In the six years Dave Hitchcock has directed the St. Luke’s Players’ annual pantomime, he’s always started the show the same way.
“I ask the audience members to put up their hand if they’ve ever seen a pantomime,” he said.
It used to be only a few would raise their hand, but the British-syle of musical comedy has gained quite the following. This year St. Luke’s Players will present its Alice In Wonderland pantomime for 12 nights in a 130 seat church, and tickets have been sold out for weeks.
“There’s not many people raising their hand to say it’s their first panto anymore,” Hitchcock said. “For anyone new, I just tell them to do like the people sitting around them.”
The audience is expected to cheer for the heros and boo the bad guys. There’s also a part where kids can get on the stage and sing.
“It’s a family show. There’s humour that will appeal to all ages,” Hitchcock said.
A favourite character in every pantomime is the dame – a man playing the role of a female. For the past five years, Mike Chadwick has been the dame for the St. Luke’s Players.
“Nobody else seems to audition for the role,” Chadwick said.
Perhaps it’s because of the British stereotype that the dame is played by an old washed up actor that can’t get any other job. (Chadwick is quick to point out that he does get cast in other roles in productions throughout the year: “I haven’t hit the bottom yet,” he said.)
For Alice in Wonderland, the dame is Alice’s mother, who in this version of the story follows Alice to Wonderland to help defeat the evil queen – that is, when she’s not flirting with the men in the audience.
“It’s great fun,” Chadwick said of his role. “You get to be outrageous and make everyone laugh, and if you forget your lines it doesn’t matter.”
Chadwick, raised in Britian where pantomimes are a Christmas staple, still remembers his first panto role. He was four-years-old and the bit involved several “strong” men trying to lift what appeared to be a heavy weight and after nobody could move it, young Chadwick picked it up and carried it off the stage.
“My father was always in the show, and he forced me to be in it too because there were never enough men,” he said. “I got into acting for fear of the consequence if I tried to avoid it … I guess I just stuck with it.”
A similar pragmatism led Hitchcock to the director’s seat. Also raised in Britain, he watched pantos every year until he moved to Victoria and couldn’t find one. So he stated putting them on himself, with the help of his wife Helena as co-director.
They spent a few years directing pantos for the Masque theatre company and continued the tradition with the St. Luke’s Players.
“I can’t imagine Christmas without a pantomime,” he said.