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Cat, rats, London, songs, laughter, fun, a pinch of crisis and whole lot of love

A recipe for what became an amazing night about a Grimsby boy. Just a poor boy from a poor family!

From the panto’s resident cook, Mike Parker (and, don’t tell anybody, but Mike is the wonderfully talented scriptwriter, too…)

Rewind to September last year, when my wife spoke to me about the possibility of us creating a community pantomime.  By no means am I a professional performer but I had already signed up for 6 shows before Christmas but, this was an opportunity too good to turn down. A couple weeks later we have a meeting. There was nothing but laughter and ideas bubbling away from everybody.  It was then that I was asked to join in with the writing process. I was honoured. If you have not heard some of the talented east marsh writers at the “happenings” , which is basically a showcase for some amazing local writers, performers musicians and basically anybody who is anybody to show their talent, then I urge you to go to the next one. To be included in this circle humbled me, and by the next day , 4 pages of script were pretty much done. Myself, Carolyn Doyley and Paul Haddock then had a brainstorming session over a brew and a bacon sarnie with Carolyn storyboarding the play, and Paul throwing ideas and lines in as well. I then produced more of the story including what we had discussed. After posting off, I realised I must have done a good job as I was asked to produce a full working script.

Photo by Gordon Wilson

We meet in November, with a relatively accurate idea of the final script and casting. The read through was a success as a whole and changes to script and cast were made.

Knowing that I was in safe hands with Vikki, my gorgeous wife playing the lead and the reliable as ever Josie Moon looking after us all was of great comfort to me but the incoming John Mooney as a director worried me. John was an accomplished performer. Would my script be good enough? Would he want to tear it up. And start again? I needn’t have worried.  We were in very safe hands with John bringing his wealth of experience to the table, whilst not being so arrogant as to not listen to ideas from any members of this group, including the kids. More than abley assisted by Josie, who without her knowing, was now mum to the group. We were now on our way to making a panto.

December became poorly season and it was then, one night walking in on Tuesday night, and finding a few long faces and to be honest, tears. We’d not had a full rehearsal together because of illness and Christmas commitments.  After a get together it was decided to postpone until after Christmas.  Definitely the right decision.  Cast members that couldn’t be in the performance now could and the choir could now practice panto songs after working so hard on their Christmas performances. 

Meeting up after a Christmas break, it seemed that we had to start all over again but after a couple of weeks everything was starting to get embedded into people’s memories. Rehearsals were more structured,  intense and dare I say professional. What I mean by that is that quite a few of this cast, whether part of the choir,  primary cast and kids had never done this before. But the commitment and love for this project was there for all to see.

We definitely had something special.

Photo by Gordon Wilson

Cometh show week, Cometh the crisis. The band that had been eagerly anticipated had dwindled gradually away to be replaced by a bloke on a keyboard. The lighting guy had not had chance to set up his full rig as the room was in constant use so the first time that we could practice lighting cues was Wednesday.  Again no need to worry as a certain Jack Pudsey and his daughter, Layla were on the ball and within 2 hours, everything set up and lighting was not an issue. It was then told to us that the stage we had to set up would have to be taken down and reassembled, the day before. Aaaaaarrrrrrrggghhh!

Again, enter a keyboard player called Steve who played our songs better in some songs than the actual originals! Improvising incidental music and bridging the gaps in between scenes and wardrobe changes. Wow. Just wow!!! The final piece is here.

We now definitely have a panto.

Photo by Gordon Wilson

Dress rehearsal happens and we fluff a few cues and lines, including me.and I wrote the thing! Nerves are setting in a little uncertainty.  Can we do this? We have had 2 months rehearsal and some people have never been in a performance like this. Still, I reckon we can. In fact. I know.

Show day is here and most of the cast are at the venue for 3pm, ready for 6pm doors open. In that time we have to assemble the seating. Return the lighting stands to their original positions and if need be, reassemble the stage.

Unfortunately,  upon arrival we were greeted by the unbelievable stench of raw sewage. Yes. We could make a panto based on the making of the panto!

