Cambridge Arts Theatre launches 2020 Christmas panto
Panto is back and the city’s number one dame reckons this year is going to be an emotional rollercoaster.
After an eight-month closure, the Cambridge Arts Theatre is opening this month with a new, feel-good, warm-hearted and Covid-safe panto-themed adventure – Dame Trott’s Panto Palaver – aiming to sprinkle the city with Christmas magic.
Count Covidula, the stupidest, baddest baddie that you’ve never heard of, is sick of the good guys winning and wants to ruin pantomime for everyone. He’s got his hands on this year’s master scripts and is rewriting the stories with unexpected results...
Will Dame Trott and her beloved Daisy the Cow escape from the mean Giant Trumplebore? Does Dick Whittington become Mayor of London or will he be defeated in a rigged election? And will Cinderella ever marry her charming Prince, or will the Stoneybrooke Lockdown have her home by 10pm? One thing’s for sure: panto will never be the same again.
Matt Crosby, who is appearing as the Arts Theatre’s Dame for the 15th time, was just recovering from the news that his home town in the North West would be spending the foreseeable future in tier three.
Sitting in his car at Crosby Beach, Merseyside, watching the waves, he explained: “I just feel so sorry for the theatres in tier three. I hope they are remembered for trying to bring shows out. I’m so grateful to hear the news about Cambridge and I’m very excited that our show is going ahead.
“Now I just feel this is all about community. People need to laugh. A lot of people have been saying I just feel like Christmas has been cancelled. And it is such a shame they should feel that way. It’s so sad, and I think people just want to giggle. So this time around there will be a few nods to what has happened in the year, but this is the year we just want people to enjoy it and laugh and have fun. It’s not going to be especially topical.
“And when they leave I want them to be humming the tunes and thinking that’s all right, let’s get the tree up and write our letters to Father Christmas. I want them to sing along with the community.
“For me, that theatre is the equivalent to a church really and I’m sure it is to a lot of people. It’s a real hub and there’s a sense of community there. You might meet a friend and relative and go and see the show and you haven’t seen them for a long time.
“It’s going to be a real emotional rollercoaster this year – there will be a real sense of love from everybody because the theatre has not been open for eight months so I can’t wait.”
The theatre is pulling out all the stops with safety – even putting the cast and crew in their own accommodation bubble, just like the Bake Off contestants.
“We are going to be living in one another’s pockets,” says Matt.
“And we are having regular Covid tests – I’m dreading the thing up my nose, I can’t deny it. The tonsil one wasn’t too bad, but with the one up the nose I thought they were scraping the back of my neck. They pushed it up so far I thought, hang on, my head isn’t that long! How did you get all that stick up there? It was like a magic trick! They will test the cast and crew every couple of days.”
When lockdown hit, Matt had been taking a little time off with his family after the panto season and so instead of looking for theatre work he went into construction.
“I’ve learnt so many skills – how to point brickwork, knocking walls down, putting walls up, and a bit of plumbing.
“If I could wear my panto fat suit it would be lovely and warm on the construction site. Maybe I will ask if I can borrow it after this year’s show has finished,” he laughs.
“Now that I know the panto is going ahead I suddenly feel very Christmassy. Normally we have two and a half weeks for rehearsals. This time we have a week. I’m so very scared!
“But they are taking the best of Cambridge panto and mashing it together to make a show – it won’t be a traditional panto. I think it will be bonkers, zany and Christmassy, we want people to leave with Christmas cheer and smiles on their faces.”
Celebrated across Cambridgeshire for his performances as a dame, Matt’s recent roles include an Ugly Sister opposite Wayne Sleep in 2019’s Cinderella and Widow Twankey in 2018’s Aladdin.
He’s also worked alongside this year’s panto villain – Stephen Beckett of Coronation Street and The Bill – several times before.
Matt says: “I can’t wait for Stephen Beckett to come back on stage and be the baddie. I will stand in the wings and just watch him because he is so naughty and cheeky with the audience.
“This year’s show won’t have an interval for safety reasons, so we are on stage for 75 minutes and we are going to cram as much Christmas cheer as possible into that time.”
Stephen is returning to Cambridge for his fifth role as the pantomime baddie to play the wicked Count Covidula. As well as his television roles in The Bill and Coronation Street, he also has extensive stage experience including the acclaimed West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Mamma Mia!.
Stephen says: “I was working in the West End when the pandemic started. I was working on Mamma Mia! and had been in the show for two years. And on March 16, I remember it really well, I was sitting on the train from Brighton on the way to work and Boris was on my mobile phone saying, ‘We are closing bars, restaurants, theatres’.
“And I thought, ‘did he just say theatres?’ My Whatsapp groups went mad. We arrived at the Novello Theatre in the West End and stood on stage and the company manager said, ‘Well I think we need to go home’.
“At that point we thought it would be a few weeks off and we would have a little cheeky holiday. But obviously that turned out to be a very different situation.”
Now, he says, he is delighted the theatre is able to go ahead with the production. “We were all on a knife edge wondering if the panto could go ahead. But we are in tier two."
“It looks like, sadly, there are a lot of places that won’t be able to have pantos but Cambridge can. And I’m very grateful we have been so lucky.”
He adds: “I think it’s going to be an extraordinary show. We have a smaller cast this year but it’s a panto mash-up. All the characters you see in panto are the same each time – you always have the silly Billy character, the princess, the principal boy, the baddie and the dame. And within that structure, whether you are doing Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk or Aladdin, you have got these principal characters who cross through each story.
“In this year’s story there’s the idea that the baddie wants to bring down panto and Christmas and is sick of being the persecuted one. He is called Count Covidula, but I think we are going to limit the number of Covid jokes because people are sick to the back teeth of the whole thing. People want to come to the theatre and escape and have some real quality fun away from all the bad news this year.
“I always like to make my baddies quite funny with a bit of scariness. You can’t go too scary or you alienate the little kids. There’s nothing worse than going on stage and seeing kids run out or hiding in their mum’s laps. You want them to be a little bit afraid but you don’t want them to wet the seat! It’s a fine balance for me.
“You’ve got to have madness. That’s a massive thing. You need a sense of danger that anything could happen. The baddie’s got to have some destruction and breaking things up, but you also need some fun. If you’re just menacing then people will get bored. You just want to antagonise the audience and make them react.”
The team all know each other well from working on pantos together before and Stephen will be acting alongside his West End co-star.
“Lucy May Barker is playing principal boy. And she is a great performer and singer and very funny. I’ve been in Mamma Mia! with Lucy where I had a duet with her. To be fair she does 90 per cent of the singing and I do a lot of listening acting,” he laughs.
“It’s a lovely theatre to work in because everyone knows and looks after each other. But we will have to do that more than ever as the cast will be in a bubble together and we will all stay together in the same building. The theatre is providing everyone with accommodation so we don’t have to share houses with other people. Apartments are less risky than hotels. And we are getting tested every other day, the whole cast.
“As a baddie I’m pretty much socially distanced on stage anyway!
“I would say to everyone come along and escape from all the bad news we have been having and enjoy the show because Cambridge Arts have pulled out all the stops to make it safe.
“It will be a shorter show but we will find as much joy as we can pack into an hour and 15 minutes and give everyone a bit of Christmas sparkle.
“You can’t have Christmas without panto and we want people to support the theatre.”
Performances from Friday, December 11, until Sunday, January 3. Tickets: £15-£30. Visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.