brian. “We had Chicago, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, operas and plays. We try to programme right across the spectrum, to appeal to all sorts of audiences.

“My ideal programme would be a mixture of lots of ballet, opera and modern dance, with plenty of mid-scale stuff like comics and high-quality drama. However, I can’t afford to programme exclusively like that because of the economy, so we work around it to achieve shows that address the quality element as well as the commercial aspect. It can be a harsh environment.”

Brian works closely with his team covering the roles of business, technical, marketing and operations to choose the year’s programme, with audience research a critical factor, which is mainly conducted through email.

And he’s always used his two young children, now 11 and 13, as a sounding board. “If the kids say ‘that was fantastic’ after a show, then it’s all worthwhile, it’s held them for an hour and a half. You have to think about what it looks like to them. The stage craft can appear to be simple and straightforward to an adult, but to a child, it is real, absolutely real.”

Why people didn’t come back if they’ve booked previoulsy is also an important factor in Brian’s research. “There are lots of reasons and we like to know them. Maybe their children didn’t like it or they’ve gone somewhere else or the kids have gone off to university now.

“We’re competing against the West End, which is only 50 minutes away by train. Panto tends to be a very tight audience, however, with the local postcodes usually well represented. We know our audience pretty well.”

That includes bracing themselves for at least one complaint. “With 30,000 people though the door, there’s always at least one customer who finds the pitch of the show wrong, like it could be too rude, too bawdy, those jokes aren’t suitable for four to five-year-olds,” says Brian.

“We always take a view that if the child understands the joke, then we’ve aimed it wrong. We usually aim for the adults, it should go straight over the child’s head. If the parents don’t make a fuss then the child won’t ask questions.”

As for that critical choice of pantomime, Brian says he and the team tend to move between the ‘big four,’ namely Cinderella, Peter Pan, Aladdin and Snow White. So this year is quite a brave departure, but Brian is confident he’s made the right choice.

And he is already looking a long way forward in the calendar, typically programming anything between 12 months and 24 months ahead, sometimes beyond.

“I’m already holding dates in May 2015 and we have very few dates left right up to October/November next year. Shows like The Full Monty, which we’ve been looking at, need to be booked well in advance because they will be so popular and everybody will want them.”

The Orchard Theatre, Dartford DA1 1ED

01322 220000

Cinderella 14 Dec-4 Jan 2014

The actor

Bradley Walsh, entertainer, actor, TV presenter and former professional footballer, is the big draw at The Orchard Theatre this year.

Playing the part of Buttons in Cinderella, a role he first played when he was 27, Bradley says: “Panto is the only time as an actor that you can really let your hair down. My first ever was in 1987 with Wayne Sleep and that was Cinderella too, but the last time I was in Dartford was 1999 in Dick Whittington. I’ve had a few years off, but now I’m back in Kent. I only live in Essex, so I’ll be home every night – brilliant.”

And make no mistake, the actor – who admits he’d love to play a ‘dark’ Fagin next - will be taking his role as seriously as anything he’s done for ITV’s Law & Order: UK or Coronation Street, where he played factory boss Danny Baldwin from 2004 to 2006.

“Everything I do I embrace and this show will be taken very seriously by me, as is everything I do. It will be just like setting up any other job I do.”

The theatre director

Chris Glover is the newest and youngest of our directors, only starting work at The Orchard last December. It was also the start of the theatre’s 30th anniversary year. No pressure.

Chris had previously been general manger at The Churchill Theatre, so found himself opening Peter Pan in Bromley Bromley on a Friday and joining Dartford (with Aladdin) the following Monday.

Although he says theatre is in his blood, growing up in a family very involved in am dram, he was always happier doing the lighting and his career path initially seemed to be leading him in a very different direction.

“After graduating, I worked in government PR for five years but one night I was at the UK Pensions Awards and I thought, life is too short for this,” recalls Chris.

A position came up at The Churchill as an assistant to the director and he ended up staying nearly 10 years, working his way up to general manger.

Was it tricky, inheriting a programme? “My 2013 season kicked off with Priscilla Queen of the Desert – which is huge, and it was amazing, so no, not at all,” says Chris.

“The whole team was on a hype, we had feather boas everywhere, it was one of the biggest shows to ever come to Dartford. That was a great launch for the autumn season as it created such a buzz. Then in March we started Derren Brown’s tour, which sold out before it opened.”

So what’s the secret of successful programming? “It’s to have every audience member come out of a show they’ve loved, like Priscilla, saying wow, we should do this again,” says Chris, who conducted audience focus groups as soon as he arrived and found a clear message that more plays were wanted.

This led the theatre to join the Touring Consortium, set up in the mid-1980s to promote large-scale touring dramas, which it was felt there was a lack of at the time.

Since then, the consortium has grown to include 10 theatres around the country, who next year will start a three-year cycle of hosting three shows thanks to Arts Council funding.

