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Heigh ho! Heigh ho! It's off to Tunbridge Wells we go!

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This Christmas at the Assembly Hall Theatre, and despite the very best efforts of her seven dwarf companions, a young lady will be poisoned by a wicked queen who has an unnatural obsession with a talking mirror. Although, as happens in the very best traditional pantomimes, I’m sure we can expect a very happy ending.

Friday 14 December is the day that the panto actually opens, but it was a very warm September lunchtime that saw the cast arriving in Tunbridge Wells to tell us all what we can expect from Martin Dodd and UK Productions with their version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Josh and Sarah play two of the seven eponymous characters in the show and I asked them: “Is panto hard work, or is it mainly fun”? Sarah answered that “I love it because it’s getting paid to play. You are very lucky if you love what you do and you’ve got a job like that. A lot of people go to work because they have to, and they don’t always get the choice of job that they would really like”.

Josh’s response was: “As soon as panto finishes I can’t wait for it to start again because it’s such a great laugh and, here we are today, before you even know it, and we’re getting ready again”.

My next question was: “I know you only get a short rehearsal time, and then you’re straight into the run but, do you still get enough time to develop as a panto “family?”. Josh wasted no time in replying: “Oh yes, definitely. It is just a short time but when you’re in it you are so close knit. As well as performing together we do a lot of socialising together too, we’ll go out for drinks or to get something to eat. We don’t just meet in the theatre we go out a lot as well”.

Also in the cast is Chris Pizzey who is regularly seen as Basil Brush’s best friend, Mr Stephen. Playing the role of Muddles will be a different experience for Pizzey as he has never performed in Snow White before, although he has performed in many other pantomimes.

When we spoke I asked him: “Which is more scary having to remember all the lines, or the unscripted part when children come up onto the stage”? He responded: “I love it when we do the songsheet and get the kids up. I LOVE IT! The thing is, you never know what you’re going to get.

"I’ve been doing the songsheet scenes for a few years now and I think, touch wood, that everything that can happen, has happened. It’s a great moment in any pantomime because it is then that you find out if you have done your job well with the audience and, of course, the kids don’t lie – they tell it just how it is”.

“When you do pantos, do you follow the script or do you like to chuck in the occasional “curveball”? I asked next. “Well, I personally believe that the “curveball” is a good thing, it keeps people on their toes and checks that no-one has gone to sleep but only as long as you don’t harm the panto in any way. For me there are two types of gags – gags which are good for the panto, and gags where you are just being a bit over-the-top and making it all about you, really.

“We can’t ruin the disbelief for the kids because, for a lot of them, it will probably be the first time that they have been to the theatre". There’s one question often put to pantomime performers; about spending Christmas away from their family. Pizzey is “thrilled to be back at Tunbridge Wells.

“My wife is from here, and we have family down here too, so it’s a nice easy Christmas for me. Although we live in Richmond, all of my wife’s family live in Cranbrook so it’s an easy journey. Last year my baby was only two months old when I went off to do pantomime in Mansfield and that was really hard”.

Joining Josh, Sarah and Chris in the pantomime are Hi-5’s Jenny Jones who, having played a dwarf when she was just seven years old, has now graduated to the title role of Snow White and Nick Wilton, known to millions as the market inspector Mr Lister from Eastenders, who will be almost unrecognisable in the enormous frocks and wigs that he will wear when he plays the hilariously over-the-top Nursie.

Heading the cast is an incredibly familiar face from television comedy, Janine Duvitski. Some of her many and varied credits include the part of Angela, which she created, in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, Jane Edwards in the series Waiting for God, Victor Meldrew’s neighbour Pippa Trench in One Foot in the Grave and, most recently, the enthusiastic middle-aged swinger Jacqueline Stewart at he Solana Hotel in Benidorm.

I began by commenting that she’s a wicked queen this year. “Oh yes, it’s good fun I think, playing a baddie. They really are some of the best parts and, although I haven’t done a panto for many years now, I am really looking forward to it. I get to be mean, and I love it when the children all boo at me.

“I was with my great-niece the other day and I started to do my Wicked Queen voice and she was just screaming, but I think they like being frightened like that. She is only three and I think it’s the slightly older ones that really get into it – but, of course, panto is good for all the ages”. “Are you looking forward to picking on poor Snow White”?, I asked. “Of course I am, she’s horrible – she’s very plain”!

“And do you prefer  live theatre work to television”? “My husband is an actor as well, and he often talks about the “high” that you get at the end of a live performance” she replied. “He will often go for a drink after a show because, when it’s a good show that the audience have liked, you’re “up there” and, it’s a bit of a cliché, but you do actually feel like you’re flying at that point. I think that buzz, a feeling that you only really get with live theatre and especially with pantomime, is the reason we do it, and it’s something that you really get to enjoy.

“With TV you’re always just learning your lines and you’ll probably only actually do the scene once or twice and when it’s done, it’s done. With pantomime, because we have two shows most days and we’re on for over three weeks, you really get to play the part, you find different ways of doing things; you can really enjoy it and, to a certain extent, ‘live’ it. I’m really excited about it and I know we’re going to have so much fun at Tunbridge Wells this Christmas”.


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