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Dukes & Dames

So.  There we are.  The end of an era.  Last Tuesday at The Maltings Theatre we saw the last huzzah of outgoing Chief Executive and Artistic Director, Miles Gregory.  NOTBAd will find it quiet around here without him, and takes this opportunity to thank him not only for supporting this spurious venture through its various incarnations, but for sporting a waxed moustache without a trace of irony.  One in a million, sir.  One in a million.

However, flighty and fickle creature that we are, NOTBAd is already on the look-out for a replacement in our affections.  Someone worthy of our special kind of attention; someone who can withstand the hot gaze of our scrutiny without crying like a girl with chipped nail varnish.  And, ladies and gentlemen, we have a contender.  Enter Simon Duke, entertainment reporter.

Yes, dear friends, we are of course talking about the Stretch Armstrong of The Berwick Advertiser  (the real one, the one that isn’t allowed to make stuff up or refer to genitalia for amusing effect).   And this time – no offence, Miles – this isn’t a marriage of convenience.  Simon could be… The One.

Because listen, right?  We could learn journalistic stuff from Mr Duke; he’s like qualified in… well, something, we’re sure.  Qualified.  Think on that.  Think of  the awe-inspiring heights we at NOTBAd could have reached if only we had applied ourselves a bit harder at school; if we’d only realised back then that getting our bronze lifesaving badge wasn’t going to open doors in journalism in the way that we had hoped.  Yes, Simon could be our teacher, our mentor.  Like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, only not so inspirational we shoot ourselves in the head.

Yet there is a stumbling block.  It seems our love is unrequited.  Two tweets have we sent to Mr Duke seeking an interview; one of the requests even came with the prospect of a free continental finger.  But no.  Mr Duke, it seems, likes people to beg for it.

Yes.  You can see why we like him.

But we can wait; delay gratification.  Truth be told,  we’ll respect him far more in the morning.  In the meantime, we still have copy to file.   So, who would be a willing and worthy subject?

Enter Alan Bowles and Morgan Brind, founders of Little Wolf Entertainment and the double-act that hosted Miles Gregory’s tribute gala evening.

Cast your mind back to last year.  Little Wolf Entertainment is the theatre company that brought to Berwick its first ever professional panto, Aladdin.  Set up only three years ago by Alan and Morgan after producing Robin Hood together in… er… Slough, Little Wolf now has a third associate in the looming shape of Production Manager, David Phillips, and is looking to build upon its tremendous success last year to give the established pantomimes in Edinburgh and Newcastle a run for their money.

As previously documented by NOTBAd, Little Wolf’s curtain-up in Berwick didn’t come without causing something of a stir.  Noses were put out of joint.  Letters of protest were written.  There were intimations of flouncing.  Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, to get Little Wolf’s side of a story infamously dubbed the ‘Pantogate Scandal’?

Now, the first rule of interviewing – and Mr Duke will know this – is to make your subjects feel at ease.  Start softly, lull them with sweet words, gently tickle their tummies before suddenly – flip! – they’re lying on their sides gasping for breath as you cosh them over the head with evidence of an ill-advised coupling with a Member of Parliament.

That was the plan.   Which in no way resembled a reality running something along the lines of  “Yo, dudes!   The perfect shit-storm or what?  Way to go!” as we met up for coffee.

What?  Listen, don’t judge.  Save it for after we’ve rescued you from drowning using a pair of inflated pyjamas.

Over a filthy hot chocolate we got right down to business – how did Little Wolf first become aware of the resentment festering in community theatre ranks?  Well, it would seem that Miles Gregory drew to their attention a letter of protest published in the local paper giving them a heads-up on any negative publicity that could ensue.

Morgan looks mortified.  “If we thought our production would severely affect the box office takings of a community theatre project, we would never come.  It’s just not something we would do.  That would be terrible.”

Alan agrees.  The pair even went to see Spittal Variety Group’s Cinderella (the production potentially threatened by Little Wolf) and thought it terrific.  They’re both great supporters of am-dram having being involved with various companies at the outset of their careers.   They love the fact that community theatre is so strong in this neck of the woods and express genuine admiration for the contribution they make to local charities.  However, Alan is unable to hide completely his impatience over the incident.

