Friday, 20 December 2013

The Show Must Go On

So we got to D Day, and team Shoreditch had a hard act to follow after an outstanding Opening Night in which the Dream Team (comprising those juveniles from all three teams who could cope with the pressures of Opening Night ) had wowed local dignitaries and a packed audience to rave reviews.  

This was a great feeling to come in on, but also an added pressure.  The kids were not legally allowed in the theatre until 10 am, and we kicked off at 10.15 am.  They were shown a slightly adapted dance routine for the walkdown (finale) by their Dance Captain, and she also explained the presence of a new prop – a curtain, which was to cover the scene change when a ballet sequence took place, and told them how to deal with this.  The children were excited and nervous, adrenalin coursing through their veins as we chaperones hurriedly caught up with any last minute changes ourselves.  Caz had called me in the morning to ask if I would be happy to act as Lead Chaperone – essentially the one to make the final decisions on the day.  I agreed, not really realizing the implications as such, and to be honest, although not an experienced chaperone, I had worked as a show caller/Stage Manager, depending on which arena you are in, so figured that it would be pretty much the same…

…Big mistake…  The kids were fine, the chaperones were bundles of nerves by the end of the first act.  There were several quick changes which entailed buttons and bows, we had lost and found socks, masks and noses (don’t ask). Sue the Wardrobe Mistress (we christened her Sewing Sue) worked miracles, her needle flashing in and out at speed. We had been running from one side of the stage to the other, passing kids through scenery doors, under the stage, props got caught on the stairs, we nearly missed 2 cues and at one point had to literally shove the kids on to the stage.  By the interval, the shock of it had set in, and I (whilst trying to keep a calm exterior) was dreading the second act because this contained the aforesaid walkdown, which  was new because it is only traditionally set at the Dress Rehearsal as it is considered to be bad luck beforehand.  

During the interval, the producer, choreographer and dance captain came in to speak to the kids.  I explained that any mistakes were actually chaperone errors. Generally though, the producer explained, every show opening was expected to have wobbles, and we were all doing really well. 

The second half actually went mainly to cue, some of the principal cast cueing us in from the wings – it was literally a case of everyone pulling together.  Someone who was watching the show came back and said excitedly ‘It was Brilliant!’ 

We had got away with it!

We had a three hour break in between shows and so Little Man and I took one of his friends home to play.  They chattered animatedly in the back of the car, excited about the next show. 

It was then that I began to shake...

What a difference the afternoon made – it was a second run through, our heads were in the right places, it was a fantastic show backstage, the kids were more confident, we were more confident, and the comforting presence of Caz who knew the storyline inside out was a godsend.  And to top it all, the next day the critics reviews for the show came out and we had got the full 5 stars. 

Things in life are sent to test you, with the understanding that it will all come good in the end.  Things may be bad, they may even sometimes be sad – but ultimately, the Show Does Go On.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Tech Day- The Impossible Dream?

So we are hurtling towards the Opening Night of Dick Whittington in Fleet with one day to go.  Things have been, to put it politely, hectic.  Having worked for many years in corporate entertainment- in the main, shows, conferences, exhibitions and entertainment – I was very used to burning the midnight oil towards the beginning of a function, and it appears that the same applies to the theatre.  This is the part when all those months of rehearsing and training comes to fruition.  It is also the time when little things like the costumes, lighting, sound and stage set become a reality – and oh boy, does that make an enormous impact…

First time show, first time venue – dear reader, how many times have I said this?  But all because it also has a real bearing on the general approach to, and reaction to, the show.  The venue has very little in the way of stuff or staff needed for a professional show (bear in mind it was rescued from closure by the council only three years ago) and so everything has had to be brought in – from the crew to the lighting, to the sound, even to the tiered seating that the audience is sitting on. This is literally a leap into the unknown, a labour of love from all the cast and crew, and all of whom are hoping fervently that they will have an audience to play to.  In this respect, there are a number of shows that are sold out, and indeed (thank God) there are no days in which the venue are struggling – such is the leap of faith of all the local people (and the generous exposure in the papers).

One of the attractions about this show from the very start was the passion and conviction of the producer/scriptwriter/star Amanda Goldthorpe-Hall, who allowed the children from the local areas a break – despite their relative inexperience in pantomime, she saw a spark in each individual she picked, and the rest is history.  The kids have worked tirelessly, without complaint, and lapping up praise.  When their attention wanders, she has a Stare, focusing in on the offending children and lowers her voice so that the kids crane to hear what she is saying (Note to Self: must try this at home as shrieking at Teenager is giving me a sore throat and not working).  She also seems to be an adept Jack of all Trades -she’s been in the business so long that she instinctively knows how to do the Marketing, Directing and when a production note is off.  More importantly, she is adaptable – if something doesn’t work, she doesn’t make it work, she tries an alternative.  But she’s not infallible.  And she needs the back up of a good team.  She has recruited well – we have Sergeant Major Caz, the Head Chaperone, and her Deputy Rachel, we have  a professional cast who are a delight to work with and are very kid friendly, and she has appointed a technical team who are single minded in their dedication to the job in hand.  On the exterior, The Harlington staff are doing their best to maintain ticket sales and accommodate the demands of a show of which they have never seen the likes of before.

And then you have us, the Mummies who have got chaperone licences and are not sure what this means… Until this weekend, and the Tech Days… 

Anyone who has been in the theatre will know what the Tech Days entail – hours of setting lights, sound, and sorting out the realities of the scenes, i.e. has Jimmy really got time to run under the stage and appear as a Ferocious Beast in two minutes?  Caz was ill and Rachel stepped up admirably to the plate on Day 1 in charge of three of us (plus some shadowers).  We had a crib sheet, we could see the costumes of all 12 kids (interchangeable between each team), and all their accessories were laid out in clearly labelled areas of the tables in a very small dressing room.  The character Fred (the only juvenile boy) had a small screened off area in which to change, which also contained the dressing room fridge.  All seemed to be very straightforward… until the tech rehearsal started…  Half way through the day, as Fred (not mine) was struggling to get out of his fully buttoned waistcoat and two of us were ripping it off before he raced under the stage to appear as a sea monster, only to miss his cue because the sea monster kit was missing, I turned to my fellow chaperone and said ‘This really isn’t working’.  Amanda took one look at the situation and solved it in one fell swoop. Up in the dressing room we had a faulty sound system and thus could not hear the cues from off stage, and so a mum sat out in the auditorium with a full script and ran in to tell us when to go.  There were two quick change scenes when we had two panicking girls with knotted ballet pumps ribbons, and we had one child with a panic attack and one who needed an asthma inhaler.  Because we were trying it out team by team, we had props in the wrong place, kids in the wrong place, and for someone who is hard pushed to tell Left from Right, introducing Stage Left and Stage Right into the equation was tantamount to disaster. This was not the Herding Sheep vision that I had had of Chaperoning, this was full on show responsibility.  But we got through it, with a lot of stopping and starting, and I was delighted to hear at the end of the day (only because it stopped me feeling inept), that it had been simplified a bit.

