Michael Hasted brings you News, Views and Interviews from the Everyman Theatre crack
It’s that time of year again. The countdown to Christmas is well underway and the shops are already stocking up and displaying their tinsel covered wares. Call me Scrooge if you want but personally I find it all a bit too much, a bit too soon. However, one thing I do look forward to is the pantomime and all the other shows for children that materialise at this time of year. Oh yes it is.
As a prelude to Christmas, the Everyman is premièring a brand new production of Philip Pullman’s The Firework Maker’s Daughter.
I spoke to the show’s director Phil Clark who explained what the show is all about. “It’s an adventure story about Lila, a young girl who dreams of becoming a firework maker like her father. But her father doesn’t want that and won’t tell her the secret. So she goes off on a quest to discover the secrets for herself. She goes through the jungle, into a volcano, learning things all the way. When she finally returns her father relents and she learns everything she needs to become a firework maker like him.
“It’s a play for young people about the honesty between them and their parents and at what point parents should trust their children, at which point we, as parents, should empower our children to take responsibility in the world.”
It sounded to me like a show that gave great opportunities for lots of special effects and the like, “Absolutely,” said Phil enthusiastically. “It’s got jungles, it’s got volcanoes, it’s got crocodiles. It really is quite fantastical. The way Philip Pullman has written it you’re never quite sure whether you’re in Africa or Asia or where you are. It’s very multicultural.”
It seemed to me, by the sound of it, to be a bit like The Lion, he Witch and the Wardrobe. Were there comparisons to be made? “Yes, in a way. What Pullman does is use enchantment to ask the bigger questions about life. In spite of all the adventures what is finally revealed is that all the answers exist in the child’s morality. That what she learns on her journey is how to trust, how to communicate in life. They are all concepts that the child in the audience will have an understanding of.”
I wanted to find out more about the special effects. I couldn’t help noticing on the poster is a very large elephant. I wanted to know more. “I’m not going to say,” laughed Phil. “Yes there is a full size, white elephant on stage. The only other thing I’m prepared to say is that it talks.” and he left it at that.
Phil is no stranger to the Everyman. He has directed the pantomime there for the past three years and this year he will be returning in November with Cinderella. There will be lots of familiar faces. William Elliot will be playing dame again as one of the ugly sisters and local boy Wink Taylor will be playing Buttons.
“Wink is quite an extraordinary person.” Phil explained. “He’s one of those people who are from the light entertainment, variety world. Although he’s still quite young, he’s an entertainer of the old school. He knows all the pantomime stuff and has an amazing knowledge of theatre. He’s great with the audience. He unicycles, he fire-eats, he juggles; he’s got all those other skills as well as being a great performer.”
I asked Phil if he thought it important that the audiences were familiar with the actors. “I think it’s very important. What we’ve tried to do over the past three or four years is to use the same people and it creates a sense of community which is good for the company and the audience. It’s almost like the old rep days, in fact, where pantomime came from – the local rep doing its Christmas show.”
And Cinderella, was it going to be traditional or a new twist on an old story? “No, it’s completely traditional. We haven’t deviated at all from the original, classical story. We’re setting it in winter so it’s got lots of beautiful winter-wonderland scenes. A couple of things we’ve introduced though; the ball is quite funky, we’ve brought that up to date a little.”
Phil clearly specialises in children’s show but he is a director in great demand for all aspects of the theatre. “I’m really busy at the moment,” he told me. “I’m doing nine shows in a row. I’ve just Under Milk Wood in London, Dangerous Obsession for Jill Freud’s company, I’m doing a new play in Wales and then I put a show into London for Christmas. In March my production of Skellig opens on Broadway.” he said proudly.
“I specialise in work for young audiences and families. My heart has always been there - at how do we get theatre on the cultural agenda of young people, on to their leisure agenda? I want young people to be able to walk into their local theatre and feel at home. I don’t want them to feel intimidated.”
Phil and I both have very early memories of the theatre. Both of us were taken to pantomimes when we were very young – me at the Everyman and Phil in Cardiff. I suggested to him that’s when we were both bitten by the bug. “That’s right. And that’s what I want for young people now- to bite them with the bug.”
