With stunning – and costly – stage sets, glittering costumes, experienced performers and a punchy script, there’s nothing amateurish about The Huddersfield Light Opera Company’s annual panto.
Opening at the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Saturday, January 9, this year’s spectacular, Sleeping Beauty, promises traditional festive family entertainment, gags-a-plenty and good, clean fun.
“This is a big one for us,” says Chris Brearley, producer and performer. “It’s our 40th panto and the 21st at the LBT.
“We have scenery and costumes from the companies that supply all the professional and amateur pantos in England. We say ours is a professional panto performed by amateurs.”
The 103-year-old company has budgeted a staggering £37,500 for the production, a figure that co-producer Paul Bennett says reflects the fact that HLOC fills a void in the town.
He explained: “We always try to push the boat out. Because the town doesn’t have a professional panto we think it’s worth spending the money on making ours as professional as possible.”
Chris and Paul formed a writing partnership more than 15 years ago and create the annual panto from scratch. They begin in mid summer by roughing out the story and producing a cast list.
Chris then bashes out a basic script, which Paul refines and passes back.
They work jokes and local references into the panto and usually begin rehearsing in November.
“Each of us has a running notebook,” says Chris, “that we carry around all year and make notes of gags and jokes that we hear.”
This is the third time the amateurs have tackled Sleeping Beauty. It’s not one of the Big Four pantos – Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and Dick Whittington – but is still popular with audiences.
“The problem with Sleeping Beauty from a writers’ point of view,” says Paul, “is that the story is very simple and there’s not a lot to do for each character, so we have found it more difficult but we’ve managed to give everybody scenes that don’t get away from the story.”
The writers stick mostly to panto traditions – Chris himself always relishes the role of the Dame (this year Nurse Nellie) – but the principal boy part (usually played by a woman) has gone to male lead Dom Moccia, a regular with the company.
Because of the time lapse nature of the story Dom will play both the prince and his own father.
The role of Sleeping Beauty herself, Princess Charlotte, is played by Alyce Liburd, who demonstrated her talents in the company’s Sister Act and is now about to perform in her first panto.
As well as a cast of seasoned performers, the company has a big chorus and a pool of dancers, aged eight to 18, from the dancing school run by members Zoe Clarkson and her mum Pam Strickland.
There will be music and song – including well-known numbers by everyone from Bruno Mars to shows such as My Fair Lady and Beauty and the Beast – as well as the obligatory slapstick comedy.
“We’ve got a Strictly scene and a decorating scene,” says Chris, “and I’ve bought a hover board so I’ll be seen on that. We’ve had a lot of fun writing the panto and laughing at our own jokes.”
With just a few weeks to go cast members are now immersed in rehearsals and learning their lines, which is more of a problem for Chris than might be thought.
“He’s hopeless with his own lines,” says Paul, “even though he knows everyone else’s.”
The HLOC panto clearly fills a niche in Huddersfield.
Last year ticket sales reached 96% capacity and this year advance sales have already reached 70%.
It clearly pays to snap up a seat as quickly as possible.
Sleeping Beauty is on until Saturday, January 16.
For ticket details visit www.thelbt.org.uk or call 01484 430528.
- In April the company is producing the classic 1933 American musical 42nd Street. In fact, rehearsals for the show had already started and have been put on hold for the panto season.