One of the mums who had been watching, ready to step in as chaperone on Tech Day 2, came in to the rather sweaty dressing room at the end of the day, her eyes shining.  ‘That was absolutely BRILLIANT!’ she exclaimed.  I was ecstatic.  I’ve not really been a part of this process, only by virtue of being Little Man’s mum have I got involved – but once you are, you really are, and it was like someone had said that my baby was beautiful… and I beamed.

I looked round for Little Man. He was nowhere to be seen.  I found him at the entrance to his dressing room.  He was allowing the giggling girls in, three at a time, on an inspection tour of the room and the fridge. 

He’s got ShowBiz sussed that boy…

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Revues, Reviews and a Slice of Cake

My husband G is very fond of the old Laurel and Hardy skits.  The boys and I sit in silence with blank stares as he roars with laughter at the black and white footage, often with tears rolling down his face.  We on the other hand, have the same reaction when watching An Idiot Abroad, or Miranda, or Come Fly With Me, whereas he sits there with a slightly baffled smile.  We have all agreed to disagree on things like this – and we vary who we side with -  indeed, I am in the minority when the men of the household are glued to Man vs Food, Ice Road Truckers, and that strangest of phenomena Lizard Lick Towing.

But there is no doubt that there is a type of comedy that is more slapstick than others, and the joy in the humour is that of predictability and anticipation.  Often the gag’s ending is predictable from the start, but it is the joy in how it reaches that ending, and the anticipation of that ending.  It is the stuff from which all comedy was born, it filled the theatre revues pre-, during, and post- war, it fathered the black and white movies, and it became the basis from which every working stand up comedian studied their craft.  It is, also, of course, the foundation of every pantomime.

So it was with interest this week that I attended some of the rehearsals – mainly in my capacity as fully licensed chaperone (oh yes!), but also because I wanted to see how it was all progressing.  The principal stars of the show work in the main from 9.30 in the morning to about 3.30, breaking a couple of times and then they are joined by the juveniles at 4.00, who then warm up for about ten minutes before the second lot of rehearsals begin.  Amanda appears to be living mainly on coffee, but the other actors wander around with fruit, sandwiches and copious amounts of water in a practice room which gets hotter and hotter as the night progresses. This rehearsal time is the time in which the stars scripts merge with the juveniles script and suddenly the whole picture becomes clearer.  As in any good comedy there are a number of points at which the action becomes fast paced and almost chaotic, and there are several groaners of lines, but it is fascinating as an observer to see how 3 teams of kids slot into their duplicate scenes seamlessly around the main unchangeable cast, each character having the same moves or lines as his or her predecessor. 

In terms of the performance therefore, it is very promising, and the local Press have been incredibly generous with their coverage of the forthcoming production, more so because they also have to feature the rival more established pantomimes who have paid adverts appearing in the media.  The latest billboard, this time featuring the juveniles, appeared last week to great reviews, both from fond families and in the press.  Features on the main characters are being run every few days or so in the local online Mums In The Know group, and generally everyone has a genuine desire to help this pantomime succeed. The staff at the Harlington Centre, used to running and advertising one and two day events, have had to adapt an entirely new long term form of marketing in terms of social media and press relations – and last weekend for the first time ever (@fleetpanto) took part in a 24 hour Tweetathon along with hundreds of other pantomimes nationwide for Panto Day 2013. Exhausting but exhilarating, the efforts reached thousands of pantoland fans, connected with several, and was retweeted by many before bidding a fond farewell for another year. I really hope that those at The Harlington continue to build on this success, keeping up the momentum and ensuring that the work put in by others is not wasted.

There is nothing like a little politeness or acknowledgement to make the world go round. It was Little Man’s birthday today, and I lumbered in to rehearsals carrying an enormous cake, because, he said, he wanted everyone to have a slice.  Not only did the whole cast sing Happy Birthday to him twice – once at the beginning, and once again at the end for cake – but every single child came up to him and thanked him for their slice, and wished him a happy birthday.

He left beaming.  The camaraderie amongst the kids and even amongst the parents is amazing.Perhaps it is because of the predictability of the situation (we are all in this together, come hell or high water). Or perhaps it is the joy of the anticipation… 

Either way, we’re having a right old laugh…

Saturday, 7 December 2013

It's Behind You

One of the problems of running a first time pantomime in a first time venue for the first time is that there are teething problems right from the start. Not only are you competing with the established heavyweight pantomimes in the area, but you have to get the word out that you are there, and running, and that you are a bona fide contender for the Public’s money.  The other pantomimes generally have well seasoned and reasoned modes of marketing and financing and attract big stars and sponsors with success.  

As a first timer, you literally have to prove yourself every step of the way.  And thus it is that the cast and crew of Dick Whittington have had to work extra hard to ensure that not only the people of Fleet, but also the surrounding areas, are fully aware that there is another Panto in town. And because all those in the Panto Know, Panto Show groups are keeping a close eye on everything the New Kid on the Block does, the rehearsal schedule at Fleet has ramped up a bit and everyone has to be that super bit better and slicker than anyone else.

