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A Perfect Peterborough Panto Dame!

This year’s panto at the Key Theatre is Jack and the Beanstalk (Thursday, 4 December – Sunday, 4 January), promising a toe-tapping 50s vibe, all original songs, music played by the cast themselves and one uniquely oversized cast member. We talked to the normal-sized James Peake – one of the UK’s youngest panto dames – about the production, the music and how he promises to bring something a bit brassy to his performance...

HOW ARE THE PANTO PREPARATIONS GOING?
It’s all go! We’ve got the script and the music and the run up has begun… We got the music through just a few days ago, and it sounds very, very good – it’ll be a lot of fun, I think. It’s very rock’n’roll, and the lyrics are so funny; a lot of wit in there – some clever wordplay as well as some silly jokes for all the family. We start in earnest on 17 November and then have three weeks to put it all together, which will be a lot of fun, and obviously quite frenetic!

THIS PRODUCTION USES ACTOR-MUSICIANS, WITH THE CAST THEMSELVES PLAYING THE MUSIC LIVE…
I’ve never done anything like it. It’s going to be a great challenge – you don’t have time off! Normally you’d be upstairs, sitting in your dressing room, on your phone waiting for your cue, but with this you’re flat out – if you’re not singing or acting, you’ll be playing. It’s very exciting though.

WHAT IS YOUR INSTRUMENT?
I’m labelled ‘comedy percussion’ but my main instrument is the tuba. A tuba-playing dame… I don’t know that there’s another like it. An exclusive to Peterborough! I may have to invest in a lot more lipstick, as it’ll keep rubbing off on the mouthpiece. But I’ve played tuba since I was about 11. Doesn’t mean I’m any good, of course, but it’s served me well. It’s been a good and constant friend. Not that my tuba’s my only friend…

HOW DID YOU COME TO BE INVOLVED IN THIS PRODUCTION?
I played a dame for the first time last year – an ugly sister up in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and then along came this audition. Even that was great fun compared to normal, everyday auditions – to audition for a pantomime, as the dame, with a tuba, and singing… It was a busy hour! And we did a movement call to some very interesting 50s tunes, so that will play into it as well.

DID THEY SPECIFY ‘DAME REQUIRED – MUST PLAY TUBA’?
No! I think that was a shock – but hopefully a pleasant shock – when I walked through the door with my tuba. The call was for actor musicians, so everyone had to be able to play an instrument, and then it was a case of them combining not only the best actors but the best musical performers and making some kind of sense of the combination they’d got. The music is also written around the instruments we can play, so it feels very personal and rather idiosyncratic, each part is informed by what we each bring to the table. It’s great to have that kind of input before we even start rehearsals. But I think it will be a fun element, brandishing this massive brass thing, with fake bosoms and the dress and make up and hair and everything – to create this monster that is Trisha Trott!

THE TUBA DOES SEEM TO OFFER MORE COMEDIC VALUE THAN SOME INSTRUMENTS…
Absolutely… I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that the first solo is called Blow your Blues Away. I was looking down and at one point it just says; ‘Tuba solo’. I’m looking forward to that as much as everyone else. Anything could happen – and every night it will be different, I’m sure. Freeform… I may start hitting the tuba. Whatever happens, I think tuba + dame will be a very interesting combination.

WHAT’S THE ATTRACTION OF PLAYING THE DAME?
Oh, it’s the freedom! I was going to say they run the show – that’s not really true, of course, but as the dame you don’t have to bother with falling in love or all the soppy stuff, you just come on and have a good time. Although, having said that, Dame Trott may actually get some romantic interest – we’ll just have to wait and see. There may be a little passion brewing for her. But it’s why I got into acting, really – why anyone gets into acting: dressing up and making funny mouth sounds. And spending Christmas in Peterborough, of course!

YOU’RE NOT FROM PETERBOROUGH, BUT I UNDERSTAND YOU DO HAVE A THEATRICAL CONNECTION TO THE CITY…
I actually came to the Key Theatre when I was about ten, to see a family friend play Jasmine in the pantomime Aladdin, so when I went back recently all these memories came flooding back. It felt very nice – I knew the place. Also, it is just a great theatre. The space is amazing, there’s not a bad seat – in any seat you’ll get a good show. And such a big stage. It just maximises the fun you can have, on stage.

25 IS QUITE YOUNG FOR A DAME, ISN’T IT?
As I’m sure patrons will see, I’m a bit of an old soul. My godbrother – if that’s even a thing – also plays dames and is also quite young, and obviously we spent our childhood together and have informed each other quite a bit, and in our brains we are more or less middle-aged widows. I’m 25 but I have a massive family, and they’re all older, and we have all gone to the panto together for more or less my whole life.

CAN YOU GIVE US A SNEAK PREVIEW OF WHAT TO EXPECT?
I’m sure he’ll be kept under wraps, but I was very excited to see a certain giant member of our cast. Just hope he shows up. And we’ve got an animal cast: lovely Daisy the cow. Not a real cow – though I heard they had a real, live pony here in Cinderella last year. There will be a good mix of local references, of course, and people can cheer when they get name checked. Also there are a few pop culture references. That’s what panto is all about.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT PANTO – THIS COMBINATION OF OLD AND NEW – THAT PEOPLE SO LOVE?
It’s steeped in tradition, and is so identifiably British to enjoy a man dressed up as a woman and a woman dressed up as a man, two people pretending to be a cow… But also it’s exactly what you want at Christmas. You want everyone – the whole family, from grandchild to grandparents – to be together and enjoy it together. My little niece came and saw me in panto, and was absolutely enthralled by all of it – apart from when I came on and then she absolutely bawled her eyes out! But it feels comfortable – and I don’t mean that at all in a bad way. There’s a wonderful familiarity to it; you know the story, and the really fun part is how it’s going to be retold by this particular cast of people, in this particular town, and at this particular time. And there’s even more fun to be had in the fact that we’re playing the music ourselves, and the songs are professionally written for us. They’re not just the latest pop hit – they’re really integral to the show. And they’re fantastic. There’s also the chorus of kids, of course, who will bring another fantastic element to the show – all local, and doing it for the pure love of performing. There’s really nothing else like it, and although it sounds like a cliché, there really is something for everyone. There’ll be jokes for the kids, jokes for the adults, the songs are fantastic, the script is incredible and the people we’ve got together are brilliant. A great show, in a great theatre, in a great city!

Jack and the Beanstalk
Thursday, 4 December 2014 – Sunday, 4 January 2015, Key Theatre, Peterborough For more information, visit www.vivacity-peterborough.com

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