What you’ve seen or what you’ve missed
There was a time, pre-Beatles, when all pop music and rock ‘n’ roll was American and the best that the UK could offer was Cliff Richard and watered down cover versions of the original hits. But that didn’t matter because the originals were always available on Radio Luxembourg and the juke box at your High Street Wimpey Bar - or Parlour, as it was then called. Elvis was king and the likes of Eddie Cochran, Bobby Vee and Del Shannon were the crown princes.
Dreamboats and Petticoats, which was at the Everyman at the beginning of September, celebrated those days; days when a boy’s best friend was his comb and a girl’s was her hair spray and packet of starch to keep her layers of petticoats flouncy.
The story line, such as it was, was merely a vehicle to link the forty or so hits that anyone who is reluctant to admit their age will have danced to at their local hop – in fact some of them were still going strong dancing in the aisles on the first night.
Many of the characters were conveniently named so a song could be sung about them. There was Bobby (Bobby’s Girl), Sue (Runaround Sue) and Donna (….well, Donna). In fact, out of an enthusiastic and versatile cast, it was Bobby played by young Josh Capper who really stood out. He had most of the best songs and his clear, high voice did them all credit. His voice, slight build and dark looks would, to my mind, make him a perfect Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. Let’s hope I get to say I told you so.
Visually the show was nicely done. The costumes, lighting and scenery were all excellent and I particularly enjoyed the self-propelled dodgem cars on Southend Pier. This was a feast of nostalgia if you were old enough to remember. But if you were too young to remember the original songs, you’d certainly remember this show.
Sally-ann Rhodes is the Group and Corporate Sales Co-ordinator at the Everyman. We met up for a coffee in the theatre’s Green Room and I started by asking her what her day to day duties were. “Anybody who is bringing a party of ten people or more comes through to me. We get all sorts of groups coming – schools, colleges, WI, friends, family, anyone like that. They get quite a good discount and there are other benefits as well. I encourage them to make an event of it; maybe have lunch here or we can maybe arrange for them to meet the cast. I’m also responsible for booking tours of the theatre. At the moment I’m really busy with the pantomime, in fact bookings started coming in way back in February.”
Currently, the priority for Sally-ann, along with many other members of staff, is the appeal for the restoration work which will take place next summer. Although the vast proportion of the over £3m needed has already been raised, there is still about £250,000 to find.
Sally-ann is one of those responsible for the Sponsor a Seat campaign. She explained what the scheme involved. “Basically for a £250 donation you get a brass plate with your name engraved on one of the new seats or for £450 you get a plaque on a pair of adjoining seats. Your plaque will be there for ten years. Also, your donation will be recorded in our theatre brochure and in the programme for the new season in autumn 2011.
“We had a similar scheme with our previous chief executive, Philip Bernays and luckily that ten year plan is now coming to an end.” I asked her how many seats were sponsored under the previous scheme and how many they were hoping for now. “All of them really,” laughed Sally-ann. “I think there were about 270 seats that were sponsored previously which, under the present plan, would raise over £60,000 which would be incredible, although more would be even better.”
Do the previous sponsors get the chance to renew their seats? “Yes, of course. All the previously sponsored seats have been reserved so that the people keep the same seat if they want. The plaques have up to forty characters so you can have your own name, a company name or a dedication to someone. And, of course, there are lots of memorial dedications, which is really nice. I had one chap called me recently to buy a seat as a memorial to his father who had worked on the first restoration of the theatre back in the 1920s. It seems so long ago but it’s only a couple of generations really.”
There is also another fund-raising scheme running in parallel to the seat sponsorship; the Circle of Friends. I asked Sally-ann how that was going. “That’s much more exclusive. It’s limited to twenty five people, each of whom will donate £1000 to become one of the Circle. It’s a great idea and I think we have already sold about half the subscriptions, so we’ve done really well.”
So, if you fancy your, or someone else’s, name on a seat for semi-posterity you know where to go.