Little Man and his juvenile cast have, for the past week and a half, been involved in evening rehearsals after school.  These generally run for 3 hours, and on top of a school day and all that that entails at this time of year, it has been quite a feat.  But they seem to thrive on it.  The mummies on the other hand are getting more Stressed Looking each evening as they battle through the Christmas traffic, try and find a car parking space, pay for a car parking ticket (I swear the wardens wait outside The Harlington just to catch those dropping their kids off) and rush their kids in to rehearsals, whilst simultaneously divesting their little divas of school bags, blazers, ties – in short, anything that would get lost and cause chaos on the school run the next morning.   The lady at Reception at Little Man’s school has become adept at grabbing him from class.  I have become adept at whipping up sandwiches in Ready Steady Cook style from leftovers in the fridge (yesterday he had a cold croissant with cream cheese and salami – I told him it was a French-Italian dish called a Fromali) and my other boys have become adept at Eggy Bread until I get in and make a Hot Fromali, or some such other tempting dish…  And it is not only the kids, but the stars who have put in the hours.  Working long days, they come in the main from London, arriving early in the morning and staying until the end of rehearsals in the evening.  In between hours of plotting moves (‘blocking’) and trying out lines, they manage to fit in personal appearances at functions as diverse as an under-teen disco to an NCT meeting with young mums and babies, and Amanda, as Fairy BowBells has become as ubiquitous as the Tooth Fairy.

But that has not been enough.  Without the backing of the people of Fleet, the Pantomime would have struggled.  But Fleet seems to like the purple bill board grinning down at them.  They seem to like the fact that the stars nip down to the local sandwich shop during lunch breaks, and they are positively warm to the fact that many of their youngsters are featuring (often for the first time) so heavily in the show.  The local traders of Fleet have given out flyers, put up posters and joined in with gusto in the latest campaign run on social media by a very savvy marketing department featuring Jeremy Edwards in a series of ‘Where’s Jeremy?’  poses in town. They are fully behind the panto – knowing that with it, the business will pick up in town and unlike the out- of- town shows, the restaurants and bars will flourish with theatre goers. Even the privately owned shopping mall in Fleet, which traditionally advertises another pantomime in Aldershot, is hedging its bets on the success of our pantomime and displaying Fleets banner as well – so rather strangely on coming in you will be urged to see one show, and going out you will see the other!

The set is being built, and the costumes have nearly all been made –at the end of one rehearsal I came in early and saw a production line of rats noses, yards and yards of blue velveteen and one mum (who is not known for her crafting talents) proudly displayed a box full of pairs of little gold bells that she had put together.  I enquired what they were and she answered cheerfully ‘No idea…but do you like them?’   The songs have been sung and the scripts have been learned and now it’s putting actions to words.

Little Man came back last night and said that he had done a scene with Jeremy Edwards. 

‘What did you have to do?’ I asked, trying to stop sounding impressed.
‘I had to fight him for a chicken’ he answered nonchalantly, tucking into a hot Fromali sans cheese or salami (ok, a croissant then…)

‘It’s a secret’
‘Oh No its Not’ I said, ‘I’m your mum’
‘Oh Yes It Is!’ he replied with a wink and skipped out of the room.

And we haven’t even started the show yet…

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Drones, Phones and Chaperones

It was with some amusement that I read all about the R&D department at Amazon and their development of a delivery drone.  For those of you who have not had time to catch up on the latest, the idea is that these little flying or travelling robots will deliver small packages with more efficiency than their human counterparts.  I have become quite attached to my Amazon delivery driver – after all, I see him most days leading up to Christmas – and am not sure that I would have the same rapport with a robot (and where would they keep that ridiculous electronic Etcha-Sketch that you attempt to sign with a flourish)? 

However, I can see the opportunities, and in the future can imagine these drones being put to a lot of use – for example, you could have the Home Drone, who picks up the socks off the sofa and deposits them in the washing machine.  The Moan Drone would neatly package up the kids in the morning and drop them off in the school playground without a murmur.  The Bone Drone would of course walk the dog.  And my favourite, the Foam Drone, would run a bath and scrub your back whilst serving up a crisp, cold, glass of Chablis.   However, it seems that there is an awful lot more R &D to do on this and legislation to get over, and frankly I am expecting to see a flying pig before an airborne Amazon Drone.

No flying pigs, but cute little Vietnamese pot bellied pigs and a baby donkey were on show at the school Christmas Fayre this year, courtesy of Millers Ark.  The school had really pulled out all the stops, and on top of the ever popular tombola, where you could win bags of sweets and chocolates, there were some real Grown Up stalls where you could grab Grandma a homemade something, indulge in some wine tasting, buy some tasty cheeses or even an oil painting. The halls were packed, with people trying on vintage clothing, having their nails done, decorating biscuits, drinking mulled wine, or generally mooching about whilst their kids ran up constantly asking for more cash.  

Fairy Bowbells opened proceedings (with Little Man hanging back a little shyly in front of all of his friends who were giggling and pointing), and after a hasty exit into the disabled toilets, re-emerged as Amanda in order to go home without being mobbed by excited little girls.  Glamorous work when you can get it, and was her final appearance in just over 20 school visits – but essential when you are promoting a first time pantomime in a first time venue.  Little Man took off his sparkly Christmas Dick Whittington hat and was soon lost in the crowds, as I chatted to various Mummies on my way round the stalls.  ‘Ooh’, said one, ‘I saw you at the Lights last night’.  This kind of threw me a bit, as it has been so frenetic recently, that one forgets what one has been to, but indeed we had been at a Lights Switch on the night before, which was fairly low key, and at which I had been the Chaperone.  

Highlights of that night had been no means of playing the backing CD (solved by getting a local mum to race back home for her laptop), sitting in a pub round a pool table with 10 kids to warm up before their appearance (and not having a drink…) and the loss of Fairy Bowbells' very important sparkly fairy mobile phone (which she normally tucked into her bra strap).  After flying around in panic for a couple of minutes, she then discovered that it was a costume malfunction rather than a loss of phone, and that it had got lodged in her bodice… all in a day’s work, and I am delighted to say that all kids were accounted for both in and out of the event and so I gave myself a little pat on the back for being such an excellent Chaperone!

