Joyce Branagh and Keith Orton
The Crowood Press
Writer/director Joyce Branagh and designer Keith Orton created pantomimes together for more than five years at Watford Palace Theatre and elsewhere and have now collaborated on this “how to do it” book, a practical guide to creating a pantomime from the initial decision to do a panto through marketing to the previews and the first night.
It is a very practical book. Although it does take a brief look at the history of the genre and lists the most popular panto stories, its main focus is on how to make a successful show, looking at the traditions (including the set pieces and the gags which are so important, such as the “slosh” scene), writing the script, designing and producing set, costumes, props and furniture, lighting, music and dance, tricks of the trade (such as making Aladdin’s carpet fly or creating a beanstalk Jack can climb), pyro, right through to casting, rehearsals and the actual run of the show.
What comes first? The script or the design?
Neither, is their answer. To achieve the best results the script and the design should develop together and in this, as throughout, they support their position with examples from their experience.
They emphasise the importance of knowledge—of the genre (do your research and see as many pantos as you can) and of the audience and their expectations, and of attention to every detail. In talking of casting, for example, they stress the need, not only for talented performers, but for people who can get on together.
That may seem obvious but it is actually often overlooked: pantos can run for a long time and are particularly intensive and tiring, so having someone in the cast who rubs the others up the wrong way or is a selfish performer can have a hugely damaging effect as anyone who has found him or herself in this situation will testify—and it’s a lucky performer who hasn’t been there at least once!
The whole book is full of good advice. Some of it is quite technical and could save hours of (failed) experimenting and some is common sense which, under the pressure of getting a show ready, can sometimes be forgotten.
It is very well illustrated with photographs (mainly but not exclusively of their productions), designs, including models for sets (some from major panto producing houses like Qdos) and costumes, photos of sets and designs at various stages of building/making, and even, at one point, an example of a rehearsal schedule.
It should be emphasised that Creating Pantomime is aimed at professionals. Much of the advice given is inappropriate (often, indeed, impossible) for amateurs—for example, the time frame of more than six months for developing the show—and assumes a budget far in excess of what any amateur company could even dream of. But this isn’t a weakness of the book: it’s merely a fact!
Where the book is particularly valuable is in illuminating what each member of the creative team does, showing the writer, for example, what contribution the designer makes to the telling of the tale.
And the message all can take away is the vital importance of the phrase that ends the previous paragraph: nothing—music, design, gags, spectacle, anything—must get in the way of telling the tale.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan