Curtain up on Christmas
by Eileen Leahy | 12th December 2018
TIS the season to visit the theatre and enjoy one of the numerous pantomimes and Christmas productions that our area has to offer. In this particular corner of Kent we are spoilt with not just one popular panto but two to go and see – in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells – as well as a festive theatrical alternative for audiences of all ages to enjoy.
If you’re into traditional pantomime, then you have a couple of very big shows to choose from – oh yes you do! In Tonbridge, the ever popular Wicked Productions pantomime takes place at the EM Forster Theatre from this coming Saturday, December 15, until January 6.
This year, its director and star Tom Swift puts on Jack and the Beanstalk for his loyal audiences, who come from far and wide to see his shows.
Why did he decide to do this one?
“Well I’ve never done Jack and the Beanstalk and it’s my all-time favourite panto – I absolutely love it,” he says, as I grab a few minutes on the phone with him during his busy rehearsal time in the weeks leading up to the show.
“The nice thing with these stories is that they’re quite basic but you can have some real fun with them. There’s a twist to this one which will bring it up to date, but I don’t want to reveal what that is exactly as I don’t want to give too much away,” he teases.
What Tom will say is that there are ‘two big moments for the audience to enjoy, but again to go into too much detail would be to spoil things’.
It’s fair to say that over the past few years Tom and his team have created a real buzz around their productions, which started life in Southborough’s Royal Victoria Hall.
Once that was demolished three years ago, Wicked Productions were fortunate to find a new home at the EM Forster Theatre in Tonbridge.
Tom, who has written 13 panto scripts to date and funds all the productions himself, positively relishes the challenge each year of sustaining his pantomimes’ popularity.
“The key thing is to make sure it’s not scary – it has to be magic and not evil,” he explains.
“I’ve worked 600 hours or so on the script since June.
I literally start with a blank page, then write down where I want to go with the story. As I have written 13 scripts so far, I can’t repeat anything I’ve done before in previous shows.”
Tom, who plays Jack Trott in this year’s panto, says that content comes to him at all times of the day – and night: “A new routine can come to me at 2am when I’m trying to sleep! I quickly get up and write it down. If a few hours later you’re still laughing at it, then it’s funny.
“But it’s quite a hard job to be funny, actually,” he continues. “Especially when it’s your production company. You have to do every performance exactly the same, which is how it should be, and I expect the rest of the cast to do the same.”
Joining Tom again this year, as principal dame, is veteran actor and star of recent shows such as The Crown and Benidorm Michael Fenton Stevens, who lives in Tunbridge Wells and who will be taking on the role of Dame Trott.
“I love Michael, he’s got that comedy timing that you just can’t teach. It’s always a joy in the rehearsal room to say ‘Go on Mike, do your thing’. He’ll improvise on stage and that’s so good for me – and he’s glad to be back again.”
As much fun as it sounds, does Tom ever find it all-consuming? “Well, yes, as we have two other pantos happening at the same time in Gravesend and Margate.”
In fact, while we chat Tom is actually en route to Gravesend to turn on their Christmas lights. He says he co-directs the two other productions to ensure they’re up to Wicked’s ‘silly standards’. But he won’t be performing in either of them as he and his wife Amanda had a baby girl seven months ago, so this year Tom’s sole acting role will be in Jack and the Beanstalk.
“Having a baby changed my outlook on a lot of life,” he admits. And Amanda, who usually stars alongside her husband ever year, won’t be doing so in 2018. Instead, her original part of Anne will now be played by Shivonne Donavan.
“It’s a very silly show this year,” explains Tom. “I think people expect to laugh a lot at panto, but this is ridiculous! We always want the audience to know we’re having fun. If a baddie is dressed up as a farmer, for example, we’ll say ‘are you sure you’re not a baddie dressed up a baddie?’ We also cater for the adult audience, but it’s never anything dirty, it just goes over kids’ heads!”
Tom is also very pleased to be back performing at the EM Forster Theatre: “I absolutely love the place! The staff really get behind what we do, and hopefully we can stay there for as long as possible.”
In terms of there being any rivalry between his show and the Assembly Hall’s, which this year is Sleeping Beauty starring Claire Sweeney and Derek Moran, Tom is quick to dismiss any kind of competition.
“I’m happy to support all the pantos. I have a very good relationship with the Assembly Hall, we do our Easter shows there. But I have to say that our pantomime offering is a bit more homegrown and the cast are mainly from the Tunbridge Wells area. Our scripts are a little sillier and we don’t take it so seriously!
“We have lots of hardcore fans who love to get their tickets early and I’m massively grateful for that.
“I couldn’t do what we do without an audience. They’re why we do this – it’s for them.
“We always get lots of lovely comments, like people saying it’s so great to see their kids belly laughing.
“I love our Wicked followers.”
At the Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall there’s Sleeping Beauty, which stars Loose Women panellist and former Brookside stalwart Claire Sweeney as Carabosse, children’s TV’s Milkshake presenter Derek Moran as Silly Billy, and the returning Quinn Patrick as the show’s grand ‘Dame’.
“This is set to be our best panto to date,” enthused an Assembly Hall spokesperson after the show launched on Friday.
The cast also includes Caitlin McNerney in the title role as The Sleeping Beauty, Michael Vinsen as The Prince and Laura Mullowney as The Good Fairy.
Last year, the theatre staged the record-breaking production of Aladdin, which was the first time the Assembly Hall had collaborated with Martin Dodd for UK Productions. So successful was this partnership, the two teamed up again to present Sleeping Beauty, another fairy-tale classic, set in a land far, far away.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it centres around a beautiful princess who is cursed by a wicked fairy to a hundred years’ sleep – until she is awakened by true love’s kiss…
This magical story will be further enhanced by catchy songs and stunning sets and costumes, as well as some majestic special effects.
The Wind in the Willows
Every year, Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells offers a theatrical antidote to traditional panto by staging a Christmas production. Over the past few years the theatre’s Director John Martin and his team have staged hugely successful versions of Oliver! Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz.
This year they are putting on Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, which is based on the children’s classic Toad of Toad Hall by AA Milne. The production starts tomorrow night (Thursday, December 13) and runs until January 2.
The theatre’s Musical Director, Tony Stenson, promises it’s going to be another huge hit for Trinity. “Those who know what Trinity’s productions are like won’t be disappointed, and those who don’t will be in for a real treat!” he promises.
“I am hoping everyone who comes to see it will go away with happy memories that will stay with them for a long time.”