The Chaperones meeting took place during rehearsals, where Caz, the Head Chaperone, told us all about our roles on this production, what we would need to wear and where to be.  On some of the shows, the kids have a matter of an hour or so before preparing for the next show, and as they are not allowed to eat in their costumes, they were advised to bring onesies or big t shirts to cover up.   We were told to wear black, and ‘cheap black’ – stuff that could be thrown away at the end of the season as it would be covered in make up, hairspray, maybe even sick.  (You never know with kids…) Little Man and the other Freds (bearing in mind they are the only juvenile boy each show) would have their own changing ‘cupboard’ – and yes, I’m afraid I did make the crack about him coming out of the closet – but would be able to join the girls once they had changed, and would have their own Chaperone. 

And then we sorted out who would cover what technical rehearsals and performances, just as the call came through to collect the kids from rehearsals.   Little Man wandered out – his hair slicked back with gel.  This, I was assured, was how his hair had to be on each performance.  I looked at the girls hair – each child, depending on what role they had (bearing in mind that there is three of each character) had a hairstyle unique to that role.  There was a lot of plaits, and Kirby grips and hairspray going on.  I raised my eyes to heaven and thanked God yet again that mine was a male.

I got a text from G on the way home.
<How did rehearsal go?>  
<Great, on way home> 
<Good stuff.  Cat has eaten frozen chicken.  Assume that was lunch?>

Dear Amazon R&D department, forget the delivery drone, what I need is a Clone Drone… 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Tinsel, Tantrums and a Missing Fairy Wand

‘The secret is to be useless at school and then get lucky’ – that was the statement made recently by Simon Cowell on a US show.  It was a tongue in cheek remark which was however, taken up by the Education Secretary Michael Gove and disputed at length in the Press.  As a mum who has recently entered the arena of the theatrical arts with her 8 year old son, but has friends in both sectors, it was interesting to read about – whilst all the time shaking her head.  The fact of the matter is, that from a Parent’s perspective, both of them are Right, and Wrong. Mr Cowell is wrong in perpetuating the myth that Svenghali-like he will change the fortunes of those who cross his path, regardless of qualifications.  Gove is wrong because there are a lot of unemployed graduates out there (I know, I’ve read their CVs).  However, what was amusing about this tiff was that actually, bravado aside, they were both saying the same thing – hard work pays off.  But for the artist to have an education gives him or her that additional crutch, should they fall on hard times in their chosen career (or get rejected at the X Factor audition stage). 

And of course, school is about so much more than education.  It’s about sociability, it’s about activity, it’s about respect, discipline and mobility.  Rather like the arts.  So Mr Cowell and Mr Gove, stop the tantrums, agree to disagree, and get on with saving the world in your own unique ways…

It was with a drawn breath however, that I looked at the final rehearsal schedule for the pantomime.  As I write, we have exactly 16 days until Opening Night.  This is a big deal, and comes with a timetable which necessitates Little Man leaving school early most nights, which means my leaving work early most nights, which means that everything gets slightly more crammed into an already packed day, and somehow we then have to fit in homework, and the blessed concerts that come up as par for the course at this time of year.   On talking to other first time panto mums, we all had the same reaction – it was going to be very hard work indeed.  There was a lot of talk of getting the wine in, Dominos on speed dial, burnt sausage casseroles and so on.  The kids have been absolutely fine – possibly because they are used to the discipline at school, it was just the adults who were having the wobbles.

So far we have managed to cover 4 Christmas Light Switch ons, with one more to go.  As a little troupe we have smiled and sung our way through Fleet, Odiham, Farnham and Yateley, and will be appearing at Hartley Wintney shortly.  We’ve coped with freezing cold weather, dodgy sound systems, various quality of staging and the disappearance of Fairy Bow Bells wand (luckily she had a spare). The kids have handed out fliers, smiled for the Press calls,  shimmered in tinsel and remained entirely upbeat throughout perishing conditions in which the parents are huddled, muttering about mulled wine and hot mince pies and Bah Humbug… 

And this is only the beginning.   Mr Cowell, Mr Gove – you are both right.  With a lot of hard work, you can get lucky, you can achieve. 

And a big coat and a flask of tea also helps.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Youthful Outlook

One of the first things that you notice about the 48 strong cast in Dick Whittington is that 90% them are under 25 years old. It is, as Jeremy Edwards (@jqedwards) tweeted ‘an insanely talented cast #feelingold’ .  And indeed, at just 19, Layton Williams (@LaytonWilliams) has achieved so much already – the lead role in Billy Elliott, Thriller the Musical, School for Stars and Bad Education, Victoria Quincey (@victoriaquincey) has recently set up her own dance school and Greg Airey (@gregairey)not only has impeccable acting credentials, but is also a talented photographer.  Add that to the kids and principal dancers, many of whom have been in a myriad of shows already, as a mum rapidly approaching middle age (@RuthyM007) one has to stand back and watch in admiration.

But of course the story of Dick Whittington is a young story.  It is all about the ambition and the arrogance of youth.  It is all about the desire to transcend the path of your forebears and strike out on your own.  It’s about cash rich schemes, young irresponsible love, the foolish things one says or does in the heat of the moment and the need to face up to adversity.  It is modern in its outlook – a single dad bringing up his kids to think for themselves and fend for themselves in an economic situation much like today, it’s about a young man leaving home to make money in the City and it draws on a great tradition of role reversals in all good love stories where a woman dresses as a man to impress a man -As You Like It, Zorro, Blackadder.  (Ok, the last two may not be in the annals of history but you get my drift…)

However, what would Dick et al have done if he was in his thirties?  Would he have approached  life differently? Would he perhaps have left the cat at home, knowing that digs in London would probably refuse to home an ancient animal, and that he would have to pay extra?  Would Alice have given into the urge of the biological clock by then and run off with the local baker?   Would they all listen to advice, or still forge ahead in the hot headed manner of their twenties?

I’m not sure. But it got me to thinking. If I could give myself 10 tips in my twenties from the hindsight of my forties, what would I say?  Here goes.

