EVEN before the glitter had settled on last Christmas’ panto at the Kenton, director Heather Simpkin had decided who she wanted to top the bill for the next one
EVEN before the glitter had settled on last Christmas’ panto at the Kenton, director Heather Simpkin had decided who she wanted to top the bill for the next one.
James Clifford and Rochelle Parry went down so well as Cinderella and Buttons that she immediately invited them back to play Aladdin and the Genie of the lamp for this year’s show which opens on December 19.
“They were so popular last year that I offered them the lead roles before they had even finished Cinderella,” she said. “They were the two who did most of the publicity, going round to visit schools and they were also both at the late-night shopping event in Henley with our glass carriage. These days actors have to be more than just actors, they have to be able to appeal to the children, and James and Rochelle are just two extremely wonderful people. I said, ‘I’ll have you two back,’ and they jumped at it.”
Even though Cinderella finished nearly a year ago there is still a certain buzz about the Kenton that wasn’t there before. Heather and the production team were hoping that the first ever professional show to be produced in-house would be a success, but they were not banking on it being a sell-out.
She said: “I was amazed to be frank at how well it went. I thought there was an opening for a really good traditional panto in Henley — and by that I mean traditional values. Pantos have become so commerical, a bit like the way television is going these days. It’s all about the celebrity and about the amount of money people can make. They are kind of throw-away, and some of them are very lacklustre. The star turns up a couple of days before and off they go.
“We very carefully crafted something we thought everybody wanted, that would be entertaining and of value to children — but the parents could also come along and have a laugh, so that people would come away feeling satisfied that they have seen something of substance.
“And that was the feedback we got last year. That’s why I felt so good about it. People who came to see it early on got online and started talking about it to their friends and the sales just rocketed after that. After the first and second performance we completely sold out every show. Sales went through the roof once word was out.”
Now Heather and the cast are limbering up for the start of rehearsals for Aladdin at the beginning of next month. The script has been written and the artists are preparing to paint the enormous canvases for backdrops. And so Heather gave us a few tasters of what Henley audiences could expect this Christmas.
Last year, kids and parents alike were charmed by the choice of music, including the Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited and even Gangnam Style which got audiences on their feet.
She said: “We have got to try and be a bit topical, that’s part of the fun. Even though I’m a middle-aged mum myself we have to key into popular culture, whatever’s happening at the moment, and find out what will get the younger generation out of their seats.
“With Aladdin we’ve got music from Olly Murs, and of course One Direction. In fact, there are several references to Harry Stiles. We’ve got a song from the Sixties River Deep, Mountain High which was sung by Tina Turner, and we’ve got Troublemaker by Olly Murs and a big rock song, Bad To The Bone. We’ve also got a very very funny music hall sequence with an old music hall number — though I am going to keep that under wraps for now.”
So what made her choose Aladdin this year?
“It’s another one of the really big traditional pantos,” she said. “I want to make as big an impact as I can. It’s something really familiar, one of the all-time great pantos.”
Auditions were held for the other cast members and Heather says she was surprised but honoured when veteran actor Philip Anthony answered an advert on a casting website.
She said: “He is what you call, in the nicest possible sense, an old pro and I’m very proud to have him on board. His comic timing is impeccable and he’s got a beautiful voice as a speaker, and he can certainly hold a tune as well.
“The pantomime dame, Widow Twankey, is played by Dan Creasey of FalconGrange. He was playing at the Henley Fringe when I was doing the casting and someone suggested him. It’s an iconic role.
“I have got a really strong cast, there are some really talented performers in all aspects, including some amazing singers in the chorus. James who plays Aladdin is a well-established Shakespearean actor.
“In fact, they are the best you can get for a small bijou theatre like ours — you can’t do much better. Rather than just throwing together a few people we have put together a really strong team of actors and it’s something I really believe in.”
* Aladdin runs at the Kenton Theatre from Thursday, December 19 to Saturday, December 28. for tickets call (01491) 575698 or visit www. kentontheatre.co.uk