“Look,” he says.  “The reality of the situation is that SVG experienced an uptake in ticket sales.  They benefitted from the swirl of publicity accompanying our arrival.  And besides,” he continues, warming to his theme, “an amateur production is a completely different experience from that of a professional production.  People have different reasons for going to see them.  One is about wanting to spot and support the people you know on stage, the other is about magic and being transported elsewhere for the evening.  There’s room for both.”

The figures did in fact prove that there was room for both,  a remarkable phenomenon considering the region’s low population density.    In a world that seems increasingly sophisticated, where do they think the unwavering appeal of panto lies?

“Nostalgia,” offers Alan.  “Panto is often somebody’s first experience of theatre, and they remember it as this magical event which in turn they want to share with their own children.”

Morgan adds “But it’s not just about the glitter and outrageous costumes.  People like to see themselves in the characters.  We all secretly want to imagine we’re the prince or princess, knowing in real life we’re more likely the fool or the dame!”

Ah, yes.  The dame.  Surely the most important character in any pantomime?  Alan agrees; Morgan demurs only, we suspect, because his modesty prevents him agreeing.  For he has a history of dame-ing, drawing on his experience with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men as the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet – a character both funny and tragically moving.   “The dame is the mother figure in the show,” he explains, “commentating on what’s going on, telling the other characters off  for their stupidity but still caring for them deeply.”

It’s an old character that Morgan is still breathing new life into, and therefore he has very firm ideas of the ‘look’, going as far as designing and making her costumes himself .  “She can’t look like a drag queen.  Yes, she’s larger than life but she’s not creepy.  Her outfits should be glamorous and outrageous, but not sexual.  She has to appeal to everyone.”  And with that he whips out his phone to show us a sneak preview of a hat he’s designed for this year’s Sleeping Beauty.  Obviously, we don’t want to give too much away, so two words only:  ‘motorised’ and  ‘sheep’.

NOTBAd gurgles with pleasure at the earlier reference to a Shakespeare connection with panto, a subject dear to our heart.   People are often dismissive of the latter, seeing it as a lesser art form to ‘proper’ theatre.  How does that make—

“Bloody furious.”

Ouch.  Clearly something of a sore point with Alan then, who goes on to say “I hate it when people say ‘Oh, it’s only panto’.  Panto is the most important form of theatre” .

Now, this could have come across as the typical lofty-yet-empty sound bite so beloved of actors.  But Alan’s animation belies that rather cynical interpretation.  He is passionate about this, leaning forward in his seat and tapping the table to reinforce the point he made earlier:  “Pantomime is often the first experience children have of theatre.  Quite often it is the only experience they have.  If we can produce something so magical that it stays with them into adulthood and then they want to pass it on to their children… well.  That’s amazing.  That’s introducing a whole new generation to the theatre. ”

Forging a connection between children and theatre is central to Little Wolf’s ethos, which is why they insist on casting local children for some of the roles.  Morgan has also taught with Stagecoach – the performing arts school franchise – and says not only is performing itself great for boosting children’s self-esteem and confidence, but working with a professional crew opens their eyes to the other side of theatre – the technicalities and behind-the-scenes activity which go into putting on a show.

But make no mistake.  A ‘community theatre’ epithet for Sleeping Beauty must remain with the children.  This production has the same degree of professionalism as those staged by larger, well-known theatre companies, and a constant striving for excellence starts with the main casting.

“We’re very tough,” admits Morgan, who trained at Bristol Old Vic (Alan at Guildford School of Acting).  “We expect our actors to be able to sing and dance to a high standard.”

Alan gets cross again; hypertension is surely only a matter of time.  “I can’t bear these big panto productions that ship in some C-list celebrity that can’t act, can’t sing!  They’re there purely to get bums on seats and it’s detrimental to pantomime as a whole.  Is it coincidence that Russell Grant left Strictly the week before he was due to star in panto?  C’mon!  Bums on seats.”

So don’t expect Amy Childs being asked to appear in a Little Wolf production any time soon.