1)   Speak your Opinions, Don’t let your Opinions Speak   You are twenty years old, contrary to your opinion, you don’t know everything, and could learn from others rather than riding roughshod over them.  You are very forceful, talented and charismatic, but you are not always right.
2)   That Love of Your Life?  He wasn’t… Enjoy life, keep safe.
3)   Don’t ignore the Middle Aged Woman You know her, you think she’s mad, running after her kids all the time, letting herself go.  She may turn out to be the best thing that happened to you.  She may once have been as driven as you, but changed course somehow.  She may be right. She may be you in years to come.
4)   Toughen Up You’re going to need it in the years to come.  Especially when you become a parent.  You are going to have to face things you never knew you had the strength to cope with.  And you will get through it.
5)   Enjoy your Looks You know how you think you’re fat?  You are soooo not.  Everything sinks and yes, those knobbly knees will disappear.  You may have to work on your hair colour – take it from me, the perms were not a good idea, and black hair drains you. And your skin? This is one instance when the price is right – invest in a good cream and you won’t look back.
6)   Don’t get Caught Out You aren’t yet living in the age of social media, but if you were, you would take to it like a duck to water.  But your digital self would not represent the kind of person you actually are.  It’s not big to slag other people off, it’s not cool to be rude.  You would look at your postings when in your forties and shudder with embarrassment.
7)   Save Some Money Ok, I know it’s not going to happen.  But I’ve given the advice.  Life is for living after all, but there will be hard years ahead, and a nest egg is always handy in an emergency.
8)   Your cat is gonna die After her, you will have 3 cats, 2 dogs, 3 goldfish and a very overweight hamster in your life. Lots of tears, and burials in the garden. Shit happens.
9)   You will meet the Love of your Life He won’t be what you expected, and where you expected.  It will be a rollercoaster adventure – but then you’ve been on the Corkscrew at Alton Towers 11 times in a row, so you will be fine.
10) You will have kids I know you think you’re not maternal, but you are.  And your kids will bring you more happiness than you have ever experienced.  All that energy spent running around  in pursuit of happiness that you are doing now will simply be poured into your children.  And they will repay you by flourishing and growing and achieving things that even you never dreamed of.

Looking back, would I have followed my own advice? Probably not.   Would You, The Reader, add any more?

Til the next time, this young (nearly) middle aged mum  is signing over and out.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

Christmas Tree Lights

All across the country, in various towns and villages, there is the annual switching on of the local Christmas Tree lights.  The tree itself is usually a bedraggled nonentity most of the year (if it is a permanent town resident), but on a certain day at a certain time of year it springs into life as a symbol of the start of the festive period.  Depending on which town, village or city you live in, the switching on affair can range from a group of people simply plugging in the lights to a full blown fiesta with pop and rock bands and celebrities counting down.  Fleet falls in between both categories.

One of the duties of a pantomime crew is to attend as many switch ons as possible (preferably locally) in order to promote the pantomime and get ‘bums on seats’.  The weather forecast for the Fleet lights switch on was looking a bit grim, but we had been told to deck the kids out in their purple Dick Whittington t-shirts with layers – even coats- underneath the t-shirts.  And so it was that 36 roly poly kids wandered into the Harlington Centre visibly sweating as they weebled through rehearsals, and shedding layers as they worked.  Amanda, as Fairy BowBells, floated fragrantly past as Caz started to bellow out instructions to the children in her best army major Head Chaperone tones.

P, my cohort on the chaperoning course, and also her husband, was skulking in the background looking for all the world like a Mexican bandido. ‘What have you come as?’ I asked cheerily, after greeting him.  ‘Movember’ he replied in a muffled voice, as Caz turned to find out who the noisy insubordinates were.  A reporter from the local newspaper and his videographer started to record the kids singing and Little Man looked enthralled as he jiggled his hands and head and the pompom on his Christmas hat bobbed up and down.  (Note to self: good mummy for not sewing on gold bells, it would have been reminiscent of Noddy on acid).

Then it was all hands on deck and into a rehearsal for the three songs with the full cast.  The Dame was wearing an outrageous outfit and this time resembled a mulitcoloured crocheted dalek with a voluminous hooped skirt, topped off with a plant pot (and flower), perched jauntily on her head.  Unfortunately she kept forgetting this, and on several occasions got trapped in the door jamb.  Layton Williams looked like something out of Narnia as he stretched and pirouetted excitedly, his lithe body clothed in a white shirt and tight fitting breeches, replete with furry tail.

At this point I spoke to the reporter, who was looking out of the window at the rain shimmying off the roads.  It turned out that his patch also covered Aldershot, which has a renowned panto scene.  How did ours, I asked, compare to our rivals?  His answer was that Aldershot was a much bigger affair, more cast, crew and a theatre with an established panto base.  He looked thoughtfully at our merry band as they all trilled together in perfect harmony. ‘Of course’, he said, ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be big to be good.’ I could have given him a hug.

‘Loo break!’ called Caz, ‘Anyone need the loo before we go outside?’  ‘Not me’ answered Jeremy Edwards cheerfully as she shot him a stern look.  P handed out a glow stick to each child who hung it around their necks as a little beacon of light. And quickly we all filed out into the crisp air.

Hundreds of people were gathered expectantly in front of the stage.  Fairground attractions, stalls, the smell of donuts and the sound of the candyfloss machine – all surrounded our little troupe as they stood there smiling away glowing radioactively in the dusk.  A huge roar erupted as the stars of the show walked on to the small wet stage, ‘Jeremy!’ called an ecstatic  woman behind me. 

‘Everyone having fun?’  called Fairy BowBells as she launched into the first song.  Then the stars took it in turns to introduce themselves.  ‘Jeremy!’ shrieked his fan.  Then The Pyromaniacs took the floor in front of the stage launching balls of fire up into the air and shooting flames from their mouths. ‘Jeremy’ said the groupie faintly as the flames came dangerously close to us. 

And then it came – a moment that was unexpected, but joyous to behold.  All the local schools had sent along some children who filed in front of the stage dressed in Christmas hats and stood smiling up at our kids. They kept on coming, waving all the while, until the floor space was filled with little shining faces.  The music started, and a specially composed Song for Fleet filled the air, with hundreds of little voices joining the purple crew in a massed solidarity of communal appreciation.  Tears streamed down the face of the woman behind me as she swayed, murmuring ‘Jeremy’.  And then he took the stage, kneeling by the switch as our panto crew led the crowds in the countdown to the Lights Switch On.

