Y Magazine

Putting on the Panto!

It’s the season for comedy productions. Kate Ginn takes a peek behind the scenes at Ras Al Hamra Amateur Drama Society in PDO as they get ready for opening night of “Jack and the Beanstalk”

With a bone-shattering roar and thundering voice, the Ogre bays for blood. After a crash and a bang, the beast appears in all its terrifying splendour, shouting loud enough to scare small children and nervous adults alike.

Or at least he will when the Ogre is in full costume. For now, Hugh McLean is dressed in a velvet-like outfit, which while certainly giving him the air of some feral creature, is not entirely convincing. The object of his ire by the way is Jack, who is played by his wife Jamie. Jack’s mother, the pantomime “dame”, meanwhile, is played by a man, Bertrand Membre, who is speaking English in his very pronounced native French accent. Meanwhile, the Ogre’s housekeeper, Hanne Efkind, who has Nordic roots, is trying to speak in a French accent. Confused? You will be.

Welcome to the wacky and rather weird world of pantomime, or just “panto” as it’s informally known. For those who perhaps aren’t familiar with the concept, panto is a peculiarly British way of celebrating the festive season. It’s a type of theatrical entertainment mainly but not exclusively for kids that is usually based on a fairy tale or nursery story and involves music, jokes and slapstick comedy. The the sillier the better is the basic rule of thumb. Exaggeration and overacting of all kinds are prerequisite. Men play the roles of women and vice versa, there’s lots of audience interaction (invited and uninvited) and everyone has a great time. At the Ras Al Hamra Recreation Centre, based on the Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) site in Muscat, panto has become something of a tradition for the Amateur Dramatic Society and this year, they’re putting on the classic Jack and the Beanstalk. Last year’s Cinderella went down a storm, while the previous production of Aladdin proved equally popular.

Y was given a quick peek into the world of putting on a panto, the ups and downs and everything in between. On Wednesday night, the sound of music can be heard drifting out of an open door from a building next to the swimming pool, which is revealed as the entrance to a small theatre. On stage, some people are talking about magic beans. In the wings, a pantomime racing camel is flexing its legs ready for its cue. A beanstalk made of rope is waiting to be raised up and two young girls dressed in beige raincoats are going over their lines backstage waiting for their next appearance.

It’s rehearsals for the Ras Al Hamra Amateur Dramatic Society (RAHADS) and the tension is building, with opening night just a week away (due to open on Dec 11) and work clearly still to be done in order to polish up performances. “It’s getting there,” says a frazzled-looking, Brian Greenhalgh, the show’s director who has the rather daunting task of making it all work and extracting the best out of his cast. Those on stage are obviously giving it their all to impress the director and assembled audience. Each scene is greeted with enthusiastic clapping. The director and his right-hand woman, Nicola Murray, who is in charge of choreography, make notes on clipboards.

There’s an art to putting on the perfect panto. “Cues and timings are everything,” says Brian. Along with 12 principal actors, four dancers and a children’s chorus of 10, there’s around 20 people involved backstage, from making the sets and costume, to doing the sound and lighting. All actors are expected to learn their lines in their own time. If they get stuck, the prompter (Connor O’Neill, 16), is always on hand to offer the right word or sentence.

“There’s an awful lot to remember for some of the main characters,” says Connor’s mum, Jacqui, who wrote the lines for the character of Fairy Moonbeam (played by Denise Sanders) and is one of the children’s directors. Jacqui will be helping to keep the younger performers in line – no easy feat when tired six or seven-year-olds have had enough playing actor or actress for the evening and want to go home. Adults had to audition for panto parts, but every child who turned up got a role of some sort.

“It’s been really nice this time round, especially because we are working with kids,” says Hussain al Noumani, an Omani who plays two smaller roles – a traveller and the agent who sells the racing camel for a bag of magic beans. “There is lots of music and singing, so it’s definitely enjoyable and fun for all concerned.” The panto script was bought in, but the RAHADS have added a few touches of their own – making references to Dubai, Ruwi and Nizwa to localise it – and giving it an Omani twist or two. The milk cow in the original story now becomes Humphrey, a racing camel. “I bought the panto camel outfit online from the UK and had it couriered over,” says Brian. Brian’s wife, Sheila, does front of house, helps out with make-up and organises the food. Julie Nunweek, in charge of lighting and sound with Robert Langedijk (who works for PDO), also made the beanstalk, ingenuiously constructing it out of rope. Everyone, it seems, mucks in. “It’s all about having fun together,” says Robert, which sums up the basic premise of a panto. With that, he turns back to get the spotlight ready for Fairy Moonbeam’s next appearance.

The Story:

Jack and the Beanstalk is based on an English fairy tale dating back several hundred years. It tells the story of boy called Jack who lives with his mother and their milk cow, their only source of income. When times become hard, Jack has to sell the cow at a market but instead of money, he trades it for magic beans. The beans grow into a giant stalk, which Jack climbs, to discover a giant’s home at the top. He steals treasure from the giant and escapes down the stalk, chopping it down afterwards so that the giant falls to his death.

Classic Panto phrases:

“He’s behind you!” (shouted by audience to the hero about the villain)

“Oh no he isn’t!”
(the hero)

“Oh yes, he is!”
(the audience)

For information about RAHADS, email RAHADS.oman@gmail.com