The casting process was gruelling.  When Alan and Morgan placed their notice in Spotlight looking for five actors, they weren’t expecting 4,837 applications in response.  And, yes, they went through all of them.  Having been on that side of the audition process themselves as actors, they understandably found it hard to say no; consequently the ‘maybe’ pile was bigger than it should have been.  But eventually they pulled together a cast to be proud of; not only talented but attractive…

“Yes, we have a very attractive cast this year,” winks Morgan.  “And our prince,” he lowers his voice conspiratorially, “has a Northern Irish accent.”  An unspoken understanding passes between us.   Northern Irish.  Right there and then NOTBAd promises to allow HRH to take us up Shoe Lane and start some Troubles of our own.

“I was probably the fattest Aladdin ever,” Alan contributes, sadly.

The professionalism doesn’t stop with the cast.  Award-winning director Zoe Waterman has been called in for the second year to take the helm.  This comes as a surprise.  Alan and Morgan have such a strong vision, they’re so intimately involved with every aspect of the production, that directing it themselves would seem an obvious extension.   “It’s a relief,” says Morgan, “to hand that responsibility over to someone else.  Being so close to a production, it’s nice to have one aspect where you don’t have to make the decisions.  You can just concentrate on your performance.”   Alan chimes in, “ And if you produce, write, act, and direct, there’s a danger that the whole thing could become a vanity project.  That’s not what we’re about.”

Indeed not, for Little Wolf work very much as an ensemble, management paying themselves the same as their cast.   While Alan is in charge of all administration (legalities, marketing, logistics) – Morgan is chiefly responsible for writing the script and, incredibly, designing all the costumes.  However, before any decisions are made or finalized everyone on the team is consulted and feedback invited.   The aim is to produce the best show possible, rather than to promote an individual’s contribution.

It’s obvious that Alan and Morgan have a very easy working relationship.  They complement each other well.  Morgan is softly spoken, sensitive and tactful, while Alan – essentially the warm, cheery chap you see on stage in his roles as nice-but-dim stooges – is a lot more direct.  You sense there is an edge there, bubbling away underneath.  Basically, Morgan would make the ideal Christmas gift whereas Alan would come with the proviso that you don’t get him wet or feed him after midnight.

And talking of dark sides, Little Wolf’s Sleeping Beauty will be something of a departure from the usual Disney-inspired confection.   Both Morgan and Alan acknowledge the importance of tradition and archetypes in pantomime, but take it one step further by seeking to give the characters real depth.   So, before starting the script Morgan went back the original Perrault Sleeping Beauty fairy tale written in the 17th century.  Like those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, Perrault’s fairy tales are much darker than those a modern audience may be familiar with.   Without wishing to plant spoilers, this panto will not be all light and fluffiness – we’re informed that there is one scene in particular that will have us reaching for our Kleenex.

NOTBAd loves this; it makes it relevant.  Times are hard and everyone is feeling the pinch.  Why not reflect the struggles, as well as the triumphs, of life?   But relax.  If you’re concerned this means Sleeping Beauty isn’t going to be the panto pick-me-up you need at this time of year, think on:

450 metres of fabric
5 kilos of glitter
38 litres of paint
19 8-foot sheets of foam
186 batteries
204 litres of wallpaper paste
76 glue gun sticks

Not forgetting £10,000 spent on bespoke costumes from top West End theatre costumiers (the biggest single expense), and eyelashes – get this – flown in from Idaho!  As Morgan says: “In times of cut backs you can’t skimp on panto.”

There’s no doubt about it, the guys are moving into a higher gear with Sleeping Beauty.  Last year was all about getting to know the venue, what they could do with a limited budget, and how they would be received by the people of Berwick.  This year it’s about taking a leap of faith and investing in something even bigger and better.  Little Wolf are entirely financed by ticket sales, they receive no other funding.   Alan grins ruefully.  “You’re not in this business to get rich.  You do it because you love it.  You have to.”

Whether Little Wolf returns next year remains to be seen; it’s ironic that the creation of magic often depends on something as mundane as ticket sales.   Let’s hope this tale – spun from daring, imagination, creativity, sheer hard slog and sublime professionalism – ends with a happily ever after.

Sometimes life is a rehearsal (l–r: Louise Grantham, Peter Kenworthy, Morgan Brind, Alan Bowles)

Sleeping Beauty, Little Wolf Entertainment, The Maltings, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 14th–29th December 2011


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