Five, Four, Three, Two, One!  The roars were deafening.  Nothing happened.  No lights.  Nada.  Jeremy’s handsome face looked a little perplexed.  Someone in the crowd began to snigger, and then Fairy BowBells clapped her hands and pointed at the tree as it suddenly sprang into life in a myriad of twinkling white lights.  Oooooohhhh! Went the crowd and burst into wild clapping and back slapping all round.

I went into the hall to collect my son.  Little Man was standing, feet together, arms held outwards slightly.  He had been decorated in all the left over glow sticks.  ‘Look Mummy’, he said, ‘I’m a Christmas Tree.’ 

The countdown to Christmas has well and truly begun…

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sibling Rivalry

There’s something about a baddie.  Usually you love to hate them, or their background story is so entangled that you realise why they are bad and forgive them for it – until of course the time comes when you have to choose between good and evil and the goodie comes up trumps.  I still can’t watch Star Wars and not feel sorry for the heavy breathing villain that is Darth Vader, and how many people mourned the death of Dirty Den in EastEnders, sighed when Jaws plunged to his death in James Bond, or secretly envied Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada?   It goes without saying that a good baddie makes or breaks a story…

But what happens when the baddie is your sibling?  When the ying and yang jar against the forces of dark and light, black and white, bad and good? When the evil twin is a reality?

This has to be tough – those of us lucky enough to share our childhoods with siblings know that it take compromise, humour and at times a whole lot of soul searching to live together in harmony.  And for most of us, we manage to muddle along okay, and discover the benefits once grown up.  But for those where it doesn’t work, it can be catastrophic.

Imagine a blonde bombshell who is clever, good minded, pretty and kind and her dark haired, mean spirited, jealous, bitter and twisted twin sister. Imagine then that the blonde gets the man that they are both after.  Imagine the fall out.  Imagine a situation in which the wronged and wrong sister vows to wreak revenge, and havoc ensues involving kids, cats, rats, pirates and a very good looking man. Imagine if it was taking place right under your noses.

No, it’s not the latest episode of Jeremy Kyle.  No, it’s not I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.  It’s not even the Ten O’Clock News with Huw Edwards winking at you (yes, all right…I'm putting it out there, along with my Colin Firth fantasy…)

Book now for Dick Whittington at

It’s big, it’s bad and it’s incredibly compulsive viewing.  As I said, everyone loves a good baddie.  She swishes, she snarls, she’s mean, she’s Queen.  

And she’s on her way…

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Fairy with Hart

By now you may or may not have gathered that a pantomime is coming to town, but there’s something a flutter in Fleet. Wherever you go, you get the feeling that someone or something has been there before you – it may be the little smattering of extra sparkly dew on the grass at Fleet Pond, it may be the trail of twinkling kisses in the sky as you stagger home from a night in Propaganda, or it may be the distinct impression that you have just seen a Fairy with wings and a wand standing outside Costa Coffee… 

There is no doubt that running a pantomime in a town for the first time takes that little bit of extra effort and magic, and this is what it takes with Dick Whittington.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with most of the characters in the play, and aware that the show’s producer Amanda, is also acting the dual characters of Fairy BowBells (goodie) and Queen Rat (baddie).  This is quite common in panto land – most main characters double or even treble as other parts, and part of the fun is in spotting who is who.  But what is not so usual is that the producer also writes the script (contrary to many enquiries, I had no hand in it!), runs the castings, interviews the crew, sources all the props and merchandise and perhaps most crucially for a first time show, does a lot of the promotions.  A lot of this, of course is down to budget – if this production is successful then the next will have some legacy to build upon – but it takes a passion and a commitment to continue to hammer away at peoples preconceptions and doubts, and this is where the power of Fairy comes in (sorry, couldn’t resist that one…)

And so it is that most of the local schools by now have had a morning assembly in which Fairy BowBells appears as if by magic, waving her wand and singing a special song – weaving her spells around the kids who are just waking up from their bowl of Weetabix.  Naomi House Hospice for children with terminal illnesses welcomed her with open arms as she sprinkled a bit of fairy dust in the air and cuddled the kids.  She’s appeared in the shopping mall and posed with wide eyed little girls who have asked if she is the tooth fairy.  She has flown into restaurants on request, floated in and out of old folks homes with a smile and with a flick of her wand opened a children’s play centre.

But her biggest challenge to date is giving blood.  There has been a shortage locally of blood, and so she too will be joining everyone in Fleet today on the blood gurney. I’m not sure how the blood bank will fare with Fairy Blood, but this could be a new thing – will we be seeing the Elves from Elvetham Heath lining up behind the little crooked Goblins from Church Crookham and the Pixies from Zebon Copse?  If you are in Fleet today, be sure to report back to me as I will be intrigued to find out…

I don’t know how this pantomime will work out.  I do know that it has taken blood (literally), sweat and many tears to get this far.  All I ask is that when you come to see the show, if you believe in fairies, clap your hands resoundingly at the end – because we have one helluva Fairy with Hart.    

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Full Of It...

Sometimes, with writing, it takes will power and the knowledge that with a little bit of time, and starting over and over, something will eventually come of it. I have discovered that it is the same with any creative craft – take Strictly Come Dancing for instance, one week you can be reasonably good, and then the next you simply suck and Bruno and Len are rolling their eyes dramatically.

If you are aged 8 and are full of cold, and face this mental dilemma, it can be the pits.  Little Man insisted on going to the last panto rehearsals which were 4 hours long due to skipping one weekend for half term, and I warned the head chaperone Caz that he was a little under the weather.  He had learned his songs, but had that fuzzy echoey head that you have with a cold, and he looked a little weary, if determined.  ‘Are you going to be all right?’ both Caz and I asked him, and he nodded gingerly.

I mooched around Fleet for an hour, expecting a call, and then drove home.  Just as I pulled into the drive the phone rang – could I come and collect him… He really wasn’t feeling very well and looked a bit green when I arrived.  Of course it turned out that he had a sicky bug and then I felt like a terrible mum for sending him there in the first place (you really can’t win as a parent), but as we sat and cuddled on the sofa I felt very proud of him for his perseverance that day. 

We wondered how to make it up to him, and G with a flourish, produced a tatty old copy of the film Billy Elliott.  This we all thought was a great idea, as it was about a young boy who was passionate about dancing, it would be a first for Monty, we hadn’t seen it for years, and Layton Williams (the cat in the pantomime) had played the role in the West End.  It ticked all the boxes for a night in.