Decisions have to be made so the whole seating area of 75 chairs, set lighting, props, clothing. Yes, everything had to be moved. Tempers were starting to flare and I was definitely in that category. But, eventually things look great and the room actually looked better than the original room that it should have been in.

Still nervy and very tense we get to showtime. I mentioned that our Dick Whittington was played by my amazing wife Vikki. The choir was in full song and then enters Vikki to sing her solo. I could tell she was nervous but the crowd loved her. Song finishes and Sue, also taking up her role last minute as the town cryer made it her own. Whilst only a short role, mainly because her principal role as musical director was choosing, arranging and bringing to life the songs which she went above and beyond. And it showed.

Our resident hecklers and a rather significant script change were Billy and Dan. Our 2 fishermen that heckled their way into narrating the story. Again, these guys were not in from the beginning but you wouldn’t have known. They had the crowd hanging off their every word. And their comic timing was impeccable.

We then meet Dorothy played by Kelly. A twist on the script that went down well with the audience.  Kelly had also not had much time to prepare but bravely endeared herself to the audience, to then return to our amazing choir.

My time to shine was greeted with laughter at a 20 stone man plastered in make up wearing a dress. To be honest, I didn’t have to utter a word to get a laugh but I loved every minute.

The dashing Fitzwarren enters suggesting with such a pan face, the lyrics to YMCA before the choir enthusiastically join in with the song. My son, Alfie, not normally into am-dram played this part purely to support family. You’ve probably gathered now that I’m a proud Dad.

Alice then enters the stage played by my daughter Kayleigh to give me a severe telling off. She’s on the bill as Dick’s love interest. Bit weird. Her mum is playing  the role of Dick!

Family connection becomes more emotional for myself as it is suggested that Dick shines shoes for the audience as the shoe shining kit used belonged to my late grandfather. He was a night porter in the 1960’s at the Kingsway hotel and these were his tools of his trade.

More emotion from now exploding with pride Dad as Mouser the cat enters the stage. Played by Brooke. She made everyone fall in love with I challenge anyone not to have a tear in their eye with her goodbye scene and rendition of “You’ve got a Friend in Me.”

The villain enters in the form of John as King Rat, with his awesomely talented mini gangster rats and their breakdancing talents. John hypnotised the audience as per the script and made his alter ego a believable, nasty super villain. For the record. John is actually quite lovely and in his other role as director, brought all of our insane and impossible ideas to life.

Our Sea captain enters, fully equipped with boat, sail, rubber ring, pipe cap, jumper. Think that’s everything. If ever there was a perfect fit for this role, it was Andy, our more than able bodied captain. Guiding half of the cast to Bohemia, aided by the actions, and singing of Dick, Alice and the audience to “My Bonnie”, he had his work cut out. There would never need to be an audition for Andy. He was perfect for this part.

Photo by Gordon Wilson

We get to see Paul and Carolyn as the King and Queen of Bohemia before a quick costume change where they are summoned by our beautiful fairy played by Rachel who, with a stroke of magic has transformed them into the pearly King and Queen. I keep gushing about performances but genuinely, here were another three people who are normally attendees of our peace choir but performed in these roles because they were asked to help make our panto work. And yes, of course they were amazing!

A return of King rat results in a daring swordfight ending with a gunshot, but only in the foot meaning that King Rat gets arrested by none other than our Julia. Another member of our choir that we sort of bullied into the role! Juila was very anxious about whether she would succeed but anyone that saw her in the show would have realised that she needn’t have been anxious at all. Same for Emma, who likes to hide at the back but proved that’s she’s as much of a trooper as everyone else.

Of course we get our happy ending, bows taken, applause and a general sense of pride in what we have achieved. A group of people, all from different backgrounds, acting abilities and different ways of life, all sharing in one common goal. To deliver the best performance that they can to raise as many smiles as they can. I am today a very proud East Marshian.

For just over one hour, the outstanding bills, family squabbles, leaking roofs, and generally things that we sometimes think are the end of the world were all forgotten as we dressed up and lit up Freeman Street Market on the East Marsh of Grimsby.

Yes, we succeeded in our goal of making the East Marsh United.

Photo by Gordon Wilson