This partnership kicked off with To Sir, With Love in November; in January 2014 there’s the world premier of A Perfect Murder, the first adaptation of one of Peter James’ best-selling novels, then Brassed Off follows in April 2014 and will use a local brass band, which couldn’t involve the community more if it tried.

The consortium also sees The Orchard linking up with local schools to help out on productions, regarded as a vital part of the theatre’s future in a digital age where increasingly youngsters are no longer interested in traditional forms of entertainment.

Chris is understandably excited about his first ‘proper’ season and sales are already good for 2014. “We’re programmed up to a year ahead and our aim is to have two big weekly shows a month, which came out from audience feedback. We use an independent company to get our report, approaching Friends of The Orchard and maybe those who haven’t been to the theatre for three years.

“We’re very strong on children’s theatre here and our audience has been going up every year for the last four years. We’re not London, but we’re so accessible that directors and actors can get to us very easily. We’re very nicely positioned indeed.”

But with all this serious drama coming up, how about it’s antithesis – the panto?

“People are really responding to Bradley and ticket sakes are phenomenal. I love Cinderella it’s got a bit of everything: the humour from the Ugly Sisters, your leading comic as cheeky Buttons.

“Panto is part of our British culture, it’s a family’s annual treat and people book ahead from year to year. With Bradley it’s going to be absolutely fabulous this year, one of the best ever.”

The Marlowe Theatre

Canterbury CT1 2AS, 01227 787787

Jack and the Beanstalk: 29 Nov-12 Jan

The theatre director

Mark Everett, in contrast with young whippersnapper Chris Glover, has been director of the Marlowe Theatre since 1994, so will soon be thinking of how he’s going to celebrate 20 years that have literally seen ‘out with the old, in with the new.’

Designed by award-winning Keith Williams Architects, the spectacular current building replaced a crumbling converted 1930’s cinema that acted as the city’s theatre. The ‘new’ Marlowe was unveiled in 2011 following a two-year, £26.5m construction project.

As well as having the responsibility for the direction and management of the theatre, Mark is also a senior member of Canterbury City Council’s Culture and Communications Department and has been involved in several initiatives such as its bid to become European Capital of Culture.

After graduating from university and a two-year spell in social services, Mark began his theatre career as house manager at the Bolton Octagon and Lancaster’s Duke’s Playhouse before moving to Birmingham as administrator of a small-scale touring theatre company.

Four years in London followed as an Arts Council drama officer running the schemes to support new playwrights and dealing with repertory theatres all over England.

Mark then returned to the West Midlands as general manager of the Birmingham Rep, followed six years later by a move to Bristol as executive director of the Old Vic.

Mark, who lives with his wife and two children near Faversham, reveals how he chooses the ‘right’ Christmas show each year. “It’s partly dictated by the cycle of major titles such as Cinderella and Aladdin, which we try to avoid appearing any more often than at five or six-year intervals.

“But there is also a degree of instinct, and wanting to take the odd risk to help move this wonderful form of popular entertainment forward, for example, putting on Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast from time to time,” he says.

Mark is particularly fond of this year’s choice as Jack and the Beanstalk was the first panto title he ever worked with in his career. He adds: “I also like the strong story and sense of adventure it provides. It is a very challenging show technically, as you have to have a credible beanstalk and a Giant who is scary and yet believable.”

Mark believes both these challenges are fully addressed in The Marlowe’s upcoming production, which stars EastEnders’ Samantha Womack as the Good Fairy.

He is also largely happy about the choices made for the 2013 season.

“Dirty Dancing filled our theatre for three weeks with 26,000 people seeing it, we sold out shows such as Stomp, The Full Monty and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

“Matthew Bourne’s company visited Canterbury for the first time with his Sleeping Beauty and shows like The Rocky Horror Show, Soul Sister, Abigail’s Party and Midnight Tango all did incredibly well, averaging just over 900 per performance.”

The only slight setback was the “disappointing” attendance for the play version of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong.

As for the 2014 programme, Mark says there are a few gaps but most is already confirmed and the first six months of the year planned and announced. There are provisional bookings for shows right through to 2016, with musicals, opera, orchestral music and ballet/dance the most long-term elements of the programme.

Mark mainly chooses the shows himself, but does “bounce ideas off various colleagues all the time.” This involves in particular programme administrator Alison Brodie, who handles all the legwork involved in confirming visiting shows, and consulting colleagues with children about family shows, as Mark’s are now grown up.

“My experience tells me that audiences like to be led and offered shows rather than requesting them. My job is to present a balanced programme that will attract as wide a range of people as possible in a given year. However, people do contact me about particular shows or types of shows, and I always welcome suggestions. Some I act on if I think the shows will fit into what we do and will attract an audience,” he says.

With a brand-new, ultra-modern theatre in his care, does Mark feel pantomimes will always have a place at The Marlowe?

He smiles: “I believe panto will last because it is a form of entertainment that constantly changes and develops and yet consistently provides something that everyone can enjoy. It’s been continuously going on in more or less its current form since the 1840s, so I think it will last!” n