It’s panto season! Oh yes it is!

I’ve never been involved in a traditional Christmas panto onstage or offstage. No really, I haven’t. But this year, I’m well and truly involved, having been asked, in late June, to direct a production of Snow White. For many people, June might appear to be an early to start to preparations. However, the whole thing will be staged and performed by and for the residents of a development for people over a certain age, who are able, and wish to continue, living independently, despite any health issues. I was thrilled at the large turn out for the auditions and was able to cast all the characters, with only a few people playing more than one part. We had our first cast read through on 1 August and, since then, have met regularly to rehearse on Wednesday afternoon in our community bar.

But given current setbacks, some of the cast are already wondering if the show will be ready in time for Christmas! “Heigh ho! Heigh ho!” Which brings me to the problem we are having with the dwarfs: I keep losing them, or rather dwarfs keep dropping out for various, usually health, reasons. The original script had an excess of dwarfs: the seven of Disney renown, plus an extra supervisor dwarf called The Gaffer. So, I started out needing 8 dwarfs. Thank goodness the panto is called Snow White, with no mention of the number of dwarfs in tow! I reckoned I could have as many or as few as I could muster. Anyway, I started rehearsals with 5 dwarfs, including The Gaffer. Straight away, one of them stepped down due to deterioration in her condition. It couldn’t be helped. I revised the script because, although the dwarf she played didn’t speak, she was the one who found Snow White collapsed in a poisoned heap (hopefully no spoiler there).

We managed one rehearsal with the 4 remaining dwarfs: The Gaffer, Grouchy, Cheery, and Snoozy who didn’t want to learn any lines, and was in a wheelchair so had to be pushed on and off stage by another dwarf. Cheery volunteered, Grouchy and Gaffer having conditions that prevented them pushing a wheelchair plus a Snoozy occupant. When Cheery took up a pushing position behind the high-backed wheelchair she totally disappeared from view – an unanticipated comedy moment to enhance the dwarfs’ entrances and exits through the audience. It was all going so well.

Disaster struck when, a few weeks later, Cheery (who had told me how much she was enjoying the rehearsals) felt that she had to pull out of the panto for non-panto-related reasons, but reasons I cannot go into. This was a triple cast disaster for me as Director, because Cheery also played another part, as well as being the only dwarf fit enough to push Snoozy in the wheelchair! So that week I lost two dwarfs (Cheery and a disappointed Snoozy), and had to hastily persuade another cast member to take on a second part!

Down to only two dwarfs (Gaffer and Grouchy), I set about a comprehensive rewrite of all 4 scenes that included the dwarfs, impacting on four other actors’ scripts for those (already rehearsed) scenes. Both remaining dwarfs ended up with more lines each, including new ones to explain the absence of so many dwarfs! And a red line was drawn through any references to the dwarfs entering and exiting in procession through the audience! It was a start all over again situation for a big chunk of the show.

Then, we had another setback, when Grouchy was poorly and couldn’t attend the next rehearsal. Gaffer gamely took to the stage, with someone reading-in for Grouchy. But will Grouchy recover in time to continue both as Grouchy, and also in his second role as Yokel 2? If the worst comes to the worst, and Grouchy has to retire, my fall-back plan is to ask Gaffer to take the role of Yokel 2 and scrap the dwarfs altogether. Snow White will have to become a squatter in the dwarf’s empty cottage and be found in a poisoned heap by Yokels 1 and 2, in a NEW WORLD EXCLUSIVE SCENE. Fingers crossed it won’t come to that……

Despite the above, I’m constantly amazed by the energy, ambition and ingenuity of my Snow White company. Most of them are in their 70s or 80s, some with serious health conditions, in a wheelchair or using a walking frame or stick, or just suffering from the loss of hearing, sight or memory as a result of the cruel ageing process that will affect us all. From the moment we started rehearsing in August, my set designs were being built and costumes started to be made, by company members and other residents. And the set painting and decoration will be undertaken by residents involved in the community art and craft activities.
This show has to go on……..(To be continued)