I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Pantomimes. It’s not the enforced jollity, or indeed the tailormade songs, shoehorned into well known tunes. It’s the Pantomime Dames. I have the same issue with clowns. I always get targeted by them. It doesn’t matter where I sit in the audience, it’s always me who ends up standing up on stage, holding the bucket or balloon or potato or whatever it is that makes me the object of ridicule (and that’s when I wish that I had put more thought into what I was wearing that day…) As a mother of three boys though, you can’t really get away with not going to a Pantomime at Christmas, and so my husband G and I sit through the whole rigmarole lying low in our seats, with our eyes peeping over the parapet of the seats in front. And generally, when we realise that some other poor sop is thumping miserably around on the stage, we thoroughly enjoy it – the combinations of local knowledge and all round good entertainment a good way to start the Festive Period.
So imagine our surprise when Little Man, our youngest, and the only boy in his dance class, came back from his last lesson excitedly waving a piece of paper. It was an invitation to audition for a Pantomime. In fact it was the first ever professional pantomime to come to Fleet. For those of you who don’t know Fleet – in the seventies for one moment in time it had the enviable reputation of being the wife swapping capital of Europe. This reputation has since sunk like a stone, never to reappear, and has been replaced by a strong commuter belt in which the town empties in the morning to leave for London, and the bars and nightclubs are full at night. There is no cinema, but there is a library and a skate park, a swimming pool, and about a million charity shops.
‘Can I go, Mum, pleeeeeaaaase?’ begged Little Man.
Eldest Son grabbed the bit of paper. ‘Where is it?’ he demanded, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. ‘Oh no, it’s at the Harlington…isn’t that the place that smelt of wee?’
‘No, of course it’s not’, I retorted, hastily shoving the piece of paper in my pocket. Indeed, the last time I had been to the Harlington had been about 5 years ago and whilst not smelling of wee, it had been a bit run down. But even I was aware that it was integral to Fleet – having been its only cultural provider for years. Where else would you hope to have a police run disco for under 16’s one night, opera the next, Elvis the next and the Male Strippers on the weekend? On a quick Google search I noted that the Harlington had been rescued from foreclosure three years ago, tarted up a bit, and under the beady eye of a new manager was venturing into new territories – hence Fleet’s first pantomime.
‘Pleeeeeeeaaassse Mum?’ my youngest son looked at me with begging eyes.
‘Oh all right then,’ I acquiesced, and filled out the form.
The day dawned. We parked in a spacious car park and joined the throngs of eager kids that were heading towards the Harlington. As we swung through the revolving door, Little Man stopped and sniffed the air suspiciously. It smelled of fresh coffee. We queued behind mums and daughters, with fathers and sons scattered intermittently throughout, shifting helplessly in the sea of pink that was aiming towards two officious women behind a desk.
‘First time?’ a woman and her daughter turned round and eyed us brightly. We nodded.
‘This is our fourth panto…we’ve done Guildford, Aldershot and Camberley. We’re very popular because although we are 12 we are small… how old is yours?’
‘I’m 8’, said Little Man clearly.
‘Oh, but you are so tall…that may stand against him, being so tall, that’s why they take your photo. But never mind, they’re auditioning for Peter Pan in Aldershot, the Lost Boys, they may like him there, and he will get to fly…’
Little Man looked enchanted, and I began to wonder how I could saw a couple of inches off his legs before we got to the table. Within nano seconds he was whisked from my hands, plonked in front of a screen, and told to smile as a flash went off in his face. Duly processed, he was issued a sticker and bade me farewell.
Two hours later I stood with all of the parents as a couple of hundred eager kids went through their paces in a short routine to a Madness song. How apt, I thought, as hundreds of smiles grinned their way through Our House. I scanned the room – my son was definitely the youngest boy, but not the smallest. But Little Man genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself, as I walked with him to the car offering him bits of sage advice such as ‘It’s all good experience’ and ‘How about this flying thing?’
The email came. It was short and sweet. Three boys had been selected. Little Man was one of them. He was delighted and ran to show his brothers- ‘I’ve got the part of Fred!’ he shouted. Middle Son looked up from his xbox game.
‘I thought the play was Dick Whittington?’ he drawled
‘Yes, yes, it is!’ exclaimed his little brother impatiently.
‘Well who’s Fred?’ shot back my son.
They all looked at me.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, with what I hoped was a slightly mysterious smile.
‘Oh yes you do,’ they chorused.
‘Oh no I don’t,’ I replied.
It’s catching, this Panto stuff…