I remember once taking my elderly aunt to watch Look Who’s Talking when it first came out.  For those of you who have never seen it, or need reminding, the first five minutes feature a couple rolling around in ecstasy and then cuts to a talking sperm on the race to meet an egg.  My aunt and I stared straight ahead at the screen, I was wondering if the heating had gone on suddenly, she was in shock.  I had a déjà vu feeling when watching the opening scene in Bridesmaids with my mother-in-law, and now here we were, in the same situation, with Little Man.  On screen  there was F-ing and Blinding like no tomorrow, Little Man’s eyes were like saucers, and G and I couldn’t look at one another and stared straight ahead, willing the TV to explode or there to be a power cut. 

We had done such a good sales job on the film, but had forgotten the extent of the bad language.  But there is no doubt that it is a brilliant storyline and soon the swearing became irrelevant as we all got lost in the tenderness of the writing and joys of Billy’s extraordinary achievements.

The credits rolled, and Little Man’s eyes were lightly sparkling with tears.  ‘Did you enjoy it?’ I asked.
‘It was f****** brilliant Mam!’ he answered perkily in an appropriate accent.

I may have a bit of explaining to do at school…

Monday, 4 November 2013


There’s a stir in the air,
a shuffle in the leaves
There’s wind in our hair
and creaking in the eaves
There’s rain on the roads
and puddles for our shoes
But everything’s stopped. 
Have you heard the news?
There’s a whisper in the town,
a small clear voice
There’s the sound of a song,
with girls and boys
There’s a big purple billboard,
there’s a script, everything
There’s swashbuckling, fire,
and a very rich king
There’s a love interest,
some Pirates, a very bad Rat
A Fairy, some kiddies
and a Dancing Cat
The pace is upbeat,
not long til the show
There’s chaos ahead
(for those in the know)
There’s lines to be learned,
outfits to choose
Songs to be sung
and no time to lose
Fireworks to be lit,
Sets to be made,
Christmas lights switches,
joining the parade
There’s a shuffle in the leaves,
a stir in the air
It’s Fleet’s first ever Panto!
Will You be there? 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Support Acts

It is often said that behind every great man there is an even greater woman.  Take the genders aside, there is a lot of truth in that statement, nobody can be great without the support of others.  In fact, it often takes more effort and self restraint to be the supporting act than the front man (or woman), whereas the Best Actress/Actors are often in the roles in the first place because they are the big name money pullers, it is the support acts whose job it is to make them shine like the stars they are. And of course, nowhere more is this exemplified than in Strictly Come Dancing, where the professionals are forced to take the supporting role – often when there is simply no hope (apologies to Anne W, Russell G and John S on this one).

If you are a parent, you will understand all too well the nature of the supporting role… whether it is hovering around in the background as your child marches in full costume up to strangers doors at Halloween, or shouting encouragingly from the sidelines at their soccer/rugby/athletics (substitute what you will) matches, or trying hopelessly to join in on words of songs for the next panto rehearsal.  No matter what your child throws at you, you enable it to happen to the best of your ability, and often without so much of a backward glance until that well earned grubby and sweaty little hug at the end of the adventure.

The silly season starts with Halloween and then reaches a crescendo with Christmas and New Year.  For those of you who do not have the additional minefield of pantomime performances, you may still have that nightmare of every parent – the School Nativity…  This has traditionally filled me with dread – from the emergency stop at Tesco after the realization that my old and stained tea towels would simply disgrace the head of my little shepherd, to the waiting with baited breath at the actual performance – knowing that one of the actors would fall off the stage, need the toilet, or yawn – and praying that it wouldn’t be yours.  For a couple of years we watched one son who was a shepherd (he got bored and started to punch his lamb’s head in), one son as a Wise Man (who at the crucial moment forgot what his gift was),  and one son suddenly announced that he was Joseph.  Luckily he did not have a lot of words, but we still watched anxiously.  We needn’t have worried as Mary was a sturdy young lass who with enormous delight grabbed him by the arm, whisked him up the aisle, marched him over to the stable door, negotiated loudly with the landlord and gave birth with a ruthless efficiency.  But it does of course depend very much on whether the main act wants to be the centre of attention – I know of one Nativity in which Joseph refused point blank at the last minute to go on stage, and so his Mary suddenly became a single mum in a dodgy old barn and the story took on a whole new angle.

And sometimes being a supporting act takes on an unexpected role. Eldest Son came in the other day and being, in the main, a Sports Jock, he looked a little uncomfortable.  He had been sequestered into his inter house debating team, with less than 24 hours to go and no seconder, and had to argue against the Motion which was ‘The Police Force in the UK should carry Weapons’.  It was, he said grimly, useless, because all the police in other countries carried guns, the opposition was a boy /girl team who had had days to prepare, and he couldn’t see the argument for his side.  I worked with him on a couple of pointers, tried to dissuade him from his predilection for announcing solemnly ‘This House believes…’, and stuck him on the school bus with the usual ‘Good Luck’ and sage advice ‘Try and find someone to second you…’   He came back full of the joys of autumn and said that his team had won.  Not only had he found someone to second him, but the other team had fallen apart by arguing amongst themselves.

I don’t know what the next few weeks will bring you.  You may have to arrange your office Christmas party and watch your boss take all the praise.  Or slave over Christmas dinner only to have your mother in law commend your husband on his carving. Or wrap up countless presents and write millions of cards which will not be gratefully received. Or have lots of people invade your house and eat your food and not offer you a cup of tea. Or even scurry around blindly in the darkness back stage as your little actor takes to the floorboards.  

But one thing I do know – behind every great individual, there is an even greater one, rolling their eyes…

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Stage Fright

In my twenties I had the good fortune to work for an events company that was run by somewhat of an eccentric, who let me develop my wild and whacky ideas ready for pitching to mainly unsuspecting clients and with a good degree of success.  It was a small company, and entailed my having a finger in most pies – from original concept, to pitch, to development – and hence I would find myself in the strangest of situations, in the strangest of lands, at the strangest of times, and I would have had it no other way. 

