Panto to pant for

2007-11-24 00:00

“It’s madness,” Steven Stead declares as he makes his way from the stage to the back of the theatre. He leans over the sound desk. Lights flash. Someone is reconnecting a mass of wires on one end of the stage. He then runs back down the stairs, beckons us to follow and bolts backstage through piles of exotic and glitzy props.

Stead has adapted, written and directed Aladdin, this year’s traditional family pantomime, at the Playhouse. Set in mystical ancient China, the pantomime features a flying carpet, an enormous Genie of the Lamp, a Willow Pattern Finale, sparkling Cave of Wonders full of jewels and dragons, and a talented cast.

The sets were all made from scratch singlehandedly by Greg King, Stead’s partner in production company KickstArt. “He is up at six and returns home late at night covered in paint and glitter,” Stead says.

He makes a quick about-turn at the dressing rooms to show off the magnificent costumes (Aladdin’s are designed by leading fashion designer Terence Bray) that either hang on rails or are spread carefully on the floor. That’s for the dancers, he explains. Costume changes are too quick for them to get to the dressing rooms upstairs.

Then it’s back over the stage, into the theatre and out the side door. “This is a stressful time to give an interview. So much is happening. Everything is bottlenecking. The next three days are crucial,” says Stead as he grabs a bite between rehearsals. Already, weekend previews are sold out.

A pantomime is no easy project, says Stead, who has been working on Aladdin for a year. It starts with prepping and casting and then, from March to April, comes writing. Putting down backing tracks and sound effects follows and rehearsals from October.

“From September to the end of the year, there is no room for anything else. For this production, the rehearsal process was really hard — three of the leads are school teachers and can only rehearse from three to nine at night. The cast will tell you that this is the hardest job of the year. They have to be extremely disciplined. The technical aspects are very demanding. The costumes are very heavy. Then there’s the intense physical demand of performing.”

Hard work aside, Stead and King are hooked on pantomimes. When they returned to Durban four years ago, they realised that the pantomimes that had been essential parts of their own childhoods during festive seasons had been missing from the Durban theatre scene for 12 years.

For Stead, pantomime is a theatrical experience that doesn’t pull punches. “There’s a built-in cheesiness and yet they can be so profound. It is a delicious art form. You don’t get higher entertainment value than a pantomime.”

Stead emphasises that pantomime does not equal children’s theatre. There are specific elements and conventions.

For example, the leading male juvenile character (or principal boy) is conventionally played by a young woman. Aladdin is played by the multi-talented Carol Trench, who Stead describes as a strapping lad who is warm, charismatic and sensitive. He says Trench — also the star of last year’s My Fair Lady — adds a great deal of spunk and manages to be “boyish, roguish and sweet all at the same time.”

Traditionally, an older woman, known as the pantomime dame, is played by a man. Peter Court, better known for his over-the-top performances in notorious adult pantomimes, makes his entrance into the mainstream genre as Aladdin’s addled mother, Widow Twankey.

“In pantomime, everyone is an archetype, every character is clearly defined. But they have to have an inner life otherwise they would just be puppets … [Actors] have to look gorgeous, be role models for kids and communicate affection without everyone going ugh!” Stead adds.

Others in the cast include Darren King as the wicked magician Abanazar, Bryan Hiles as Wishee Washee, Ntando Cele as the sultry Genie of the Ring, Frances Currie as Aladdin’s sweetheart the Princess Jasmine, and Danielle Perleman as her sidekick, Dar Ling.

Another key pantomime element is double entendre — plays on innocent phrases that “make mom, dad and gran snigger but go whoosh over kids’ heads”. Stead says the comedy dynamic between Court and Hiles has “got to be seen to be believed”.

Audience participation is also crucial — hissing and booing the villain, cheering for the hero and singing along. Stead says he has written two songs for this production (they are not sure if they’ll include the second) which, along with the conventional Aladdin numbers, make for a song collection that “spans several centuries, so it’s very eclectic”.

“This is what gives me the strength to carry on. It gives youngsters permission to be children and parents an opportunity to be children along with them. It’s a leveling experience. That’s the spiritual side.”

With that, he pushes his coffee to one side, leaps up and heads straight back to the theatre to brief the cast as part of another rehearsal.

•Aladdin runs until December 31 with shows at 2.30 pm from Tuesday to Saturday, 7 pm on Fridays and Saturday and 3 pm on Sundays. There are no shows on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, but a 2.30 pm show on Christmas Eve. Tickets are R80 for adults and R65 for children.

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