On stage it is a slick production that has the audience in stitches day after day, but behind the scenes of Wolverhampton Grand’s pantomime Peter Pan, a dedicated team is working round-the-clock to put on a spectacular show.
From the people in charge of the props and sound, to the hours spent on hair and make-up – what the audience sees on stage is just the tip of the iceberg.
Over the last month, thousands of people have flocked to the theatre to see the show, which stars the Chuckle Brothers and John Altman.
As the production comes to an end, the panto stars enjoyed an after-party at the Grand on Thursday night and tweeted some pictures with fans and theatre staff.
And ahead of the final performance tomorrow, the Express & Star was given a backstage tour.
It may seem like it’s all glitz and glamour but former EastEnders star John, who plays Captain Hook, spends an hour before each show doing his own make-up.
John, who became a soap legend with his various stints as Dot Cotton’s son Nasty Nick, has to rush straight from a warm-up sword fight on stage and vocal exercises, to begin applying his eyeliner and foundation.
“This is completely different from Eastenders,” he said. “At EastEnders we had make-up artists, here I do it myself.”
Drawing on theatrical eyebrows and pencilling in his eyeliner, John sprays a shot of his favourite Calvin Klein perfume and dons his costume.
“There are so many elements to this costume,” he said. “I mustn’t forget Hook’s ring, or hook!”
John loves performing in the city, and has managed to complete the Wolverhampton canal locks tour, passing through 21 historic locks. He enjoys shopping here too. “It reminds me of where I’m from, Kingston-upon-Thames,” he added.
“I always say the more north you go the louder the audience gets, until you get to Glasgow, where they’re completely bonkers.”
But even this seasoned actor sometimes has a mishap on stage. “During one performance, where I was meant to say ‘Oh the poison, you’re meant to be dead’, I said ‘you’re meant to be alive’ by mistake. The audience were in fits of laughter, and that’s the great thing about panto, I just corrected myself, repeated the line and carried on.”
Frank Stevens – who toured with the production’s stars the Chuckle Brothers for 10 years – and Alex Caldicott are responsible for setting up the sound. Frank started working as a glass collector in a local theatre before learning the ropes of the technical side of things, developing his craft and specialising in sound production.
He works closely with Alex to produce all the sound for the show, including the click tracks, which provide additional orchestral sound to support the orchestra, all of the cast’s microphones and cues for the performance.
One particular challenge in this year’s show is the amount of flying and sword-fighting, leading to the snapping of cables connecting the microphones, meaning Alex has to run around backstage to source and provide actors with a hand-held device instead.
“The most important thing to do is not panic,” said Frank. “There’s nothing I can do until Alex has given the microphone to the actor, so I have to keep calm and concentrate on what I’m doing here.”
Alex then gives Frank the all-clear to let him know the actor has the mic. Alex added: “The biggest part of our job is communication. I have to work the back of the theatre, Frank does the front, so we very much have to work as a team to make sure every mic is working and if a cable snaps, we’re there to sort it out.”
The sound operators have to work through the day, prior to a show, to ensure everything is running smoothly before lights up. Alex said: “We have to be here from early afternoon for all the dance and vocal warm ups, to check the mics and the cues and everything. Then the front of house background music goes on and we get ready to start the show.
“It’s a daily process from around midday to whenever a show finishes, and then we have to make sure everything is wrapped up properly – so putting everything away safely, shutting down the systems and making any changes ready for the next show.”
The pressure is also on for the costume department, where wardrobe mistress Beck Palmer works with her assistant Grace to make sure every costume is washed, pressed and ready by lunchtime each day for every cast member to wear ready for their curtain call.
“We get the costumes sent to us from a warehouse in Scarborough and have a week to make the alterations for every member of the cast,” said Beck. In this year’s panto, a series of ornate feather head-dresses are worn by the ‘Red Indians’ in the show, with the most elaborate head-dress saved for Princess Tiger Lilly.
“We have had to make a few last minute additions to the headdresses,” added Beck. “We use wooden coffee stirrers to separate the feathers.”
“We also have to quickly repair zips and seams, particularly on the dancers’ clothing if they have torn something as they were dancing.”
Describing the average day in the wardrobe department, Beck said: “We start work straight after each show. We put the majority of things in the washing machines immediately, then come in at 11am to put those things in the dryers and sort the tights and hand-washed, delicate items.
“Then we do the ironing, any shirts or undergarments that need pressing. We do this for an hour and a half on average.
“Then we do the repair work. Often the length of time it takes depends on the damage – we have been known to dash out to the cobblers for a new heel for a shoe! We have to do some stitching usually too. Everything is then folded and put into baskets for each character. So every character on stage has their own basket of costumes.
“This has to be done by 1.30pm ready for when the dressers arrive. The dressers then take the baskets to the dressing room.
“Once the baskets are in the dressing room, the performer has an hour to get ready – so that includes putting on the clothes, getting their hair sorted and doing their makeup. Everyone does their own.
“Once the show has started, we’re on standby for any further repairs to costumes, sometimes we have only a few moments to do this, if a performer dashes off stage with some damage. Other times, we have the interval or overnight to make repairs.”
Deputy stage manager Sam Kerrison works to make sure everyone is on the stage at the right time, and that every prop, big or small, is safe and in the right position. She also does the calls for the cast to make their way to the stage. “If I lose the plot and make a mistake then everything can go wrong,” she said.
“Different members of the cast want to do different things on stage so you have to balance it to make sure all these things can happen.”
Musical director David Lane is also used to working under high pressure. Speaking as he conducts the vocal warm up for the cast, he said: “I received the flat-pack panto, as it were, just a week before rehearsals for the show. I have been known to receive the music the day before, but thankfully this wasn’t the case this year.
“During the show there are really busy times, like the first 10 minutes when everything happens, but then there are quieter periods later on where you can calm down and take a break.”
This year, the Grand will host Aladdin as the Christmas panto, with stars of the show yet to be announced.
By Jessica Labhart
- A handful of tickets remain for Peter Pan, which ends tomorrow. Visit here to book.