But by far and away the most common thing that I encountered was that all the presenters – whether they were corporate guest speakers paid by the thousands, or the Marketing Director of a small firm – had to cope with their stage fright.  Some of them (a news presenter, a Sports celebrity and a sky sports presenter) would ask constant questions and seek reassurances, others (a Singer, a Radio DJ and a Business Troubleshooter) would sit quietly and make notes, and others, like me, would have to have five minutes before going on to that stage and becoming the public persona that made them money. 

Another of my jobs was to limit the pre-stage nerves for those clients unaccustomed to public speaking, and to teach them coping methods, reading the autocue, breathing, imagining people naked etc.  Of course, because I too suffered from stage fright, my crew became accustomed to my Taking Five in a corner backstage before a show, and once someone came and joined me, her hands shaking in companionable silence.  She’s recently appeared as a Loose Woman, with no show of nerves at all in front of the camera.

My two eldest sons are very successful in their chosen sports – but before any sports competition Eldest Son asks a litany of questions which sound nonsensical to someone who does not realise that it is his way of channeling his nervous energy.  Middle Son prefers to take himself off and Take Five – and sports teachers and coaches have learned to leave him to it. 

But up until this weekend Little Man was to a certain extent an unknown. Of course we knew that he is ultra confident on the school stage and in life in general – but this was the first time that he had been on an unknown stage, and in an unknown medium, a tap solo.  He had practiced and practiced and practiced, and was a veritable Happy Feet in the supermarket, at home, even in his sleep.  But our one worry was whether he would be like those unfortunate x factor auditionees and freeze once on stage, facing an unknown audience and a panel of judges. 

Being the only boy contestant in his group, he was in a changing room on his own with me, and began pacing up and down, asking me constant questions.  His dance teacher came to join us and she ran through a couple of things.  ‘Don’t forget to Smile’ she said, ‘they like you to Smile’.

The time came, Little Man walked on to the stage with a taut toothy smile etched on his face.  ‘What is he doing?’ hissed Middle Son, who had come along with my husband to support.  I felt sick, and began to shake as the familiar music started up.  ‘Oh God’, moaned G at my side.  I looked at him, he had his eyes shut, unwilling to watch.  Little Man tip tapped away, his smile unfading, and then loosened up a bit and threw in a few wide mouthed Oohs and Aahs shapes.  Eventually he finished, bowing with a smile and coming back on stage with a smile as the contestants stood for a few minutes whilst the judges made their decisions. He didn’t get the coveted first prize, but came away with a silver medal, and only I could tell that he was a tiny bit upset as he stood on stage, smiling as if his life depended on it as he congratulated the pretty and confident Pink Panther who won. And never was I more proud of him.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or what situation you are in, but when the nerves get the better of you the trick is to utilize those nerves, harness them and turn them to your advantage.  Stage fight that stage fright, and things will always turn out ok in the end.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Oooh Matron!

One of the things that you get asked at your child’s audition is if you are willing to act as a Chaperone or Matron during some of the performances. This is essentially the woman or man who looks after the little performers during the actual show, helping out when necessary with costume changes, ensuring that they are quiet backstage, occupied, helping in emergencies (‘I need the toilet’), and making sure that the kids are genuinely enjoying the experience of being part of the show. All of us volunteered – we’ve all helped out at school and passed the relevant CRB’s – how much more complicated could it be than that? We were allocated a basic rota which was subject to change once the show run unfolded and extra bodies would be called in if necessary.

So far, so good. But what I hadn’t realised was that although the pantomime was to be run in Hampshire, the training depended on where you as a chaperone lived.  So the mummies were then divided into the various counties from whence they came.  You had a training session one evening  if you lived in Hampshire or Berkshire, but if, like me, you are a resident over the border in Surrey, it becomes a whole different kettle of fish.

Caz, our Head Chaperone, and proud owner already of a shiny red licence , called me up to tell me that I would not only have to fill in a medical form, pass the CRB and submit two character references, but I would have to attend two 2 hour evening courses and pay £30 to do so.   The good news was that she was sending her husband along to do the course too, and so it would not just be muggins sitting on my own in a council office in Woking.

I spoke to a very efficient woman from Surrey County Council who sent me the requisite paperwork and in a blind panic I filled in my character references, as she needed the forms back asap.  It was only as the email pinged through to her that it occurred to me that I perhaps should have asked my referees if they minded being thrust into this role.  I sent a quick email to the headmaster of Little Man’s school – he prides himself on his open door policy (after the fashion of ‘Call me Dave’) – which basically said ‘If a lady from the Council calls to ask about my suitability about looking after children, please don’t panic, and assure her that my kids are all in working order, if a little mad…’ The other was to my neighbour L, who phoned two days later to tell me that she had had a character request from the council, and she had forgotten how long she had known me…

The first evening came. P turned into my drive, and I could see that he was just as excited as I was at the prospect of sitting in a room with loads of people that we didn’t know and listening to stuff that as parents we surely did know.  We turned up early and presented our documentation and payment to an efficient woman who processed us and directed us to some extremely thick coffee designed to ensure that none of us fell asleep.  As we took our seats, the trainer asked us if we all had pens. P glumly took out a freebie British Red Cross biro, as I smiled and uncapped my posh rollerball pen.  I looked around with interest – the majority of the attendees were like us, mums and dads whose kids were in shows, but there were several ladies who worked in school environments, an actress from outer London, and a couple of odd ones who looked as if they were just there because it was a night out.

The first thing we had to do was fill in a Fact and Myth questionnaire.  At that point my rollerball pen exploded all over my hands and P began to giggle hysterically, his shoulders shaking.  To make matters worse, he was covering up his answers, and I knew I was getting it all hopelessly wrong.  The trainer told us all about our roles as observers, as child protectors, and how to deal with situations in which one suspected abuse.  Then we were divided into groups for role play – involving one case of abuse, one of neglect and one sexual .  Our group was made up of various characters – one of whom insisted that she would call the line manager in every scenario, some of whom made assumptions, others who seemed genuinely scared to make any decisions at all.  It was only then I think that it dawned on us all the responsibility that we were facing as chaperones.

We all walked out in silence, considerably more thoughtful, genuinely looking forward to the next session, and, in my case, determined to bring a working pen…