I have to admit to being somewhat nervous in the run-up to the five performances of Shaken, Not Stirred: The James Bond Panto at the Ashcroft HUB last weekend. Partly it was because I hadn’t appeared on stage since 2017; partly it was lack of sleep; and partly it was due to wondering if Ashcroft and the surrounding area was quite ready for the organized chaos of a traditional English pantomime.
Much of the success of panto comes from audience interaction and participation. Theatregoers in the United Kingdom are well-accustomed to this, but we knew the local audience wasn’t. Would they come on board, or would they treat it like a conventional theatre experience?
As I stood in the wings on opening night, every nerve on edge, I realized I had forgotten just how agonizingly long those 10 minutes before curtain-up actually are. Out front, a few cast members were warming up the crowd with a largely improvised “bit” involving supposedly sick cast members and the need for last-minute replacements, an actor who appeared nowhere near ready to go on stage, broken props, and the search for someone — anyone — in the audience who could help back stage and who was conveniently dressed all in black. A huge thanks to Lynne Wright, mother of author/director/actor Richard Wright, who was here on holiday from England. She had already volunteered to help us out, and gamely took part night after night operating the curtain, meaning she spent the entirety of each performance standing just off stage consulting a page full of notes and making sure the curtain opened and closed as necessary for more than two hours.
Residents of Ashcroft and area have always been huge supporters of the performing arts. Not only are the pages of the Journal, from its earliest issues in 1895, full of accounts of travelling performers coming to town, and the huge crowds that turned out to see them, they’re also full of stories of home-grown entertainments, from concerts and skits to full-blown theatre productions. Ashcroft, it seems, has always loved its live entertainment.
That tradition of support is alive and well 128 years later. Many audience members might have been attending their first panto, but they quickly and enthusiastically got into the spirit of things, and backstage we all heaved a collective sigh of relief. It was going to be okay; more than okay. It was going to be great.
I wish people in the audience could take a peek into the wings during a performance, because it’s a wonderful place. Most of the cast don’t stray too far, and while the performers on stage are singing, those waiting back stage are dancing along to the music; when we’re not doing that, we’re peeking through the entrances to see what’s happening. There are high fives when an actor comes off stage after another successful bit, and chortles of (silent) laughter when the audience reacts to something.
And because it’s pantomime, which lives and dies by audience reaction, no two performances are the same. That’s always true of live theatre, where “Expect the unexpected” is (or should be) the motto, but especially so with panto, with the actors continually adapting and improvising in real time based on audience response. Almost everyone involved with live theatre in Ashcroft is an amateur, but we give it our all, and the enthusiasm of those watching spurs us to new heights every single show.
Just like that, though, it was over. Sunday’s matinee ended, we took one last bow, and poof: another production was consigned to the history books, and to the memories of a few hundred people. The cast and crew, after months of work, are looking forward to a (dare I say it?) well-earned rest, and coming down off the performance high. Already, though, we’re asking ourselves when we can do this again, and that’s thanks in large part to the people who turned out to support us. You were all a-MAZE-ing; thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.