Touring Panto

In the early noughties, I spent a few Christmases writing and directing pantos which toured to working men’s clubs and a few other venues, such as church halls and care homes. The client for whom we worked was an entertainments agency which provided acts for the clubs throughout the year. These were "for the members' bairns, ye knaa."

I had to write them specially because we were only allowed 5 performers (cost!) and if we needed more, someone would have to double and that had to be written into the script. It does task your ingenuity!

But that wasn't the greatest difficulty, not by a long chalk!

I confess I get a little—well, pissed off is the most appropriate phrase—when I hear panto performers moaning, “Oh God! Another three show day!”

You haven’t lived, sunshine, and you haven’t experienced panto at its rawest until you’ve toured one!

How’s this for a daily schedule?

  • 8:00 (or earlier if necessary) : Meet to travel (1 van, driven by a company member) and 1 shared car because expenses are limited) to 1st venue
  • 9:00 (at the latest) : Arrive at first venue for get-in and fit-up (done by the performers because the producers can’t afford the luxury of stage crew—or even a single SM / techie)
  • 10:00 : First show
  • 12:00 : Take-down and get-out. Load van and set off to next venue
  • 13:30 (at the latest) : Arrive at 2nd venue. Get-in and fit-up
  • 14:30 : Show
  • 16:30 : Take-down and get-out. Load van and set off to next venue
  • 18:00 (at the latest) : Arrive at 3rd venue. Get-in and fit-up
  • 19:00 : Third show
  • 21:00 : Take-down and get-out. Load van and set off to the morning’s pick-up point so the cast can collect their cars. Then all go home (including the van driver who has to take the van with him)

One day, we began in Sunderland at 10:00, travelled to Darlington for 14:30 and ended up in Prudhoe for the 19:30. And there were days which included a trip to the depths of North Yorkshire or the wilds of north Northumberland!

But that’s not the only problem. What is access to the performance area actually like? If the concert room is upstairs, is there direct access?

Not always! Oh no...

There’s one we visited every year where the only access was via the external fire-escape. 9 flats, each 1M wide and 2.5M high, had to be lifted almost to full arms’ length by two people on the ground while another two stood at the top to receive them—one by one. And vice versa on getting out, of course. If access was flat, one person could carry two.

And we had to take the costumes and sound system up and down the stairs too.

Imagine if it was pouring (In December / January? Of course it poured). Or snowing. Or blowing a gale.

And as for there being enough electrical sockets, or dressing room space to accommodate the cast…

The set could take a real battering. As director, I didn’t go to every show—I'd do the first day’s shows, and then pop out once or twice during the run and on the last night—but occasionally I’d get a phone call. Like one Boxing Day morning at 9:00.

“Sorry Peter, one of the flats has fallen apart. There’s nobody in the office, of course, so can you…?”

So out of bed (Hey! It was Boxing Day!), quick wash (but no breakfast), drive ten miles with toolkit and just after 9:30 I’m crawling around the stage repairing a flat to get it ready for the 10 o’clock show. We made it!

(That, incidentally, was the fire-escape venue.)

But not all tech emergencies are easy to fix.

Like the time I got a phone call to say that a radio mic had packed up at the end of the first show and there was no one in the office (why did these emergencies always occur on a public holiday or a Sunday?) so could I…? A few phone calls later, after a meeting in a Metro station car park (halfway between where I lived and the home of the guy I was borrowing from), I drove 30 miles to deliver the (borrowed) replacement.

I must say that all of the equipment, set etc. we used was the property of our clients, an entertainments agency, not our own. We’d have looked after it better!