|Article by Phil Mason transcribed by Margaret Craddock
Around forty years ago, January and early February was always a busy time as we frantically made final preparations for the Mission Room annual pantomime. Realising our limitations, we decided from the beginning that instead of having the usual run-of-the-mill pantomime plot, it would be “Pantomania”. This enabled us to stray from the traditional story a little if need be and also gave us the opportunity to pack the script with jokes and references to topics of local interest. In fact, it is doubtful if any pantomime has ever portrayed more local happenings. A variety of people and institutions ranging from the postmistress and the policeman to the PCC and the local shoe factories all served as subjects for these topicalities.
The fact that we had seven choirboys meant that our first pantomime had to be ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. The only drawback was that as a result the dwarfs varied in size, some tending to look more like giants and even towering above Snow White.
At that time, we had no idea of the preparation and work involved. The result was that when the time came we were just not ready. The dress rehearsal had to ‘be seen to be believed’, but as always, everything was ‘alright on the night!’ A slip here and there occurred but nothing to worry about and the audience really enjoyed their first taste of our ‘home-made panto’ and wanted more.
So each year, after the Harvest Festival was over, we would gather our young people together to prepare for the next pantomime. The wonderful thing about pantomimes is that everyone can help in one way or another. As well as actors and chorus we needed stage staff and costume makers, scenery painters and programme sellers and a host of other helpers who are all necessary to make the show tick.
Over the years, we gathered round us a wonderful team of helpers and no group could have had better support from the local community. The first year we had a ‘full house’ for our one performance. Ten years later we had to have five evening performances, plus a matinee and during the ten years every ticket was sold for every show. In fact, there was no need for us to advertise. Often, people came for more than one performance (gluttons for punishment) and one year one lady (Miss Jocelyn Harpur) came every evening.
I never thought that we were worthy of such loyalty and support. We were certainly not in the top division when it came to singing or dancing, but whatever we lacked in polish we made up for in laughs. We were blessed with a succession of ‘Dames’ who kept the audience rocking with laughter. Sometimes they laughed at our downfalls. Like the time the lights failed just after the opening performance, or the evening when we were presenting the Cave Scene in Aladdin and a giant spider which was supposed to move up and down to release the music got stuck and our stage manager had to get up a ladder to release it. On another occasion, when the audience seemed rather unresponsive the ‘Baron’ was onstage singing ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’ when he missed a top note. The ‘Dame’ looked straight at the audience and said, “Well what do you expect for half a crown!” This remark brought the house down and from that moment no one could have wished for a kinder audience. There were so many other humorous incidents like in Jack and the Beanstalk, when Jack was milking the cow and cans of beer came out. Also in the final performance of Cinderella, as she was about to try on the slipper and it should have been a ‘perfect fit’ some wag had stuffed it with paper! Likewise, in one production we had the Saturday football results including: ‘Baptist Bombshells’ 6 ‘Church Cronies’ 4. ‘Methodist Maulers’ 2 ‘ Mothers Union” 5.
Naturally, we had our frustrations and disappointments. One year, with just two days to go before the show the fairy caught the ‘flu. This piece of news had hardly been digested when our prompter was taken ill and would be out of action for a week. The situation was worse than it seemed because she was one of the few people who could follow our much-altered homemade script. To top everything, Andrew , our ‘Dame’ usually a picture of health had been spotted in the local doctor’s waiting room looking quite ill. This tragedy was shortly confirmed by Cinderella who, as well as playing the title role, worked in the local chemists. On visiting the hall that evening, we found that the piano had decided to come out on strike and certain notes just wouldn’t play at all. We managed to persuade the piano tuner to leave the warmth of his workshop only to find that there was little he could do. Yet despite all these setbacks the panto went ahead as planned and was voted by many as our best ever production.
So why bother with pantomime?
Well, if nothing else, it keeps young people together during the winter evenings. It shows that Christians can play together as well as pray together. Whilst most of us were church members, a small minority were not. One year we had Paul (a Roman Catholic), playing the role of Demon, Mary (a Baptist Deacon) selling the programmes and Roger (a Methodist) playing the piano. These together with a block of Anglicans and a sprinkling of ‘Nuthins’ did more for Christian unity than many meetings or sermons have ever done.
The annual pantomime was part of our lives. The older folk came at a reduced price with sweets and transport provided. Children from a local home likewise came free with tea and transport provided and a good time was had by all.
I ought to mention that over the years, we made a fair amount of money for charity and, more important, it gave happiness to a lot of people, not least to the fifty or more youngsters taking part.